Kehinde Wiley flew into Toronto from New York one evening this week. It's his first-ever visit to Canada's largest city, and what does he want when he arrives? Poutine. Yep, the most famous African-American painter since Jean-Michel Basquiat, with studios in Manhattan, Beijing and Dakar and a menagerie of five Italian greyhounds, wants a pile of French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds.
"Well, it's so much heralded I had to try it," he said the morning after the big chow-down. "And I did enjoy it. The trouble was, it was delivery poutine and, y'know, those fries have to be fresh out of the fryer." He would remember this, he vowed, the next time he had the craving.
Funky cuisine, of course, was not what brought Wiley to Toronto. He was here for Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace, a 52-minute documentary by fellow New Yorker Jeff Dupre (co-director of Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present) that had its premiere Wednesday at the 11th annual Reel Artists Film Festival. (There's another screening on Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox; following the presentation, Wiley will be interviewed onstage.)
Wiley, 37, has been something of an art star since his mid-20s. His paintings – the large ones can cost $250,000 – have homes in public collections (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Minneapolis's Walker Art Center) and private ones (Elton John's, Spike Lee's). Economy, shot mostly in 2012, captures Wiley in a period of transition: He has a reputation built on often large, bright, oil-on-linen portraits of young African-American men, positioned against extravagant backgrounds in poses derived from those in the heroic paintings by Théodore Gericault and other European masters. Recently, though, he decided for the first time to paint a series of female portraits, using African-Americans "street-cast" from Harlem as models, dressing them in bespoke couturier gowns from Givenchy, then posing them in the fashion of Sargent, Caravaggio and Gentileschi.
If all this sounds like some post-modernist "interrogation" of issues of gender, race, class, colonialism, globalization, viewer and viewed, beauty and virtue, well yeah! Wiley comes by it honestly. The gay son of a Nigerian architect father and a Texas-born mother who ran a junk store while training to be a linguist, Wiley's formative years were on the mean streets of south-central Los Angeles. Luckily, he had an aptitude for art which his mother encouraged; at 12, in fact, he went to Russia in the waning days of the Cold War on a fully subsidized arts exchange program. Afterward, he attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, then the San Francisco Art Institute and finally Yale University for his MFA.
Wiley confessed to "fear" when he embarked on the female project. "Most people's response to fear is flight; mine is to lunge toward the flame," he said. The fear was "a material one, in terms of painting skin, painting the portrait as radiantly and resplendent as I wanted it to be."
"There's a big difference painting guys, and a different set of protocols. If you've studied the material practice of painting as much as I have, you'd probably start to notice there are certain techniques to make a certain glow, a certain smoothness," he said. "The trouble is there's no model that exists in art education for painting black skin."
For all its facility, the Wiley oeuvre has been criticized for being "mechanistic," "schticky," "meretricious." But he's still a young man with plenty more art to make. Couldn't he decide, later or sooner, to break with his current practice, as Philip Guston did in the late 1960s when he ditched abstract expressionism for an almost cartoonish neo-expressionism? "Well, that's the important question, isn't it?" Wiley remarked. "The call of the avant-garde – to slay the father, whether the father be historical or within your own practice. My approach to my process has been not to proceed with 'but' but rather with 'and.' So it's much more additive, allowing for a steady evolution from one body of work to another."
The so-called "World Stage" series which, since 2006, has taken Wiley to Brazil, Israel, China, Senegal, India and Nigeria to paint young men of colour and limn the international spread of the African-American urban aesthetic, is, for him, an example of having "radical engagement" dance with "consistency."
He'll be attempting a similar feat soon when he travels to Haiti. There, he intends to follow the selection of Miss Haiti, who will represent the country at the 2014 Miss Universe contest in Brazil, at the same time as he "creates [his] own pageant" – scouting models for new paintings, and shooting footage for a potential documentary to accompany the paintings' exhibition next year.
Wiley sees the project as an exploration of what he calls "the pageant industrial complex" – something "theatrical, ridiculous, celebratory all at once" in a place the world knows as the site of disaster.
"I don't know what it is yet, y'know what I mean?" he said. "I'm gonna show up; I got all this stuff in mind, but whatever happens is what happens. I feel the same knot in my stomach I do before any major project."