Kehinde Wiley: Living the Dream
Kehinde Wiley’s story is the epitome of the American Dream. It is a familiar rendition of the classic success tale: an underprivileged Black youth manages to make it against the odds, achieving glory, wealth and fame. Our hero in this story now positions himself among the elite ranks of contemporary artists, backed by galleries in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and armed with a couple of sweet commissions at VH1 and the PUMA company under his belt. Regardless of his impressive achievements, however, Wiley must be wary not to settle into this success. The art market is relentlessly unforgiving, and Wiley must continue to push his concept and develop his artistic vision if he is to stay relevant, maintain critics’ interest, and keep his career afloat in the survival-of-the-fittest game that is the contemporary art world.
Born in 1977, Wiley grew up in South Central Los Angeles during a time of racial tension and social unrest, particularly in the aftermath of the Rodney King case and the 1992 riots. His African-American single mother, Freddie Wiley, raised Wiley in a family of six siblings. She encouraged her son to take art lessons and visit museums throughout his childhood, and faithfully supported Wiley’s creative endeavors. Wiley’s Nigerian father was absent during his childhood. At the age of 20, Wiley traveled to Nigeria and met his father for the first time. Wiley would continue to develop a fascination with African culture, particularly traditional textiles, that would later make recurring appearances in his paintings.
Wiley attended the San Francisco Art Institute and received his BFA in 1999. The following year, he was accepted in the graduate program at the Yale University School of Art. The artist comments on his experience at Yale,
“What’s most important to realize about those years is not the aesthetic affinity between the work I do and the professors I had, but rather some questions being asked; for example, the conceptual questions being posed to the student body… out of a post-conceptualist engagement with how the language of art could interact and interface with the changing world… How is it we can make art that matters…?”
Wiley received his MFA in painting in 2001.
Upon completing his institutional art education, Wiley participated in a yearlong artist-in-residence program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. This program aimed to provide support, encouragement, and wages for young artists of African descent. Because Wiley did not need to worry about making a living or finding a studio space, both of which were provided by the Studio Museum, the artist could concentrate his energies on developing his interest in figurative and portrait painting. Following in the footsteps of many Black Power-era artists who launched their careers at the Studio Museum in the 1970s, Wiley intently explored African motifs. In New York, Wiley was socializing with a different type of black community than the group he had grown up with in Los Angeles; he described the scene as a “visual spectacle” that was vibrant, fashionable, and always evolving. Wiley began to invite members of the black community into his studio to model simple poses for portrait studies. Eventually, the artist had his models choose poses from images in art history books. Thus, the concept was born: Wiley would portray urban Black men in stylized, larger-than-life portraits that served as a commentary on the role of Blacks in society’s visual and historical culture.
Wiley has described himself as “a contemporary descendant of a long line of portraitists, including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres, among others.” Wiley received his training in the canon of traditional portraiture and sought to adapt and modernize art historical images with young Blacks fresh off the streets. In his paintings, the lines between traditional and contemporary are blurred as these very quotidian figures are glorified in settings that were once occupied only by rulers and nobility. Black youth, who were historically kept out from the White man’s visual space and culture, are now reclaiming this space. Wiley’s 21st century subjects assume the authority of their 17th through 19th century poses. Wiley uses this inheritance of the old by the new, the traditional by the contemporary, to comment on various issues including social hierarchy, masculinity, sexuality, and physicality as pertaining to Black and Brown youth.
Almost immediately upon completion of the artist-in-residence program at the Studio Museum in 2002, Wiley was picked up by the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago. The artist held his first solo exhibition at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in December 2002. Wiley also gained the representation of the prestigious Deitch Projects in New York and the Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles. Within the next year, Wiley had two more solo exhibitions: “Faux Real” (May 10 through June 14, 2003) and “Pictures at an Exhibition” (October 11 through November 8, 2003), at the Deitch and Roberts & Tilton galleries respectively.  During the fall of 2004, the Brooklyn Museum of Art hosted a major solo exhibition of Wiley’s work in a mid-career survey, an impressive feat considering Wiley was only 27 years old, an age when most artists’ careers are just beginning. The show at the Brooklyn Museum featured the museum’s newly acquired installation of Wiley’s paintings.
