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KEHINDE WILEY, “Femme piquée par un serpent,” 2008 (oil on canvas). | Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York. © Kehinde Wiley

 

IN ADVANCE OF HIS RETROSPECTIVE “A New Republic” opening at the Brooklyn Museum on Feb. 20, the New York Times profiled Kehinde Wiley. Deborah Solomon visited the artist at his studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and asked him about his painting process and street casting, as well as his parents, wardrobe and sexuality.

Known for recasting young black men (and now, on occasion, black women) in scenes from old European master paintings, Wiley’s popular work has recently been featured in the Chris Rock film “Top Five” and on the Fox television series “Empire.” In January, his mother accompanied him to Washington, D.C., where he was honored by the State Department with a Medal of Arts award for his commitment to the Art in Embassies program. Highly regarded and commercially successful, Wiley gets a fair amount of press. Here is what stood out in the Times profile:

A globetrotting clotheshorse whose paintings sell for six figures, Wiley keeps studios in Beijing, Senegal and Brooklyn, where the aesthetic is starving artist chic.
NYT: “Wiley’s studio does not look like the haunt of a dandy. You enter the building by buzzing past a steel-frame security door that opens onto a long, sunless courtyard. The heat wasn’t working on the day of my visit, and the artist met me at the door bundled in layers of paint-stained work clothes. He proposed that we talk in a small front office warmed by a space heater, and night was already falling.”

Suggestions that Wiley’s work shares commonalities with Chuck Close and John Currin fall flat.
NYT: “I asked him whether he felt an affinity with the work of Chuck Close, who similarly paints portraits that disclose next to nothing about their subjects. ‘He fetishizes the material process instead of an external story,’ he said. What about John Currin, his fellow Yalie and devotee of brazen pastiche? ‘We have different projects,’ was Mr. Wiley’s businesslike reply.”

Usually described as gay, Wiley explains that his sexuality is more complicated than that.
NYT: “’My sexuality is not black and white,’ he said. ‘I’m a gay man who has occasionally drifted. I am not bi. I’ve had perfectly pleasant romances with women, but they weren’t sustainable. My passion wasn’t there. I would always be looking at guys.’”

 

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KEHINDE WILEY, “Two Heroic Sisters of the Grassland,” 2011 (oil on canvas). | Hort Family Collection. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo by Max Yawney

 

Wiley has a “Basquiat” hanging above his fish tank.
NTY: “Above it hung what appeared to be a Basquiat from the ’80s, a smattering of cryptic words (‘teeth,’ for instance) scratched into its brushy surface. When I complimented the painting, Mr. Wiley replied mischievously, ‘I painted it myself.’ Clearly, he has a gift for mimicry. He can do a Velázquez. He can do a Jacques-Louis David. He can do a Basquiat.”

Growing up poor in Los Angeles, Wiley says he was afraid of the police and that his family got by on public assistance and the ingenuity of his mother, Freddie Mae Wiley.
NYT: “For most of his childhood, he said, the family subsisted on welfare checks and whatever spare change came in from his mother’s thrift shop. The store didn’t have a sign or a retail space, other than a patch of sidewalk in front of the house on West Jefferson Avenue. But everyone in the neighborhood thought of it as Freddie’s Store. Mr. Wiley recalls the mounds of merchandise: used books, windup Victrolas, tarnished gold-leaf picture frames, porcelain figurines of rosy-cheeked lovers. ‘It was like ‘Sanford and Son,’ he said.”

Wiley is very particular about his canvases having a smooth, flat surface.
NYT: “His surfaces are thinly painted, and he speaks with distaste for the Expressionist tradition of visible brush strokes. ‘My work is not about paint,’ he told me. ‘It’s about paint at the service of something else. It is not about gooey, chest-beating, macho ’50s abstraction that allows paint to sit up on the surface as subject matter about paint,’ he said.” CT

 

“Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from Feb. 20 to May 24, 2015, when it will travel to the Ft. Worth, Texas; Seattle; and Richmond, Va. The accompanying catalog will be published later this month.

 

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KEHINDE WILEY, “The Two Sisters,” 2012 (oil on linen). | Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr. Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo by Jason Wyche

 

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KEHINDE WILEY, “Colonel Platoff on His Charger,” 2007–8 (oil on canvas) | Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Gift of the Director’s Council and Museum purchase, 2008. © Kehinde Wiley

 

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KEHINDE WILEY, “Arms of Nicolas Ruterius, Bishop of Arras,” 2014 (stained glass). | Courtesy of Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris. © Kehinde Wiley

 

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KEHINDE WILEY, “Shantavia Beale II,” 2012 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Ana and Lenny Gravier, Courtesy Sean Kelly, New York. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo by Jason Wyche

 

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KEHINDE WILEY, “Willem van Heythuysen,” 2005 (oil and enamel on canvas). | Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund, 2006.14. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts