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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A black on black painting of Obama would have been bad-ass.
I do much prefer Wiley’s portrait to the one Alex Grey did, though, back when Obama still represented change.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
If you are already familiar with these gruesome versions, you’re way over-prepared for Wiley’s covers. Here they are:
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.
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.
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