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 IT. 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 Napoleon, sportswearclad 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. …