The Obama Portraits and Wiley’s Beheaded White Woman Paintings

The Obama Portraits

My first impression of the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama was that they were suitable, fresh, and good. I also instantly recognized Kehinde Wiley’s signature style in the painting of the president.

Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Barack, and Amy Sherald’s of Michelle

A little research unearthed that Norman Rockwell made the depiction of Nixon; Elaine de Kooning had done the JFK painting; and Chuck Close (appropriately enough considering his sexual assault allegations) painted Bill Clinton.

Rockwell’s Portrait of Nixon.

Elaine de Kooning’s JFK.

Chuck Close’s portrait of Clinton. (I’m not sure if we need to take this down with the rest of his work in the great purge of Close paintings.)

None of these portraits are terribly exciting or risky or inspired, but they’re pretty good, which is about what I’d expect – the expected.

Looking at the Wiley Obama, well, it occurred to me that since Kehinde outsources a lot of the painting process to assistants, if he did so this time, than it would mean he couldn’t be arsed to paint the president’s portrait entirely with his own hand. I don’t know whether this is the case or not, because he doesn’t like to reveal too much about his process, which would be, he says, like revealing the secret recipe for his secret sauce. That kinda’ makes me think the assistants do the lion’s share of the painting.

It bothers me that some of the flowers are in front of Barack, like cut-out stickers, though that’s just Kehinde’s style, and why change it just because the subject has changed, I guess.

Kehinde has received a lot of flack for being formulaic, mostly using those floral wallpaper type backgrounds and then some of the same patterns superimposed in front, which makes the whole thing look like a collage done with scissors. He likes to put unknown black people he meets on the street into his oversized renditions of classic paintings in order to put people who look like him in the museums. Obama’s just the latest cut-out figure to be slapped into the gimmick.

You can click on the pic to see a much bigger version.

Well done though. Well done. And I’m a sucker for greens.

I was never impressed by the conceptual idea underlying Wiley’s paintings because when I was in grad school in the 90’s one of my peers made paintings using the same idea. I particularly remember the one she made with Queen Latifah as Liberty in Delacroix’s infamous Liberty Leading the People. Merely inserting black people into old master paintings has been done already, maybe by scores of grad students, before Wiley got the groundbreaking idea.

He got the floral patterns and wall-paper designs and bright colors going, though, and one consistent painting style that worked well to brand his style for the market place. He’s ridden that wave in for a long time and is hugely successful. One of his paintings sells for around $100,000. Get the Chinese assistants cranking them out and there’s a fortune to be had.

His best paintings, for me, are the ones that work on a purely visual, decorative level.

One of Wiley’s better portraits according to my aesthetic sensibility.

I don’t know who the model is – if he’s famous or an unknown – but the look is cool and fresh. Which Wiley painting works for you or me may be as subjective as selecting a neck tie. I like paisley patterns, though I can’t necessarily pull off wearing them.

If a black male artist had to be chosen to paint Barack – seems fair enough – I’d have gone with Kerry James Marshall, because I find his style more complex and interesting. Marshall, however, likes to paint his black subjects exaggeratedly black (as in using mars black, carbon black, or ivory black straight from the tube) as a metaphor to show that blackness can have complexity, depth, and richness. That might be a bit too elusive for the average American to grasp, and they might just think he couldn’t capture the former president’s natural skin tones.

Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (Studio), 2014.

That would have automatically been a controversial painting, risky, and inspired in probably unwanted ways because of likely misinterpretation, perhaps. I mean, I’m not even sure I really understand Marshall’s literally making people black, other than that he loves the color and uses it extremely well.

Among his best uses of black are his black on black images which are not only about black is beautiful, but are masterful uses of color and composition.

Kerry James Marshall, Small Pin-up (Finger Wag) 2013.

A black on black painting of Obama would have been bad-ass.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Policeman), 2015

I do much prefer Wiley’s portrait to the one Alex Grey did, though, back when Obama still represented change.

Alex Grey’s Obama.

I’d love to know how people would have reacted to this painting, which is rather comical, I think. He’s like an American Super Hero who has suddenly become enlightened and seen Gaia.

I’d never heard of Amy Sherald. When I did a Google search, shall I admit, I was more struck by the pictures of her than of her art.

Amy Sherald and her art.

See what I’m talking about? No? Is it just me? She has rather striking features, I think, with or without her cat-eye glasses.

Amy could have been a model, IMO.

Her style is pleasant enough, and it has a nice, clean sensibility to it, but perhaps the flatness, which is also its appeal, is a tad underwhelming.

