The Two Sisters, oil on linen, 96 x 72 inches, 2012, © Kehinde Wiley
Famous for his vibrant reinterpretations of classical portraits featuring African-American men, the documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace follows the New York based artist as he steps out of his comfort zone to create a series of paintings of women for the first time. Kehinde finds his models on the streets of New York and enlists Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy to create couture gowns for each woman. The film traces the artist's process from concept to canvas as he reveals to us another side of black femininity.
Kehinde Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California in 1977. His father is Yoruba from Nigeria, and his mother is African-American. As a child, his mother supported his interest in art and enrolled him in after school art classes. At the age of 12, he spent a short time at an art school in Russia. Wiley did not grow up with his father, and at the age of 20 he traveled to Nigeria to explore his roots and meet him.
Wiley's painting style has been compared to that of such traditional portraitists as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian and Ingres. The Columbus Museum of Art, which hosted an exhibition of his work in 2007, describes his work with the following: "Kehinde Wiley has gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture."
Wiley's paintings often blur the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation. Rendered in a realistic mode–while making references to specific Old Master paintings–Wiley creates a fusion of period styles, ranging from French Rococo, Islamic architecture and West African textile design to urban hip hop and the "Sea Foam Green" of a Martha Stewart Interiors color swatch. Wiley's slightly larger than life size figures are depicted in a heroic manner, as their poses connote power and spiritual awakening. Wiley's portrayal of masculinity is filtered through these poses of power and spirituality.
Wiley's Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) is based on Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David, often regarded as a "masterpiece", now restaged by Wiley with an African rider wearing modern army fatigues and a bandanna. Wiley "investigates the perception of blackness and creates a contemporary hybrid Olympus in which tradition is invested with a new street credibility".
His portraits are based on photographs of young men who Wiley sees on the street. He painted men from Harlem's 125th Street, then South Central neighborhood where he was born. Dressed in street clothes, his models were asked to assume poses from the paintings of Renaissance masters, such as Tiziano Vecellio and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
The artist describes his approach as "interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit." Wiley's figurative paintings "quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power." In this manner, Wiley's paintings fuse history and style in a unique and contemporary manner.
Wiley is currently represented by Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California; Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, New York; Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris/Brussels; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, United Kingdom.
His work is found in many public collections through the world, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Columbus Museum of Art; Kansas City Museum; Oak Park Public Library in Oak Park, Illinois; Studio Museum in Harlem in New York, New York; The Jewish Museum (New York) in New York, New York; High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia; Phoenix Art Museum in Phoenix, Arizona; Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California; Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles, California; Milwaukee Art Museum; Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the DIA - Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan. 5544321
Cameras followed Kehinde Wiley, a New York-based portrait painter, as he decided to explore the inner and outer beauty of Black women for his latest project.
Kehinde is known for his creating portraits of young Black men, showcasing them in a way that mainstream society rarely does: strong, noble, soulful and heroic. He sets them against and even places them into classical-inspired pieces like a portrait modeled after Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps. It's been the main focus of his work for years up until now.
Recently, Kehinde decided to color outside the lines of his comfort zone by creating pieces with Black women as the subject. The whole process was captured for PBS in a documentary titled "Kehinde Wiley: Economy of Grace."
Through his new work, Kehinda hoped to explore the idea of conventional beauty in the 21st century and expand it.
"In this new body of work, I wanted to look at women in the history of painting much in the way I looked at masculinity in the history of painting," Kehinde said in the documentary, which aired on PBS last week. "What I really want to do in the economy of grace is go directly to the heart of absolute glamour, but also allowing fantasy and play to come into the picture."
Much like with his male subjects, Kehinde scouted his new subjects on the street. For the project, he found women in Brooklyn, but not everyone was onboard with the idea. The ladies that did decide to participate, though, were in for an extraordinary treat as they got to wear clothes designed by Givenchy's creative director Riccardo Tisci.
This didn't just offer a sense of juxtaposition to the pieces, it allowed the subjects to wrap themselves up in a garment they might otherwise never have access to. However, these pieces, that were designed specifically for the subjects also brought the luxury brand outside of its usual size and fit parameters.
In order for Kehinde to really capture their essence, he got to know the ladies. What he came up with was breathtaking. The finished works, he notes, "are a celebration of Black women, creating a rightful place for them within art history, which has to date been an almost exclusively white domain." See the art come to life and watch the full documentary in the video above!
To view more of Wiley's work visit kehindewiley.com.