In his work, Wiley references Western European portraiture in what he calls “urban-meets-classical” style. By presenting his contemporary subjects in these formats, Wiley purposefully departs from a style of portraiture that was historically reserved for elites. He juxtaposes modern urban culture with art-historical convention to make a provocative statement about the hierarchical nature of Western society. In Wiley’s words,
Kehinde Wiley (born February 28, 1977) is an American portrait painter based in New York City, who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of Black people. He was commissioned in 2017 to paint a portrait of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which has portraits of all the U.S. presidents. The Columbus Museum of Art, which hosted an exhibition of his work in 2007, describes his work as follows: "Wiley has gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture."Wiley's portrait of Obama was unveiled on February 12, 2018. He and Amy Sherald, whose portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama was simultaneously unveiled, are the first black artists to paint official portraits of the president or First Lady for the National Portrait Gallery.Some conservative commentators criticized the selection of Wiley for the commission because he had earlier produced two painting variations of Judith Beheading Holofernes, in which he depicts African-American women holding the severed heads of white women.Wiley was included in Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2018.
“The phrase ‘an economy of grace’ speaks directly to the ways in which we manufacture and value grace and honor, the people that we choose to bestow that honor upon, and the ways in which grace is at once an ideal that we strive for and something that is considered to be an natural human right. I am painting women in order to come to terms with the depictions of gender within the context of art history. One has to broaden the conversation… This series of works attempts to reconcile the presence of black female stereotypes that surrounds their presence and/or absence in art history, and the notions of beauty, spectacle, and the ‘grand’ in painting.”