Amy Sherald’s Untitled (2017).

While I like her Michelle Obama just fine, I think it has some of the same less-than-stellar probing into the true nature of the sitter as Wiley’s cookie-cutter Obama.

It’s Michelle alright, but kinda’ only on the surface, as in surface appearance. [Click for a larger version].

For the inevitable Trump portrait, I nominate Tyler Scully, who I discovered on Instagram, and who’s been working on his Trump portraits since before the election. Here’s one of my favorites:

One of Scully’s Trumps. Gotta love that cheesy swatch of paint hair!


Wiley’s Beheaded White Woman Paintings

Some conservatives, or just people who are getting kinda’ sick of it being OK to dump on white people, or hang them in videos, and whatnot, were bothered that Wiley had made a couple portraits after the famous Biblical subject for painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes. Stefan Moyneux, for example, made this into an OBAMA RACISM SCANDAL in his alarmist video.

Probably the best version of that theme is the one by Artemisia Gentileschi. Behold:

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614-20.

Yes, Artemisia is a woman, and that’s also her butchering the meat. Caravaggio’s earlier version, below, doesn’t have the same punch. Compare the blood!

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598–1599.

If you are already familiar with these gruesome versions, you’re way over-prepared for Wiley’s covers. Here they are:

Wiley, Judith and Holofernes, 2012.

And …

Wiley, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 2012 [Detail].

These are like the patio furniture versions. No blood, no gore, no struggle, no horror. It looks less like Judith cut off Holofernes’ head than that she cut it out of a magazine and pasted it on wall paper.

Kehinde’s goal was to make, y’know, strong, noble depictions of black women, which he’d neglected to do up until then as his focus (perhaps because he’s gay) was on young black men. Thus, when searching for a classical painting to insert his models into, he chose the most obvious one from art history.

Then, well, he changed Holofernes’ head from male to female, and used his assistant as a model. Admittedly, Wiley said in an interview that the portraits were a sort of a play on the “kill whitey” thing. That would have been more convincing, if you think about it, if he’d left the heads males, as in the familiar hashtag killallwhitemen.

It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of power behind that sort of a play on a punch. It’s as scary as the neighbor’s chihuahua with the pink ribbons in its fur when it’s just standing there and not even growling. And we can assume he doesn’t actually want any harm to come to his assistant, most likely quite the contrary.

It sounds like he just needed beheaded heads, he changed the genders, and there wasn’t much more thought in it before setting the assistants to paint the giant flowers that are as big as the heads and distract from them.

I think we should reserve our moral outrage for clear, unambiguous instances of inciting violence, and actual crimes. Here the artist is doing little more than just switching up who plays what role in a theater production.

Folks, they are just paintings, much like Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmett Till was just a painting (and one we know was well-intended). We don’t really know what the artist’s intent was in this instance because his wording is ambivalent. A “play” on something implies some sort of ironic distance, in which case we’d be literalists to take it too literally. We see this sort of violence all the time in comedy – Robot Chicken comes to mind – and it doesn’t occur to us to take it seriously.

Even if Wiley did mean it, as in he was clamoring up on that “kill whitey” bandwagon (not cool), I still wouldn’t be all that bothered. There are lots of bad, tasteless, and otherwise offensive paintings out there, and none of them killed anyone. Worrying about violence in art is a lot like worrying about violence in video games. And here we have some of the same people who defend slaughtering people (often gratuitously) from the beginning to final level of Grand Theft Auto complaining about contemporary painterly interpretations of classic paintings.

Whaddya wanna’ do? Censor them?

These days everyone’s a wannabe censor. I prefer when everyone was a comedian.


Addendum:

As a friend pointed out in the comments, I neglected to address the issue of Obama choosing an artist who had made paintings of black women beheading white women (which was also Molyneux’ point), and that there would surely be outrage if the roles were reversed and Trump chose an artist who had depicted whites killing blacks.

I don’t know if Obama even knew about the Judith Beheading Holofernes paintings, and I’m pretty sure it was mostly a question of a suitable style for his portrait, not the politics of the artist (which are mostly pretty mild, including art history’s most milquetoast renditions of Judith Beheading Holofernes).

I agree that were the roles reversed and Judith was white and Holofernes black there would be calls to censor the paintings and shut down the artist’s career. People would be screaming about racism, white supremacy, and genocide. There would be protests outside the National Portrait Gallery. The president would be compared to Hitler. It would be front page news. We can just reflect on the attacks on Dana Schutz for trying to make a sympathetic portrait of Emmet Till.

