Wiley is a contemporary descendant of a long line of portraitists, including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres, among others. Wiley’s works “quote historical sources and position young black men within the field of power”, according to his website.
His paintings are often based on photographs of young men he sees on the streets of Harlem and South Central Los Angeles, and he has since expanded his inspiration to a “world stage”.
He also takes paintings of saints and heroes of Old Masters and replaces the subjects with black men and women. He engages the signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic and the sublime in his representation of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world.
By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth and prestige to the subject matter drawn from the urban fabric, the subjects and stylistic references for his paintings are juxtaposed inversions of each other, forcing ambiguity and provocative perplexity to pervade his imagery.
Wiley’s larger than life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting, often blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men.
Without shying away from the complicated socio-political histories relevant to the world, Wiley’s figurative paintings and sculptures quote historical sources and position young black men within the field of power. His heroic paintings evoke a modern style instilling a unique and contemporary manner, awakening complex issues that many would prefer remain mute.
Wiley is born of a Nigerian father and an African-American mother. He grew up with his mother but travelled to Nigeria to meet his father when he was 20 years of age.
Wiley began studying art back in LA as a young kid. He first went to art school when about 11 and went to big museums in Southern California. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the late 80’s and was very much a part of the environment that was driven by some of the defining elements of hip-hop: the violence, anti-social behavior, streets on fire. His mother would rather have him, his twin brother, and other siblings out of the hood. As an undergraduate at the Art Institute of San Francisco, he honed in on the technical aspects of painting and being a masterful painter. And then at Yale it became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act.
Wiley casts his models on the streets of New York, and in the case of The World Stage, on the streets of that respective country. “
“Usually on the American street there’s this kind of celebrity culture where people aren’t shocked, but they’ve been found. Whereas in places like Nigeria or Brazil, even Sri Lanka, people didn’t know what was going on. It took a lot more explanation, and they would still say, “Well, why me?” In America, it’s, “Of course me”.
“When street casting, I would say I look for alpha male behavior and sensibility, but what that ultimately ends up looking like can be sometimes conflicting. Sometimes someone who is very large in presence and gait is in the same photo shoot as someone rather small. I don’t think I have a formula for it, but it’s sort of in the process that it all comes out”.
For Wiley, Classical European paintings of noblemen, royalty and aristocrats inspires painting.
“My goal was to be able to paint illusionistically and master the technical aspects, but then to be able to fertilize that with great ideas. I was trained to paint the body by copying the Old Master paintings, so in some weird way this is a return to how I earned my chops — spending a lot of time at museums and staring at white flesh. If you look at my paintings, there’s something about lips, eyes, and mucous membranes. Is it only about that? No. It asks, “What are these guys doing?’ They’re assuming the poses of colonial masters, the former bosses of the Old World. Whenever I do photo shoots for paintings, I pull out a stack of books, whether it be something from the High Renaissance or the late French Rococo or the 19th century, it’s all thrown together in one big jumble. I take the figure out of its original environment and place it in something completely made up. Most of the backgrounds I end up using are sheer decorative devices. Things that come from things like wallpaper or the architectural façade ornamentation of a building, and in a way it robs the painting of any sense of place or location, and it’s located strictly in an area of the decorative. For the backgrounds in the World Stage Series, I look for traditional decorative objects, textiles, or devotional objects of that culture to draw upon”.
In order to come to terms with depictions of gender and the way it is featured art historically, Wiley has delved into painting women in his ‘An Economy of Grace’ series. Any consideration of male power in painting naturally includes the presence of women within that dialogue.
“An Economy of Grace” is an investigation of the presence of women in painting, but in a broader sense, it is an investigation of the negotiation of power in image-making. For this body of work I looked to 18th and 19th-century society portraits for inspiration. At that time it was common practice for nobility to commission unique clothing for portraiture. By working with a major fashion house on this project (Givenchy), we’re revamping that tradition for the 21st century. I’ve always been a big fan of Givenchy and Riccardo Tisci’s work, so it was a wonderful opportunity to work with him.”
Wiley made history painting former US President, Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle, unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.
“How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” Mr. Obama said as he saw his picture for the first time and congratulated Kehinde Wiley for a job well done
Wiley was one of more than 20 considered to paint the National Gallery portrait of Obama.
After being named as the artist, he became the first African-American to execute an official portrait of a president for the National Portrait Gallery.
Obama is the first African-American president to have a portrait hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
The 41-year-old artist took more than 1,000 photos of Obama to prepare for the portrait.
Wiley, who is a Los Angeles native, previously had a series of works featuring hip-hop artists displayed in the National Gallery.
In 2009, Michael Jackson commissioned a portrait, which wasn’t painted until after the king of pop passed.
Wiley has also painted rappers LL Cool J and Ice-T, along with soccer royalty around the world.
“What I choose to do is to take people who happen to look like me – black and brown people all over the world, increasingly – and to allow them to occupy that field of power.” Wiley says.
Famous pieces include Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) and Alios Itzhak (2011).
Though based in New York, Wiley has studios around the world in Beijing and West Africa.