2017-11-28 10:38:03
Kehinde Wiley on Painting the Powerless. And a President.

LONDON — Early next year, a portrait of Barack Obama will go up on the walls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, produced by an artist who was chosen by Mr. Obama himself in the closing months of his presidency.

The artist, Kehinde Wiley, is known for picturing young black people in stylized portraits that are deliberate throwbacks to earlier traditions of painting. His “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps” (2005) shows a young man in hiking boots and camouflage riding a rearing stallion the way the French emperor does in an early-1800s painting by Jacques-Louis David. In the 2010 “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson),” the pop superstar Jackson, in a cape and elaborate armor, mimics the monarch in the Rubens work it references.

So will Mr. Obama be depicted on horseback, wearing breeches and a plumed hat? Mr. Wiley said he had been sworn to secrecy by the National Portrait Gallery. “I wish I could say more,” he added in an interview at the Stephen Friedman Gallery here, where he has a new solo show. He indicated that he was hard at work on the portrait, saying there had been “so many different iterations” of it.

“I’m excited about it: It’s going to be amazing,” he said. “It’s going to be, like, boom!” he added, spreading his arms in jubilation.

Mr. Wiley explained what an “extraordinary moment” it was to be chosen as an African-American painter to produce a presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

He said he took very seriously the fact that Mr. Obama had faith in him to do it.

The London exhibition — featuring nine maritime paintings and a three-screen film — is a departure from the colorful portraiture that is now in the collections of virtually every major museum in the United States (and was featured in the TV series, “Empire”). The new paintings name-check works by J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer and Hieronymus Bosch in their titles. But the visual similarity with any forerunners is less overt than in the portraits that made Mr. Wiley famous.

Pictured on canvas in the maritime paintings are real-life Haitians whose names are also included in the works’ titles. They stand on the beach in brooding full-length portraits, or sail the stormy seas in old fishing vessels.

Mr. Wiley’s art plays on different ways of seeing, and questions the representation of nonwhites (or lack thereof) in Western art. For instance, viewers unaccustomed to seeing black figures in seascapes might identify them as 21st-century migrants fleeing Africa, 19th-century slave-ship escapees or modern-day bathers and fishermen.

“Others might see maritime painting as a really wonderful way of looking at gentlemen’s leisure, or a certain aspect of Western ingenuity and know-how,” Mr. Wiley explained. Yet to him, the genre evokes an age of exploration that gave rise to sugar-cane fields in Jamaica, cotton fields in South Carolina and rice fields in Georgia, he said. His new works were an opportunity to demonstrate how “we all look at the same object in different ways.”

Stephen Friedman, his London gallerist, said Mr. Wiley “wanted to try something new” and approached him a year ago, asking how he would feel about that. The gallerist immediately said yes, and initially wondered “if people are going to be slow to react to this body of work.” Mr. Friedman said he had clients and institutions already interested in buying the seascapes, which were priced between $135,000 and $350,000.

Mr. Wiley was born in 1977 to a Nigerian father and an African-American mother who met when they were students at the University of California, Los Angeles. He and his five siblings were raised in South Central Los Angeles by his mother alone, who relied on welfare benefits and earnings from the family thrift shop.

At age 11, young Kehinde was enrolled in free weekend art classes, and was taken to museums including the Huntington Art Gallery, whose collection of British 18th- and 19th-century portraiture gave him an early familiarity with the genre. He became “keenly aware of the signifiers of power, the implications of the traditional portrait, which are about privilege, power, elitism,” said Eugenie Tsai, curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s 2015 midcareer survey of Mr. Wiley’s work. “He was looking at a world that he was not included in.”

Mr. Wiley studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, then got his M.F.A. from Yale University. Upon graduation, he became an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and soon experienced a visual epiphany.

He chanced upon a crumpled sheet one day that turned out to be a police mug shot of a young black male. “I’m just this kid walking through the streets of Harlem,” he said. “I see this piece of paper, and I’m looking at him, and he’s got these weird necklaces on. He’s got this really beautiful, sympathetic face. And I’m like, ‘This has to be a portrait!’”

The mug shot of the youth was the opposite of the portraits in museums that Mr. Wiley knew. “This was a picture of someone who had no agency, no control of how the picture was taken,” Ms. Tsai said. Here was someone who looked like Mr. Wiley and who “didn’t get to call the shots.”

In the works that followed, Mr. Wiley set out to replace the kings, princes and prophets of old master paintings with contemporary African-Americans, painted from life. These young men were often stopped on the street, asked if they wished to pose for a portrait, and invited to choose the masterwork they wished to be pictured in. Initially represented in standing portraits, they were then depicted on horseback, and, later, reclining or lying in repose, in the manner of saints or the dead Christ. Eventually, Mr. Wiley started portraying women as well as men, and working with media such as stained glass and sculpture.

Now, the artist — who keeps studios in Brooklyn, Beijing and Dakar, Senegal, to avoid the boredom of working in one place — is planning to take on another master. “Gauguin is one of my idols, even in the age of Weinstein,” said Mr. Wiley, referring to Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood producer. “Gauguin is creepy, let’s just face it. He goes off into the Pacific, and he’s looking at these young girls, and the colonial gaze: It’s just really problematic.”

Still, Mr. Wiley said he wanted to go to the Pacific and “use Gauguin as a glove or a contact lens or a sleeve through which I see and experience there.”

His other great plan, he said, was to find the man in the mug shot and do a room of portraits of him today. He has all of his details from the original police document, and could locate him easily, he said, but he had long had ethical qualms.

“I think it would make an extraordinary body of work,” he said. “I just hope that people would allow for it to be what it is: it’s wonder, it’s chance, it’s mystery.”