Here – and not without some self-interest – I’m siding with artists, art, free speech and free expression, and against overarching and exaggerated political attacks whichever side of the spectrum they come from. These days it’s the radical left that is calling for censorship of art, and they are enough to deal with. The last thing artists need is another bully coming from the radical right, or even worse, the general public.

Art isn’t the problem: politics is the poison. And the idea that all art is political is just politics trying to swallow art and recruit it to serve its agenda. Everything, and especially art, is not always about conflict and fighting for power and supremacy, no matter how much some people (who are themselves committed to a fight) would like to believe otherwise.

Thus, in order to counter all the political attacks on art, I support pointing out the double standard, but not overreacting. The goal, for me, is to alleviate the ramping up of tension and suspicion between races, and to free art from the iron grip of politicizing and endless social warfare.

~ Ends


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24 thoughts on “The Obama Portraits and Wiley’s Beheaded White Woman Paintings

  1. Eric,
    I’m not a big fan of Marshall. I once read he said the black is to symbolize black power. I feel like his best works are basically rip offs of Bill Traylor. Who I like a lot. If you don’t know him check him out. He started painting in his mid 80s and inly painted a few years but his stuff is great.

    I don’t think the problem with Wiley’s paintings of the white women with heads cut off is that they are racist, he’s entitled to his opinion. Even if I don’t agree. The problem for me is the double standard. If trump had a white artist do the white women with black womens heads cut off it would be the most horrific thing anyone could possibly do, but I’ve not heard a single word about this until you brought it up.

    Also what is the point of doing political paintings, or black power paintings in the first place? Is it not to get people to see your point of view? To change their perspective? If that’s the case it seems to me that antagonizing people, and yelling at them that they are stupid will have the opposite effect. The same goes for the kneeling for the national anthem. How does protesting at someone else’s expense help your cause? It just pisses off the military. But at some point don’t they realize the one step forward, two steps back and your going backwards?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Matt:

      I think your sentiments are sounds.

      Yes, you’re onto something with the double standard, which many people have brought up. My angle is not having a double standard in terms of the response. Just because SJWs would flip out if the roles were reversed in the paintings doesn’t mean others should flip out (and they are) over Wiley’s paintings. I’ll update the post to give an example (Stefan Molyneux), and a few other tinkers. I wrote the article in one shot last night and haven’t shared it anywhere other than my blog.

      So, two wrong flip-outs don’t make a relaxed right one, and, as you know, there’s way too much flipping out over painting right now, and calls for censorship. I’d rather the political right doesn’t get into that game as well.

      That said, the double standard is still annoying. A funny thing about this sort of trend is that there are a lot less roles for black people as bad guys in movies. Nowadays the bad guy usually has to be a white guy, otherwise everyone gets offended. So, for example, there were a lot of complaints about the original Darth Vader having the voice of James Earl Jones (even if when he took his mask off he was white underneath). So, if there’s a role for an evil sonofabitch, blacks need not apply. That role is going to whitey.

      Traylor and Marshall have some overlap for sure, but Traylor has a lot more of the outsider, self-taught, simplistic, cut-out look. Marshall’s aesthetic is more sophisticated and complex, in which case he’s more of an artist’s artist, and so am I, so, there’s more for my eye to enjoy. It’s probably a matter of tastes. I like prog-rock better than punk, for example.

      If Marshall said his use of straight black represents black power, well, black power can mean different things to different people and to different degrees.

      Isn’t it kinda’ obvious that I just defend artists all around against politics? That’s all I’m doing here. And Wiley’s not among my favorites (too glib and uses assistants and all that, plus I get sick of a formula pretty quick unless it’s a really amazing one) but he’s a real artist, and the politics are even thinner than his paint (he’s against rich, buttery oils).

      Cheers, man, and thanks for reading.

      Like

  2. What a series of fantastic paintings. The Barrack Obama portrait is more impressive than the one of his wife. I can’t imagine was the pressure and scrutiny does to the painters’ head (both during and after the portrait is painted). Kerry James Marshall is very talented and very interesting artist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Emma. I agree with you that doing a presidential portrait could be incredibly stressful. Also glad you like Marshall. He has a wider range of work that one might see at first, and while some of his styles don’t appeal to me as much, others really do. I’ll have to write an article about some of my favorites in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Eric,

    Interesting read, in my worthless opinion (I am an engineer) you are sound in your analysis of the artistic worth of these portraits, unfortunately you consider the polarizing issue of the first black President choosing a kill whitey artist as unimportant. As a father of white kids I disagree, vigorously, and in the event it threatens my children, violently. Politicians choose their portrait artists with great care, it is foolish to think otherwise.

