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undergroundnewsroom.com February 23, 2018


Obamas' portraits inject color into visual timeline of presidents, first ladies

14 February 2018, 07:02 | Damon Campbell

Image Text COUPLED UP Michelle and Barack Obama

Image Text
 COUPLED UP Michelle and Barack Obama

Art and politics crossed paths early Monday morning at the anticipated unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. But a stroll through the National Portrait Gallery emphasizes that fact in a visual and emotional way that recalls not just the racism built into this country's founding document, but the racism that has shaped the history of art and portraiture since the Renaissance.

"Mrs. Obama, you exist in our minds and hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you", Sherald continued. They're what set Wiley's and Sherald's works apart from the other presidential portraits, many of which are naturalistic, straight-forward, a little buttoned-up and rendered in browns and grays. "We're still trying to express our identity... when we do see ourselves we're sort of taken aback". In the past, Sherald has chosen her subjects for their ineffable "quality of existing in the past, present, and future simultaneously", her gallerist Monique Meloche has said; it is true that, before one of Sherald's figures, you think not about the passage of time or the oppressive reach of the state.

Although Wiley's aesthetic style is hyperrealistic, he, like Sherald, doesn't depict his subjects as they are in real life. Her subjects, including the first lady, are exposed, and open, and that in itself is fairly radical within the narrow limits of presidential portraiture. What else do we know of her work? The two portraits sat on a stage in front of a large blue curtain, wearing black veils that led one viewer to imagine what David Hammons might have done with the commission.

His portraits initially depicted African-American men against rich textile or wallpaper backgrounds whose patterns he has likened to abstractions of sperm. Milly co-founder and creative director Michelle Smith is the one whose gown is featured in the former first lady's official portrait.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald / Oil on linen, 2018 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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"I had to explain that I've got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon", he said. This was a first for the National Portrait Gallery.

Moments after Sherald's painting was revealed, Twitter was teeming with reactions from newly anointed art critics, who praised and condemned the work at lightning speed.

Known for his monumental portraits of young black men, placed in historical poses and settings appropriated from Old Master paintings, Kehinde Wiley critiques the racism of art history while also commenting on contemporary street culture and masculine identity.

Obama said Wiley initially wanted to portray him with "scepters" and "chifforobes" - possibly even mount him on a horse. "I see something bigger in them, something more symbolic, an archetype".



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