Artist in Residence Kip Omolade Talks Times Square Nostalgia, the Creative Process, and Who He’d Like to Paint Next
Have a seat in the lobby alcove of Viacom’s Times Square headquarters, and you may get the feeling you’re being watched. There, arrayed along the high east and west walls, sit a series of painted faces rendered in striking metallic palettes. They seem to nudge through the canvas, as though a serene and curious person were trying to push through the wall. You can sit and look at them a good long while, absorbing the detailed reflections in the metallic sheen, the gentle wisdom in the quiet eyes, the immense depth etched with shading precise and detailed. The effect is something at once surreal and magnificently lifelike, so that you wouldn’t be terribly surprised if one of the faces struck up a conversation.
The oil paintings are the work of Kip Omolade, the final product of an artistic process he has dubbed “Diovadiova Chrome,” a Greco-Italian combination of “god” and “goddess.” He begins with a plaster imprint of a subject’s face, which he finishes with the various hues of paint. Working off this three-dimensional original, Omolade recreates the face in painted form, sometimes many times across many canvases, each flushed with different colors and shading. When he arranges these variations alongside one another, as he has done with a self-portrait along the east wall of 1515 Broadway, the result is an arresting tryptic that underscores how wildly a viewer’s understanding can swing according to an artist’s interpretation of a work.
This video stamps out the Diovadiova Chrome creative process, which can take months:
Omalade’s work is the latest in a multi-year Art at Viacom project, which has included work by geometric wunderkind Tahiti Pehrson, a cartoon-set-come-to-life encampment constructed by Australian duo Dabs Myla, a mammoth swirling sculpture erupting from our lobby walls by Crystal Wagner, a synthetic variegated meadow of yarn funneling above our elevator banks by street-art legend HOTTEA, and a massive ceiling-dangling floral display from artist Rebecca Louise Law.
The artist and his wife traveled into the city from New Jersey on a recent Thursday evening to discuss the installation with employees. I sat down with them in the Refresh Café an hour before the event. As day tilted toward evening and the volume of the music steadily increased around us, we talked a bit about the creation of this exhibit, what Omolade may be doing next, and how New York inspires him.
Stuart Winchester: There are a lot of people represented in these paintings. Who are they?
Kip Omolade: So it’s my wife, Diana; Joyce, my sister-in-law; Michelle, who’s a friend of ours; DJ Kitty Cash; and Karen, who was one of our first pieces that I did that gained a lot of attention. There’s something about her face that people connected with. Fantasia’s The Definition Of… album cover is actually a version of that piece. It was Photoshopped to look more like Fantasia. I focused first on people that I loved, either my wife, or my sister-in-law, or friends that I know, and from then, people like Kitty Cash reached out, and I guess saw the process online, and we just went from there.
SW: Do you have a personal favorite work in this exhibit?
KO: I would say the Michelle piece because it’s a portrait, but it can also be viewed as a still life; because there’s a background to the portrait itself, it can also be viewed as a landscape, the painting, the sculpture, the photography blend into one piece.
SW: You said Michelle is a family friend – what made you think she would be a good subject?
KO: The thing is, when we’re applying the mold, it’s hard to keep a straight face. And I try to tell everyone to smile. Even when we did my piece, I tried to smile, but I really couldn’t. She was the only model that was able to really smile and show her teeth. And I don’t know how she kept that pose for that long, because it takes about 40 minutes to get the mold. And the thing is, with her piece, no matter what mood I’m in, I get into a happy mood that she’s smiling. There’s something about touching the contours of someone’s face, especially if they’re smiling and in a good mood, it seems like whatever they’re going through or whatever they’re feeling seems to come through me.
SW: What is it about this installation that made you want to use this particular group of people? Is it because it’s in New York and those are New York people?
KO: Yes, it’s definitely a New York thing. I grew up in Brooklyn and I used to hang out in Times Square when it was a little more seedy, and I just wanted something that would reflect the people from New York, the energy of New York, but in a space that represented New York.
SW: You mentioned the self-portrait. All of the stuff on your website appears to be of women, and then you have the one image of the man, which is you. Have you done any other work with men, or is that the first one?
KO: So far, I’m the first one. Hopefully, we’ll go onto other people. One of my dream models is Barack Obama, because it would tie into this tradition of making masks of presidents and famous people.
SW: So was there something that clicked, where you said, “I’ve done a lot of women, maybe I’ll challenge myself and do a man to do something different?”
KO: Yes. I was thinking about my portraits that are within the pieces already and my place in history. Most artists go to self-portraits as just a way of expressing themselves. I always say that the first selfies were done by artists; those artists who could paint realistically would paint images of themselves. And so I wanted to tie the history of making portraits to what’s going on now as far as media, in terms of how everyone has an avatar online. And one of the things I like best is when people use my portraits as their avatar. But really, my place in history, where I fall in terms of portraiture as an African American male, what kind of images I wanted to see in museums, it was a way of interjecting my image and images of African American males in general into the atmosphere.
SW: Have you approached anyone else for masks?
KO: We have a wish list. Besides Barack Obama, it would be guys like Ken Chenault from American Express. Also, [Harlem Children’s Zone president] Geoffrey Canada – we were thinking about men of color who are powerful, but in a community sort of way. Not necessarily in terms of wealth or fame, but people who were changing the world for the better – a whole series of men like that.