    Sincerely,
    Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michael. I understand your concern in general, and your strong feeling about it indicates the growing feeling white people have that they are being scapegoated for all of society’s problems and are becoming a target for violent retribution. I also agree that there’s a lot of irresponsible rhetoric constantly feeding into that. Further, I completely reject the “kill whitey” meme and consider that kind of rhetoric to be tantamount to hate crime.

      I make a distinction, however, between an overt call to harm white people (or any people), actually harming someone or intending to, and a painting in which the message is up for debate. Are you familiar with the controversy over Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmet Till? There were demands to destroy the painting and shut down an unrelated show of hers because people cooked up some rhetoric that the painting incited violence against blacks and bolstered genocide of indigenous peoples. I’ve written extensively about that. The problem is that people insist on one interpretation of an image, and then get really upset about it, even if that interpretation is diametrically opposed to the artist’s intent.

      One critic, for example, interpreted Wiley’s paintings to mean that the black women wanted to be done with white standards of beauty. This seems plausible as the paintings lack any of the violence of the original Renaissance works. The artist said he was “sort of playing on” the “kill whitey” thing, and that’s far, far removed from directly advocating it.

      Does anyone argue that the original paintings were about instigating violence against men? No, because the figure is Holosfernes. And Wiley has also given us that same story. The white women are in the role of Holosfernes, who was an Assyrian general who was going to destroy Judith’s home. Outside of these paintings with their historical references, Wiley doesn’t have any depictions of violence against whites.

      Those paintings are from 2012, and nobody has cited them as inspiration for harming white people, and we don’t have any bold statements from the artist encouraging violence towards whites. So, for me, there’s not enough here to get upset about. It’s too ambiguous, and the historical context does a lot to justify it. When Jamie Foxx killed white people in “Django Unchained” we didn’t accuse him of advocating violence against whites. It’s a bit different, but if Wiley actually intended to support killing whitey, he watered down his message to the point where it was pretty benign.

      On the other hand, not only are there people directly inciting violence against whites, there are people acting on it. As with all these cases where people are going after artists for political reasons and with reductionist and literalist interpreatations of their art, I say to save our indignation for those whe are undeniably instigating violence or breaking the law.

      Cheers.

      Like

  4. Hello Eric,

    I am sympathetic to your perspective, and ten years ago would have agreed with you – from an idealistic, academic position. Decades working at a university meeting smart academics from around the world gave me a false impression of people from the third world.

    My own view (now) is the world will progress according to the tech that leads it. Art and philosophy were the drivers for centuries because technological change was so intermittent, but no longer. Unfortunately the response of politicians, artists and philosophers today has been censorship, They have lost control and know it.

    People respond more to art and philosophy than math, engineering and science, but not if they are crazed.

    Two great quotes I am not allowed to have on my email signature.

    “”The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.
    Andrew S. Tanenbaum”

    “evil appears as good in the minds of those whom gods lead to destruction”
    Uncertain, certainly some old Greek man.

    Wisdom will prevail, but those on top have a bad habit of wholesale destruction when their kids are at risk… and yes, apologetically I will be involved if necessary. The right answer will take time, and it seems non-whites/non-asians (ie. blacks) – including the ex-President – have decided they need equality (of outcome?) now.

    Question, do you think feminism forced the inclusion of women in the workforce, or changing technology? Excluding the latter makes wonderful men like my father a criminal, even though in his his eighties he fully embraced the idea. He also went to a Japanese Gymnastic world cup with me after fighting them for years in Papua New Guinea… he changed his mind.

    Kind Regards,
    Michael

    Like

  5. ^People respond more to art and philosophy than math, engineering and science, but not if they are crazed.”

    Crazed, as in the artists and philosophers, rather than the math and science people, though of course they may may well be crazed as well, why do I bother… only the willfully obtuse would take issue….

    Like

  6. Eric,
    I’ve looked at Marshall quite a bit and he just doesn’t do it for me. This may be the first snag in our friendship, but I think we can get past it! Seriously though, I do feel angry when I hear things like a friend who said “I’m ashamed to be a white man.” I said to him, are you a bad person, have you done things your ashamed of, are you racist? No, then what’s the problem. It’s actually insulting to anyone who believes in equality to feel that way.

    But, I do feel a tension growing that really needs to be nipped in the bud before it gets out of control. It would be a real shame if we made the beliefs of some people that all white men are monsters actually become true. How do you as a society learn from history so it doesn’t happen again? It would take everyone actually putting in the effort to read history. I’m afraid since that’s out, the only thing you can do for yourself is see the writing on the wall and not be around on the kristallnacht. You ever been to New Zealand?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Matt:

      Never been to New Zealand.

