The fact that Kehinde Wiley maintains studios in three far-flung cities (New York, Beijing and Dakar, Senegal) attests to his success as a painter, which is regularly described as "meteoric." It also reflects his working method, which involves painting portraits of people from around the world, with some serious help on the background designs from assistants.
But most of all, it speaks to his sense of himself as a global citizen, at home in many places — or in none.
"I don't have a home base," said the 34-year-old artist at Roberts & Tilton gallery in Culver City, decked out in a tweedy suit of his own design with hot pink piping. "If I spend four months in New York and three months in Africa and fly all of these places for work, where would you say I live?"
Born in South-Central Los Angeles and raised by a single mother who ran an antiques shop (his father had returned to Nigeria), he got his undergraduate degree at the San Francisco Art Institute and his graduate degree from Yale. Then the real traveling began, fueled by an ongoing series called "World Stage," designed to sample different cultures across the globe.
In each painting — generally of young, good-looking men of color — the subject strikes a highly stylized pose straight out of the pages of art history books. Earlier installments featured men from Dakar and Rio de Janeiro, among other cities.
Now comes "The World Stage: Israel," a series of 15 oil paintings that debuts Saturday at Roberts & Tilton. I caught up with Wiley at the gallery, still jet-lagged from his flight from Beijing, to learn more about the new work.
You've done work in Brazil, China, India over the years. Of all the remaining countries in the world, why Israel?
My driving question was how do we take a nation with this level of intensity with regards to how we look at it, and go beyond the media stereotypes about national identity. I don't really think about myself as a young gay black American, nor do I interface with my Brazilian or Mexican or Jewish friends that way, but rather we're co-evolving in this experiment that happens to be a nation on the leading edge of these types of combinations. And in a very real way you see this happening specifically and urgently on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. What does an Israeli even look like? There are Arab Israelis, there are Ethiopian Jews — the Falasha, Ashkenazi Jews from every part of Eastern and Western Europe. So there is this immense diversity.
You're probably best known for painting African Americans and Africans. Is it challenging artistically to paint lighter shades of skin as well?
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.
I know in Cameroon and the Ivory Coast you set up a studio in the back of nightclubs where subjects could pose for your cameras — those pictures then served as the basis for your paintings. What about Israel?
We did that in Israel too — we actually got permission from nightclub managers in Tel Aviv to set up lighting for our photo shoot. And then it was crowd sourcing. A lot of people we met were drunk and probably didn't know what was going on. Some quasi-celebrity, just-add-water thing happens. We're meeting you and telling you we could make you the subject of a grand art historical narrative just by the fact that we ran into you. And this is not questioned: "Of course you found me" is the thinking. It's a post-Paris Hilton culture, and you see it in all rich, industrialized nations.
And you asked your models to mimic poses from paintings they found in your art history books?
By and large for this exhibition I didn't use specific "history paintings" but proceeded from a collected knowledge of body language of European portrait painting. So when people are assuming poses, I will make certain suggestions — hands on your hips, chin up and so on. And then people are competing against each other as well. There are guys and girls who have seen prior persons being photographed — a crowd surrounds people, lots of cheers and jeers. It's a big spectacle freak show.
How many auditions do you generally do to find one person who ends up in a painting?
Thousands — if you look at my archive, it's insane. The hard work, like for the best photographic artists, is all in the editing.
Do you pay your models for their time?
Of course. I try to be reasonable without being wasteful or vulgar about it. I think $100 an hour is the standard for us. But sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what's an appropriate amount that won't change the chemistry in the room. I remember in Brazil in the favelas people heard that this crazy American was out there paying money to have their pictures taken. They began flocking to our location.
Kalkidan is one of your new subjects who looks particularly powerful, regal. Who is he?
He is one of the most popular MCs in Israel, who happens to be a Falasha, an Ethiopian Jew. I wanted to follow the vein of hip-hop culture globally, and we were trying to find fixers — people on the ground who have local knowledge and access points. We went to his home in Tel Aviv for the photo shoot and so many friends stopped by, it was almost like a house party.
In the Rio series you used colorful fields of flowers from Brazilian textiles as the backgrounds of your paintings. What images appear in the background of the Israel paintings?
They are paper-cuts used in Jewish history as decorative and devotional objects to adorn one's walls. They're really tiny pieces of paper cut into intricate, asymmetrical patterns — not a grand gesture but an intimate way of connecting with divinity. As soon as we found out about them, we ran with it.
Where do you think "The World Stage" will take you next?
I'm doing work in France, where I re-create paintings from the Louvre using black bodies from Cameroon, Congo and Algeria — tracing the footprint of French colonization. Another idea I'm doing is called "Black President." I'm getting letters of invitation from heads of states of as many African nations as possible to do one-on-one sittings and do portraits of presidents, dictators and military generals.
You've been talking about the idea of black dictators for a while now.
Yes, I have — you can imagine how tough it is to pull off. But I think it would be especially interesting to do while Obama is still in office.