Kehinde Wiley doesn't need to know how to work a room. During the April opening of his exhibition "The World Stage: Brazil" at the Roberts & Tilton gallery in Culver City, Calif., the 32-year-old artist known for his portraits rendering men of color as nobles, saints, and the subjects of colonial statues managed to get just a few feet inside the door. Old friends swooped in to hug the Los Angeles native, and strangers slipped cards into the jacket pocket of the beige linen suit he wore with a turquoise T-shirt and no-lace Converse sneaks. As Wiley stood amid his arrestingly larger-than-life photo-realist portraits of young men from the impoverished favelas of Rio, the room came to him.
So it should. Wiley is perhaps the model of a 21st-century international pop-culture star. He's an ambassador of often opposing worlds, doing work that pumps the pulse of contemporary street life into the hallowed halls of classical fine art. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., he lives a nomadic existence, painting in studios around the world and hanging with musicians -- his boyfriend is a Beijing DJ who goes by the name of Marco, and Wiley is chummy with Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner of Fischerspooner as well as the Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. "Artists are honorary famous people," he demurs. "We get to meet a lot of celebrities." Denzel Washington and Elton John own his work, which is currently priced at $10,000 for a small study of a hand to $150,000 for the mural-size canvas Santos Dumont -- The Father of Aviation II. Michael Jackson has talked to him about commissioning a portrait of himself.
Young, gifted, black, and gay, Wiley transcends the art world buzz about who and what he is with a body of work that explores a broader cultural identity: seeing men of color through the lens of Old World European portraiture, Chinese revolutionary posters, and against backdrops of local ethnic textiles. He has painted Ice-T as Napoléon, sportswear-clad homeboys in rococo repose or religious allegory, and, in this current show, Brazilian youths in soccer jerseys emulating the poses of powerful men depicted in public monuments.
"Wiley straddles a fine line between a historic form of portraiture and a decidedly contemporary subject matter," says Darsie Alexander, chief curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which owns one of his drawings. "His take is singular, inflected by his childhood in L.A. and an early awareness of history portraits."
Wiley grew up on the edge of south Los Angeles. His parents had split by the time he was born, and it would be 20 years before his Nigerian father, who had moved back to his native land, would meet his son. Wiley's mother created a supportive atmosphere that was not diminished by circumstances. "You might have crackheads sleeping outside your house and gang warfare," Wiley says of his childhood neighborhood, "but I also had a mother who was raising six kids on welfare and getting a master's degree at the age I am now."
As a child in the early 1980s, Wiley remembers, he had a fierce competitive drive to "draw better sports cars and Garfield cartoons than everyone else." As that deepened into obvious artistic talent, his mother sent him to a free weekend conservatory program at California State University, Los Angeles. "You start thinking that your lame-ass ideas are the best thing in the world," he says, laughing. "That is when you know you're an artist."
In junior high, after that realization and puberty set in, he recalls, "I was obsessively making these drawings and working on this comic book about a guy named Ethan with a classmate who I was painfully in love with." The collaboration was platonic, he adds: "It wasn't like we were going off and doing each other, not that I would've minded."
Sitting in a storage room at the gallery days before his opening, Wiley proves to be wily about orientation and identification. Yes, he understood that he was different as early as kindergarten: "You realize dramatically that you are not Mexican and Mexicans are not Chinese and boys are different from girls." Yet he had no such aha moment when it came to his own sexuality.
"The tree fell and no one was in the forest," he says, riffing on the old existential chestnut. "I didn't grow up with homophobia in my family. There were openly gay members of the family who were known as such and not spoken ill of. I remember thinking at a very early age, This is who I am. "
When he was 20, Wiley traveled to Nigeria to meet his father, whose face he had never seen, not even in a photograph. "It was one of those art school pushing-yourself things," he recalls, "figuring out what you are capable of."
Instead of identifying as part of a generation that has always known the AIDS crisis and the rise of hate crimes, Wiley envisioned his gay adulthood without fear, as "a new way to be in the world." He talks about being "post-gay" and even "post-black," explaining that these are facts, neither burdens nor marketing advantages. "I know that being gay is a very big part of me, but it does not define me, and I also know that blackness does not wholly define me. It's as intimate to you and to me as the taste of your saliva -- you don't think about it until you're reminded to."
Fluent in the kind of lofty contemporary art discourse that often chases its own tail, Wiley is more cautious and deliberate when trying to find the right tone discussing sexuality. "It's a human itch to categorize people, but I like to think we're in an age in which it's almost quaint to be describing gayness as this unique state of being," he says. "I look forward to new iterations of what it means to be gay in society, and I'd like to think that in some ways I am contributing to the broader complexity of what that means."
He is quick to point out another conundrum: "The art-industrial complex is driven by people who are aesthetic. There is a creative impulse that gay people have, and it has given rise to possibly the greater sweeps of our cultural evolution," he notes, his smile radiating pride. Yet Wiley is also careful to articulate that his work is not gay per se. "What makes me gay is not solely physiological," he says, "so I am not painting nudes or intimations of sex acts."
The painter and novelist Eve Wood, who reviewed some of Wiley's earliest shows, concurs: "It is clear that sexuality and ethnic background may comprise the backbone of his artistic impulses, but the work is also fervently grounded in the weight of history and the traditions of painting and his own desire to open them up completely."
Nonetheless, Wiley's minutely detailed portraits of men have been endlessly described as homoerotic. "So much of the subject matter of my work has to be seen through the rubric of desire," he acknowledges. Wiley's casting process could even be called a form of cruising. "When I go into the streets and engage people, I am looking for a type of beauty that must resonate not only for me but for the audience," he says. "For a complete stranger to be approached by another man in the streets who says you are worthy of being painted sort of presupposes a certain desire, even if it's just the desire to capture and honor their beauty."
Flesh is his obsession. "If you look at my paintings, there's something about lips, eyes, mucous membranes. Is it only about that? No. It asks, What are these guys doing? They're assuming the poses of colonial masters, the former bosses of the Old World."
The power of his work arises from the collision of his subjects -- what once would be called rough trade -- and the antiquated, often flamboyant poses and settings Wiley paints them in. The message is not always clearly received.
"I've had people tell me there's nothing ennobling about throwing a sharp light on how poor these people are, and aren't you in fact creating a big joke of their lives by creating these images?" Wiley says. "And then there are racist websites that call into question my entire enterprise, saying that this is proof that black people do not have culture of their own and if they did, we would not need people like Kehinde Wiley."
He is unabashed by such bashing. "If I was doing work that had one set of answers," he says, "I would be incredibly bored."
Naima Keith, a curatorial fellow at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, which has two pieces by Wiley in its collection, puts it like this: "For the last several years, Kehinde Wiley has been a creative powerhouse that has transgressed traditional training and reinvented the art world for the future." By using classical techniques and supercharged color to reflect the garishness of hip-hop culture, she adds, "Wiley presents these young men as both valiant and vulnerable, autonomous and manipulated." It's an equally apt description of Wiley -- except, of course, that in theory and in practice, he is the manipulator, the one who is changing how people think and feel about identity.
"I have had a lot of young black kids come up to me and say they are grateful to look at this monumental mega-painting with someone who they can relate to," Wiley says. "It's a small act. It's not something that I do for humanitarian reasons; I do it because it's cool and fun."
"And," he concludes, "I do it because I want to see people who look like me."