Presidential Portraits

Everything President Obama has done since first taking office has been viewed with particular scrutiny, and his and Michelle’s selection of portraitists was no exception. Each took the opportunity provided to raise the profile of a contemporary, socially conscious black artist –to predictably controversial reactions.

Laying aside the overwrought reactions, however, what interests me about the portraits themselves is that the Obamas’ power and celebrity in some ways cut against the core strengths of their chosen artists, each of whose work is –in very different ways –primarily centered around the powerlessness, invisibility and devaluation of ordinary black Americans.

Kehinde Wiley (who has been profiled on this blog more than once, and whose work is currently being borrowed for the masthead image) is known for portraits of anonymous ordinary people (at one time, these were exclusively black male Americans, but his reach has now expanded globally, to many different ethnicities, and to include women as well as men), most often of lower socioeconomic status. What makes the work striking is that it is patterned (generally) after well-known portraits of the rich and the famous from the European classical visual canon, and rendered with lush and luxurious realism against ornately artificial backgrounds. In this way, Wiley’s work demands that his undervalued subjects be viewed as possessing as much importance and intrinsic worth as the potentates in the originals.

It’s striking how much less powerful is Wiley’s early work, focused around celebrities. When he paints, for example, Michael Jackson, as a medieval prince on a horse, he isn’t so much transforming our view of Jackson, the self-styled “King of Pop” as he is confirming it. Similarly, Obama, the one time most-powerful man in the world, and still a multimillionaire celebrity, is one of the very few black men in the world who already exists at the scale to which Wiley’s portraits aspire.

Nevertheless, his is the more successful of the two portraits, in a large part because it is a departure from Wiley’s usual instincts. Obama having wisely vetoed an early concept for the work that would have included scepters and chifferobes, is actually humanized by his more stripped down portrait. The way his seated position echoes that of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial is probably not an accident, coming from a portraitist whose work is founded on such echoes. But the more crucial antecedent might be George Washington, whose groundbreaking insistence that the American leader be treated and portrayed as an ordinary citizen is reflected in a work that stands as an implicit rebuke of Trump’s imperial presidency. (The uncharacteristically organic greenery in the background additionally serves to make the portrait more grounded and less lofty.)

Michelle’s portrait is a bit more problematic. Although it has been criticized as a poor likeness, the truth is less that it fails to physically resemble Michelle and more that it runs a bit counter to her spirit. Portraitist Amy Sherald’s signature gray skin tones serve to deracinate her subjects, and serve as a trenchant commentary on the way they are forced into background by society. They are arguably oddly matched, however, with a woman whose unapologetic blackness and vivid and colorful sense of personal identity have not stood in the way of her becoming one of the most beloved figures in American public life. There are some First Ladies who have been grayed out and forced into the background, but she is not one of them.

With all that said, however, both portraits are aesthetically beautiful, symbolically important, and –George W Bush’s self-portraits notwithstanding –unquestionably the most significant works of art-as-art to hang in the hall of presidents (with only Chuck Close’s portrait of Bill Clinton serving as any kind of competition). They mark another thoughtful and significant decision by our dearly missed former First Couple.

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