      It’s OK if you don’t like Marshall much. We’d have to go over specific paintings and I’d try to convince you. But if I failed, that’s OK. One day I want to write about Van Gogh and Gauguin in terms of individual artists ultimately having not entirely compatible styles and underlying beliefs, needs, and so on. Each artist has his or her own vantage, and that’s cool.

      Your friend sure did drink the Kool-aid. He should try listening to Jordan Peterson. He has a very different paradigm that’s a sort of antidote to that sort of thinking.

      I’ve been wondering for a while if the racial divide in America isn’t being orchestrated from above. A decade or so ago people were banding together to fight the bankers and 1% who caused the economic crash. Now the enemy is ”whiteness”. How’d that happen?

      I met a black guy the other day who left American because the racial insanity was too much. So, I think there are plenty of blacks and whites who aren’t taking the bait.

      Like

  7. This is a great analysis of the presidential portraits, with a little bit of history and alternative options too. I really liked Marshall, thanks for the introduction. That being said, I also think that the portraits are flat and don’t reveal that much about the sitters. I find Michelle’s portrait particularly underwhelming. Using more vibrant colors could have given it more life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Amy Sherald paints people a neutral gray on purpose. It’s a statement about race, I’m sure. And, yes, I think it’s that stylistic choice that is most bothering people, especially if they don’t know that’s customary for her.

      I just learned that Amy had a heart transplant after having a lot of medical problems, obviously. I have hopes that her art will continue to develop, and that she’ll figure out how to infuse more of the subject’s and her own humanity.

      Also I think Wiley’s painting style for the figures is entirely borrowed. He integrates it with his flower and other patterns, and that creates an original look overall, but I think his flatness is due to that sort of economical illustrational style. That’s the impression I get, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like Sherald’s portraits, and I hope she recovers from her transplant… But in her other works there is more vibrancy, either in the background, or in the way her subjects are dressed – sometimes both (e.g. green dress against an orange background). I have no problem with the grayness of the skin, I just thought that the portrait needed a bit of a contrast.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. One of our fellow bloggers pointed out a sperm on Obama’s head. It’s in the more yellowish hair on the right for a viewer, left for the sitter. He said this artist likes to paint sperm in his portraits. I think it is there. Very disrespectful of the artist. Why did he do that?

    Like

    1. I’m researching that now. Is id deliberately a sperm cell or does it just resemble one? Snopes says the rumor is false: https://www.snopes.com/obama-official-portrait-sperm-cells/

      But I many come to a different conclusion if I can see how he has used sperm in part paintings, and if this is the same or quite similar, or it is just something that looks like it. For example, in the paintings I’ve found where he used sperm before he didn’t camouflage it. There are multiple, small, swimming white sperms not on the sitter’s head but in the background.

      This giant, unsightly sperm may not have been intentional.

      I’ll refrain from commenting on what I think about Wiley plastering a giant sperm on Obama’s temple until I can verify that it was deliberate.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It could be unintentional. Artists are revealed through their work. Maybe he just can’t control himself. It looks deliberate to me though. A sperm would never show up in a portrait I painted, even if there was a prominent blood vein, I’d minimize it to please the person that commissioned the painting. But then, I don’t have a giant ego and I’m in control of my work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Chris. I’m partly with you on this one. It does look like he was trying to pull one over on us, in which case that would be a really insulting and stupid thing to do. And you have a good point about fixing it. If I were him I’d go back and fix it so it didn’t look like a mamoth sperm is plastered to Obama’s temple.

      His intent, however, even if it was to camaflauge sperm in the presidents visage, was not likely bad. He uses it in his other paintings as some sort of positive thing. He’s used it in one of his Napolean knock-off paintings, for example.

      Nevertheless, most everyone else will find it insulting and GROSS!

      But, I still don’t know for sure if it was intentional or just an optical illusion or what. People are also now seeing a penis in one the Obama’s sleeves. There is the thing where if you go looking for things in a painting, you have a good chance of finding something that resembles them somewhere (as we see images in clouds).

      This may be one of those things where we won’t have a difinitive answer, and we are left with our hunches. I agree with you that it LOOKS deliberate, partly because that temple looks “off” to begin with.

      Thanks, as usual, for reading, commenting, and furthering the discussion. Also, I learned about the giant sperm through you. That’s your contribution to my life for this month so far. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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