​Kehinde Wiley's echoes of masterworks

But some critics have charged that Wiley is actually exploiting his subjects, and that the work is cartoonish.

Does that hurt? "You can't allow that to be what dictates your work," he told Braver. "You simply have to say that they're talking about me."

And he can be mischievous. Take a close look at "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps": "In small ways, I'm talking little jabs at the masculinity, the bravado, and even with the fact that there's sperm cells, taking this masculinity down to its most essential component."

Then there are these intimate portraits in 15th century Flemish style.

"This is the first time I've done a portrait of someone that I've been romantically involved with. This is Craig Fletcher, my partner of three years, and I think this is the perfect way of having artistic inspiration and personal stories sort of come together."

Wiley has traveled the world painting young men, from Brazil to Morocco to Israel. And now Wiley has added women to his artistic repertoire. As shown in the PBS documentary, "An Economy of Grace," he once again chose models from the New York streets. This time he didn't paint them in their street clothes, but in designer gowns and fantastic hairdos.

He finished much of the work at a second studio he keeps in Beijing, where -- in a tradition dating back to the Renaissance -- assistants do much of the background work.

He showed Braver a rare Wiley painting where the subject turns away from the viewer: "What it does is it heightens the picture more so. It charges the space because we want it more."

And right now, the world seems to want more of Kehinde Wiley, which still amazes him:

"I started making work that I assumed would be far too garish, far too decadent, far too black for the world to care about. I, to this day, am thankful to whatever force there is out there that allows me to get away with painting the stories of people like me."


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