SW: For this exhibit, did you do anyone new, or were these existing pieces you had and you just felt like they’d be right for this building?
KO: These were mostly existing pieces, but the last self-portraits were designed just for the space at Viacom. I wanted something monumental that would fill that lobby.
SW: The lobby of this building is such a large space. It can be overwhelming when you’re trying to corral a portion of it for an art display. Was it hard to figure out how to arrange your paintings so that they made sense within that large space, or is that something you’re used to?
KO: Well, any space has its restrictions. My main thing was to make sure that my DJ Kitty Cash piece that has a Times Square motif within it, I wanted to make sure that was on a wall closest to Times Square, because I originally did the photograph for her painting around the corner on the red stairs on Broadway [read about Kip’s process in creating that work here]. I always knew that that piece would somehow show in Times Square, and Viacom made it happen. I wanted to make sure that piece was there, as well as the large Michelle piece. With those two pieces, I’m in the reflection, and the wall that it plays off, right across from it, are self-portraits.
SW: Can you give us a little bit of the artist’s perspective for setting up something like this? When you have this giant blank space like this section of the Viacom lobby, and you have X dimensions to work with, and you have so many pieces you want to put in there, how do you choose which are large, which are small, and how do you arrange them?
KO: It was a lot of trial-and-error, to be honest. It was actually laying stuff out on Photoshop and figuring out the relationship, in terms of space, with each piece. Which colors played off each other, so in the lobby area, that large red and blue Michelle piece plays off of the red, white and blue piece of me that’s right across from it. So a lot of it was color relationships, scale relationships. I was trying to tell a story with the images.
SW: I read that you used to come into Times Square with your friends and just kind of take in the energy. What is it like to have your work featured now in the place that you used to come for inspiration?
KO: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s sort of surreal, especially seeing it from the street level. Like I said, I always imagined that it somehow would show here, but I didn’t think it would be on that scale. It’s amazing.
SW: So what do you think of the changes in Times Square from when you were a teenager in the 1980s until now?
KO: Totally different. It’s less dangerous, which is good. When my friends and I used to hang out, we would see karate flicks and get fake IDs. I kind of miss the danger element, but I think it’s good to bring families out. It’s mixed feelings. In one sense, I feel real good about it, it’s positive. In another sense, we’re missing some of the character.
SW: When you design an exhibit like this, is there a certain reaction you hope to evoke from people when they first encounter the work?
KO: First thing, I want people to look at it. One of the reasons to do large-scale pieces is so that people will be forced to at least connect with it. I don’t want people to just walk by and ignore it. So that’s first. And I want people to have a human connection with it. Faces are timeless. I think there’s a natural inclination for people to connect with faces, and then I guess an emotional reaction to color in general, so, the first thing is to get people to look at it, and then, to come up with whatever stories they have to somehow connect with the faces.
SW: It’s an interesting color dynamic between the sort of fantastical colors and the real-life shapes. Is there something behind that contrast?
KO: The colors are also from my youth. I used to be a graffiti writer. I remember when New York was dirty. It was grimy. And so, graffiti writers injected bursts of color. I always wanted my oil paintings in particular to have that same kind of energy, where everything might be gray and dark, and you just get these bursts of color.
SW: Can you take us inside your studio and where you actually create this stuff?
KO: I work from home. We turned a bedroom into a studio space, but I also use my garage. Where I make the molds of each model’s face, usually that takes place in the studio. My wife helps do the mold. So everything is in house, so to speak. I break up the year. So for half of the year, I work in sculpture, and so that one room turns into a kind of sculpture studio, and then, if I decide to work on smaller materials, I move all of the sculpture materials and do all small pieces. Once I’m finished with the small pieces, I work on large pieces, so it depends on what kind of series I’m working on.
SW: What are you working on right now?
KO: Another large-scale self-portrait. It’s going to be a greenish, transparent kind of piece.
SW: What got you interested in taking the masks and translating those into paintings? Was that related to your graffiti artist background?
KO: It had more to do with making portraits. I always thought of doing oil paintings first, and the mask and the whole process of chrome was just a byproduct. I was always interested in, how do we react to our faces now, what does portraiture mean today as opposed to the past? I wanted to tie in African sculpture from the past to what’s going on now to something that looks futuristic, something that someone would hopefully look back 50 or 100 years from now and kind of see what we were thinking.
SW: What has the partnership with Viacom been like?
KO: Everyone’s been awesome. The film crew came out to the house. Everyone’s been amazing. Just really good people. I’m really happy. I thought there would be more of a challenge, since I see Viacom as a corporate place, looking from the outside, but the creativity and everyone’s willingness to help out has been really, really delightful.
SW: That’s great to hear. I ask you this because I ask all the artists this: do you have a favorite Viacom show?
KO: Yo! MTV Raps. Whenever they had rappers freestyle – I’m a big hip-hop guy. Especially the last show, when they had all the rappers come out – Rakim, KRS-One – seeing everyone at that last one was really great.
SW: So what’s next after Viacom?
KO: I’m part of a show in Chicago in July called Women Warriors or Women as Warriors, but as of now, everything’s open and I’m just working on that next self-portrait.