Last Friday evening, artist Kehinde Wiley, in a bespoke brown herringbone suit with black velvet piping, appeared at ease as he spoke to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and his fellow ambassadors and associates during a private tour of “Wiley’s World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar” exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Wiley’s a sort of ambassador himself. He’s been traveling two years for his ongoing World Stage project, for which he creates some of his trademark epic paintings in different locations. His next show, “Down,” which opens tomorrow at Deitch Projects, mines another classic art-history trope — the dying important person — for a series of eight super-sized works between twelve and 25 feet long.
This country has been at war with itself and with others? How does “Down” come into play?
This body of work concentrates on a genre of painting that has to do with honoring leaders and religious figures in moments of death and also repose. So much of what turns me on about some of the great, strident figures that I’ve painted in the past, great military leaders, had to do with a sense of vulnerability that undergirded a lot of that artifice. There almost appeared to be a soft spot at the belly of those paintings that reveals a great insecurity that gave rise to need. This show is a part of that dynamic: how we stave the fear of death and the fear of loss of control, the loss of people.
This seems like the perfect time for this project. Is timing crucial in the play of success?
You can’t control it. When I was thinking about “Down,” I had no idea that Obama would be a front-runner, had no idea that the American presence in Iraq would be just as mired as it is, no idea of the massive downturn economically. So you have to go toward the idea that turns you on. Paintings are situational. They are read in the times in which they occur. The political sphere and the way we read these works, that’s always changing and something I never have control over.
Is the very nature of art political?
I remember in my early education having to deal with why I choose to paint black subjects rather than choosing models of different ethnicities, which laid bare that question wasn’t being asked of the rest of the student body as to why they were choosing to paint people in their own group. The black body is inherently political. Insofar as I have goals, which perhaps go in a more personal and poetic direction, it should never ignore the large social and political implications of pairing images of strength, domination, and control with the black body, which by and large has been defined by a type of hypersexuality and propensity toward antisocial behavior. It simply posits a big question mark into the world — how do we look at these bodies? How do we respond to them and their history? How do they build a sense of wonder and loss?
This work seems to have a more sexual and exposed feel to it.
I believe it’s the repose. Historically, we’re used to female figures in the repose. It was designed as a type of early pornographic image in which the body in repose was laid bare for the male gaze. I think we’re almost trained to read the reclining figure in painting within an erotic state. There’s a type of powerlessness with regard to being down off of your feet, and in that sense, that power exchange can be codified as an erotic moment.
You also trained in the culinary arts “as a backup,” you’ve said. What’s the difference between that and painting?
My process for painting is more meticulous and cooking is more improvised. There’s a lot more room for disaster. My goal for cooking is to allow for absolute play to occur, where in my art a bit of rule-making needs to come into play. But rules are something I like to make then tear down.
Where will you be on election night?
In a bunker with a lot of bottled water and canned goods.