In August 2010, dealer Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Deitch Projects, announced that he would close his gallery in New York. He would be relocating to Los Angeles to direct the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. This decision left over 30 artists, including Wiley who was perhaps Deitch’s biggest star, without representation in New York.  Galleries swarmed to pick up Wiley. In September 2010, Wiley announced that he would be officially joining the Sean Kelly Gallery. This was not the obvious choice for Wiley, whose grandiose, youthful style did not seem to fit Sean Kelly’s austere representation of artists in the likes of Marina Abromović and Joseph Kosuth. According to art consultant and curator Simon Watson, this was a smart move on Wiley’s part:
“It’s like he’s graduated from the youthful fun, bling and glamour of Jeffrey Deitch and Deitch Projects and has moved to a heavyweight gallery known for showing international conceptual artists and creating international and European exhibitions…. In the context of Sean Kelly Gallery, there will be more emphasis on the ideas embedded in Wiley’s work and also for the practical need for his paintings to be seen outside the United States in exhibitions in Europe and around the world.”
International exposure was particularly important at that moment in Wiley’s career. The artist had launched his World Stage portrait series in 2006. Wiley incorporated figures, cultures, and social and political issues he encountered while visiting each of his regions of inspiration: China, Africa, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, and most recently Israel.  The series literally propelled Wiley all over the globe to cast his models from the streets of Lagos, New Delhi, and so forth, reflecting the very contemporary global nature and continuous opening up of the art world.  Wiley’s “The World Stage: Israel” exhibition was shown April 9 through May 28, 2011, at the Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles.
Thanks to his gallery representation formerly at the Deitch Projects, and now at the Sean Kelly, Rhona Hoffman, and Roberts & Tilton galleries, Wiley’s works have been included in many important public collections, such as those of the Brooklyn Museum and Studio Museum in New York, Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, Kansas City Museum in Missouri, Walker Art Center in Minnesota, Miami Art Museum in Florida, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, among others. 
Art Basel Miami Beach 2011 will be Wiley’s 8th year in a row at the popular contemporary art fair. From 2003 through 2009, Wiley entered Art Basel Miami with the Deitch Projects. The Roberts & Tilton Gallery continued to bring Wiley to Miami in 2010. The artist is in fact known for his annual fish fry outings off the Florida coast, complete with DJ and guests of the stylish art world elite. In addition to Art Basel Miami, Wiley has also shown work at the Armory Show in New York with the Roberts & Tilton and Sean Kelly galleries. 
Over the course of his explosive decade-long career, Wiley has had increasingly favorable results in auction. Wiley’s 2002 Infinite Mobility (Neuve Chapelle) sold at a 2008 Phillips de Pury auction for $3,500 (with a 25% premium, the resulting total was $4,375), while the artist’s 2007 Support the Army and Look After the People sold in a 2010 Phillips de Pury auction for $85,000 (with a 22.9% premium, the resulting total was $104,500). One of his highest selling paintings, at $122,500 sans premium, was the 2006 St. Sebastian II (Columbus). Wiley’s 2010 Femme Piquée Par un Serpent II was another top seller. The work was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2011 for $110,500, again not including the buyer’s premium. Auction results show trends in higher prices associated with larger, more recent and elaborately constructed paintings.
Wiley, who now maintains three studios in New York, Beijing and Dakar, has reached a level of success that the vast majority of artists twice his age can only dream of. In a mere decade, Wiley has gained the representation of three prominent galleries across the United States, had his works featured in major collections and international art fairs for several consecutive years and witnessed the sales of his paintings at impressive prices. The artist was commissioned by the VH1 television network to paint grandiose, legendary portraits of all the 2005 Hip-Hop Honorees, including LL Cool J, Ice-T and the Notorious B.I.G. The PUMA brand also hired Wiley to paint a series of portraits for the 2010 World Cup, featuring African football stars Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, John Mensah of Ghana and Emmanuel Eboué of Ivory Coast. With all these accomplishments realized by the age of thirty-three, Wiley’s future holds immense promise.
As a result of rapid globalization in the world’s economies, industries and art markets, commentaries on racial identities have seemed to become increasingly prevalent in art. Perhaps issues of race and ethnicity are more relevant now that different groups of people are being exposed to one another via commerce, technology, the Internet, and so forth. Or, perhaps it is the reversal of the “melting pot” effect; people are more apt to hold on to cultural identity and heritage. In any case, these themes of race and identity, especially from the position of the minority as opposed to the White majority, are familiar to the modern consumer.
