Culture

The Obamas' Presidential Portraits Are ... Something Else

A little humorous art criticism to go with some dismay at the racist artist commissioned for the work.

Political Editors · Feb. 13, 2018

The official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled Monday at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Taking the role of art critic, here are some observations.

Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack couldn’t be more perfect. With arms delicately crossed in a closed posture of blasé indifference, the seated former president leans forward with elbows on knees. His oversaturated image is juxtaposed against a relatively dull, flat plane of stylized ivy that partially envelops him and suggests that, despite his own initial impression of figurative depth, he is likewise flat and being overwhelmed by the slow encroachment of his surroundings. Wiley’s Obama stares without expression at the flat world in which he dwells and for which he is literally too bright. He has no regard for his place and is resigned to glare accusatorially at onlookers as the dull flatness consumes him.

Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald is likewise “perfect,” having an unsurpassed flatness without equal even among the artist’s other works. Michelle is rendered in vaguely warm tones of gray, both lifeless and drab. The background is a flat wash of pale blue. Her dress employs a motif of seemingly random geometric shapes, a few of which employ the colors one might find in hotdog condiments. Michelle’s jaunty pose within the context of the work gives the look of a glamour shot for the nouveau riche. It’s been duly noted that the portrait doesn’t really look like Michelle, but the artist has managed a genuine triumph in that Michelle’s portrait is less exciting than one of the former first lady’s school lunches.

Humor aside, one of the artists is neither innocuous nor without controversy. Wiley, who caricatured Obama, is, truth be told, racist in his art form. According to The Daily Wire, “What is … perplexing is why Obama chose Wiley to paint the portrait, considering his other paintings that display violence toward white women, showing black people beheading them.” Furthermore, neither portrait is top-notch stuff. In terms of appearance, both are dull and devoid of spark and realness. Which pretty well sums up the generation the Obamas mentor and advocate. Jim Geraghty perhaps put it best: “Like Obama’s presidency, the portraits are a break from tradition.”

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