Tuesday, February 13, 2018

About those Obama portraits ...


If your buddy begins the conversation by saying, "I'm no art critic, but ...." --- you can be fairly sure that he or she doesn't know much about art. So let me begin by saying, "I'm no art critic, but ...

... I am such a geek that watching an hour's worth of live feed from the Smithsonian Monday morning as the Obama presidential and first-lady portraits were unveiled seemed like a logical thing thing to do.

It was good to see the Obamas again --- such a class act. And it really did help to be on hand when both artists and subjects talked about the portraits.

Kehinde Wiley's work has been acclaimed for a long time and I've admired it before (honest) --- I like its exuberance, life, bright colors and sometimes iconographic feel.

In comparison to his other works, the Obama portrait --- a good likeness backed by foliage enlivened with interwoven flowers symbolic of places where the president has lived, including Chicago and Hawaii --- is rather restrained.

Wiley's subjects always are black, lifted from everyday life and projected in often heroic poses against sumptuous backgrounds --- backgrounds that sometimes seem like they're threatening to overtake the subject. Here's another example:


Comedian Chris Rock, upon seeing the Obama portrait, titled it "black panther" --- and that's not a bad characterization --- in a benign sort of way. I really like this one.

I'm still working on Amy Sherald's Michelle Obama image. I really like it, too, but we're so accustomed to seeing Mrs. Obama with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes that the somber face portrayed here is disconcerting.


The depiction of the gown and gracefully arrayed limbs is unmistakably Mrs. Obama --- but why isn't she smiling?

Amy Sherald is less well known than Wiley, but a little reading about the Baltimore-based artist reveals that the charcoal skin tone is among her trademarks. Here's another of her works:



Whatever the case, I'd call them terrific additions to the Smithsonian's presidential and first lady collections within the National Portrait Gallery.

And I'm willing to bet that there were more conversations about art yesterday both in person and online than had a taken place in a good long time. And that's a good thing.

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald

1 comment:

Rose Rennekamp said...

I watched the unveiling, too. I agree with your comments. These will be among the most unique portraits in the National Gallery. My guess is that these mark the beginning of portraits that better catch the personalities.

-- Another Geek