These are contemporary issues that may be clearly portrayed, and easily marketed and sold to the general public. In no way is this a reflection of a lack of importance of racial matters; there simply appears to be a lasting demand for works of this genre. Take for example the explosion of contemporary Chinese art on the market over the last two decades. Chinese artists whose artworks carry an inherent “Chinese-ness” have been highly successful in the international art market. Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Big Family, No. 2 painting sold for nearly $6 million at Sotheby’s New York in April 2008. The following month, fellow Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask Series 1996, No. 6 sold for $9.7 million at Christies’ in Hong Kong, setting a world auction record for Chinese contemporary art. Both paintings feature iconic images of the Chinese Cultural Revolution generation (1966-76): cultural dress, festive reds, pallid yellows, historical themes, and more. Similarly, Wiley’s portraits boast cultural icons associated with urban “Black-ness”; the baggy hip-hop clothing, the “bling,” logos, and so forth. Other artists who capitalize on explorations of the “Black identity” are African-American collage artist Kara Walker, Malian photographer Seydou Keita, and Ghana photographer Philip Apagya. Sometimes the identity of the “other,” the oppressed minority, is used to draw attention to stereotypes. Other times, the portrayal of the “other” may be a symbol of cultural pride. As globalization inevitably continues, the demand for and interest in themes of identity in artwork does not seem likely to die down, at least not within the next five years.
Looking beyond the next several years, however, Wiley will almost definitely need to seriously reconsider his concept. At the moment, his concept is very literal. Wiley is inserting urban Black youth into the traditionally White art historical canon. The concept of empowerment becomes physical, and the result is quite visual. Thus, Wiley’s ideas are appealing, clear, and easy for the general public to grasp. But it also may appear to be a superficial solution to an oversimplified portrayal of the situation.
Wiley first began painting portraits of lower class New Yorkers, next pulled everyday subjects off the streets, and then accepted commissions to portray celebrities. Most recently he has entered China, Israel, among other nations, to examine people of different ethnic backgrounds in his World Stage series. However, all of his portraits are constructed in the same format: an interesting, although admittedly often stereotypical, figure against a culturally rich background of patterns and props. The artist’s body of work almost appears to have remained stagnant over the last decade. To prevent his conceptual focus from growing stale and becoming stunted in growth, Wiley must carefully consider a continued development in subject matter, format, and concept.
African American visual artist and photographer Hank Willis Thomas is one of Wiley’s contemporaries. The two artists, born a year apart, both operate in the conceptual realms of race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality. Thomas chooses cultural memes found in mass media to provoke his audience. For example, the artist altered an advertisement for Absolut Vodka, changing the iconic bottle to the floor plan of a slave ship labeled “Absolut Power.” In another case, Thomas placed a fake MasterCard banner on the side of the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. The banner read, “3-piece suit: $150, new socks: $2, 9mm Pistol: $80, gold chain: $400, Bullet: $0.60, Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.” This text was overlaid across an image of a Black family presumably grieving at a funeral. The banner provoked much public outcry citing racism, before it was known that the artist was in fact a Black man. After learning that the artist was Thomas, the public and the art community continued a discussion surrounding issues of artists’ identities and how the artist’s race affects the work that s/he may produce. In this case, because Thomas was a Black artist, it was more acceptable than if a White artist had printed the banner.
Similarly, Wiley’s paintings also carry interesting ideas that have the potential to become quite powerful and effective in sparking public discourse should the artist choose to push the concept further. Wiley’s static art historical poses create a social commentary. However, Wiley fails to initiate a call for action. Thomas’ Absolut Vodka and MasterCard images were successful in provoking an audience to engage in thoughtful discussion over historical and social issues of race identity. On the other hand, Wiley’s portraits present an interesting critique, but that critique begins and ends at the surface of the canvas. The images are visually appealing and cater to the public’s preconceived notions of “Black-ness” or “Brown-ness.” Viewers nod in agreement and look on in awe of Wiley’s exceptional technique; then they move on. There is no need for discourse or social action, because what you see is what you get. If Wiley’s intention is to truly advocate for social change, then he must further conceptually activate his paintings to challenge viewers, rather than merely present grandiose, idealized visual situations. Wiley must have the courage to step outside of the comforts of his American Dream, and instead define and depict an alternative reality that chooses intellect over imagery, emphasizing social impact rather than dominance in the contemporary art market as a final measure of success.
 On March 3, 1991, Rodney King and four White LAPD officers were involved in a case of police brutality. Footage captured by a bystander was aired on news channels around the world, exposing the incident and fueling public outrage that intensified pre-existing racial tension in South Central Los Angeles. The trial ignited a series of riots in Los Angeles, 1992.