Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Obamas' National Gallery Portraits Unveiled

Michelle Obama, by Amy Sherald
Yesterday ago a public ceremony, former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled their official portraits for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The artists who painted the portraits, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively, were present at the event, and, like the Obamas, each artist spoke about the process and experience of painting these works, which, as the images reveal, will not only honor the first African American US President and First Lady, but also mark a distinctive aesthetic shift in terms of the ways they represent these major historical figures. It should also be noted that Wiley is the black man and first out, black gay artist to paint a presidential portrait, and Sherald is the first black woman ever to paint one. Amidst the foliage surrounding him, Barack Obama's portrait contains flowers with specific reference to and resonance for the 44th President of the United States. Michelle Obama's image shows a dress specially designed by designer Michelle Smith, under her company Milly, for her Spring/Summer 2017 collection. The dress has the aura not only of a unique flag, but also evokes the long African American and American tradition of quilt-making.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Obamas selected the artists who painted them. As both Obamas shared, they had discussed their portraits with the artists before the painting process, so neither was a surprise. Each artist had two sittings with the Obamas, and from those the created the portraits revealed yesterday to the public, each taking roughly one year. Both portraits went on display today, though they will not be shown together. President Obama's will become part of the official presidential portrait gallery, while Michelle Obama's will be visible through November 2018 in the National Portrait gallery's corridor of recent acquisitions. Wiley, 40 and a native of Los Angeles, is already quite well known as one of the leading painters of his generation, with shows and work in collections at museums and galleries all over the US and world. Moreover, Wiley had already received a US Department of State Medal of Arts in 2015, which meant that his work would be displayed in US embassies across the globe. Amy Sherald, 44, is less well known, but has had an ascendant career in recent years, winning the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Gallery in 2016. She has suffered from congestive heart failure, which was diagnosed at the age of 31, and successfully received a heart transplant in 2012.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley
I don't have an elaborate critique of either portrait, but in the case of Barack Obama image, I wish it had featured his beautiful smile. The encroaching foliage also struck me as having the potential for parody, though I read it as symbolic of his steps, often forgotten, to address the pressing challenges of environmental conservation and climate change, both of which are targets of reversal by the current occupant of the White House. In the case of Michelle Obama's image, I understand Sherald's recourse to grayish color for black skin tones, which she has discussed in various interviews and profiles, but I do wish she had nevertheless mixed things up and featured the former First Lady's beautiful hues. The dress fascinates me; its flatness and intersecting planes remind me of Gustav Klimt's and Ferdinand Hodler's work, as well as other Art Nouveau artists (is there a resurgence of interest in their work?), and folk art in its muted color and solid background, and both paintings, in certain ways, put me in mind of the work of peer artists Mickalene Thomas while also harkening back to their earlier black predecessor Barkley L. Hendricks. In both cases, I think we have portraits for the ages, and new standards for all subsequent presidential artists to aim for.

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