It's a tough assignment, but still. The portraits of Barack and Michelle were such a disappointment. The leafy background was like a department-store ad, not art but decor. And that vast dress with a woman trapped in it who did not resemble the First Lady --- Michelle without the smile is somebody else. The problem with bad art is storage. Bad poems you can recycle; enormous bad paintings require a warehouse. These things cannot ever be thrown out the door. Washington is awash in official art. There ought to be a Bonfire Day, maybe July 4, when it's okay to destroy the stuff.Well, okay, Garrison: you don't like them. But this attitude rubbed me very much the wrong way. I responded (amid a stream of comments both supporting his statement and pushing back), "When it comes to art, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Whether that makes a work of art good or not is a different matter. I rather enjoy fresh takes on portraiture, especially when seen within the body of the artist's work." Not to mention, Barack and Michelle surely made very (very) careful choices when they selected their official portraitists. They knew the artists, and they knew what sort of legacy they wanted to leave. "Bad" art? I think not.
Anyway, that got me wondering about those "bodies of work" and the artists behind them. I had never heard of Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) or Amy Sherald (b. 1973). As always, a quick Google search got me an array of colorful examples of their work and plenty of information. Here's a couple of statements by the artists about their portraits (clipped from the Huff Post):
Sherald describe[s] her painting practice as a conceptual one, founded not upon accuracy but imagination. “Once my paintings are complete, the models no longer live in the paintings as themselves,” she told the crowd [at the National Portrait Gallery]. “I see something bigger in them, something more symbolic, an archetype. I paint things I want to see. I paint as a way of looking for myself in the world.”And Wiley, who painted a thoughtful-looking Obama against a wall of lush plants—blue lilies for Kenya, jasmine for Hawaii, and chrysanthemums for Chicago:
(Fuller accounts of Wiley and Sherald, both from the New Yorker, can be found here and here. See also below, following the images, for a statement that Wiley sent to Obama supporters by email.)“There’s a fight going on between him and the plants in the foreground that are trying to announce themselves,” Wiley said of the work. “Who gets to be the star of the show? The story or the man who inhabits the story?” In other words, who will history remember, the man or the myth? The subject or the painting?
There's plenty of commentary out there on the Obama portraits. So I'll leave you with other examples of the artists' work, interleaved. You'll be able to tell who's who. (The Wiley titles, needless to say, are parodic.) I am left feeling impressed both by the artistry and by the deeper metaphors, meanings, and feelings informing these artists' work. I'm glad I now know a little more about them. (Click on the images to view them large on black.)
|Willem van Heythuysen (2005)|
“Painting is about the world we live in.
Black people live in the world.
My choice is to include them.
This is my way of saying yes to us.” —Kehinde Wiley
|Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2016)|
“I’m depicting the many people who existed in history
but whose presence was never documented.” —Amy Sherald
|Jean de Carondellet III (2013)|
|Puppet Master (2008)|
|Mrs. Waldorf Astoria (2012)|
|Fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, |
having never had the map to discover what she was like (2015)
|Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2016)|
|The Boy with the Big Fish (2016)|
|Venus at Paphos (The World Stage: Haiti) (2014)|
|Pilgrimage of the Chameleon (2016)|
|Triple Portrait of Charles I (2007)|
|The Make Believer (Monet's Garden) (2016)|
Over the course of the past year, I have had the life-changing honor of painting President Obama's portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
On Monday, we unveiled it to the world.
I'd like to tell you a bit about it.
In choosing the composition and colors for this painting, I sought to create an allegorical index to President Obama's life story—using key botanicals that reference his personal presence in the world. Jasmine from Hawaii. Chrysanthemums from Chicago. Blue African Lilies from Kenya.
And the nature of the president's pose is not sword-wielding or swashbuckling. It's contemplative. Humble. Open to the world in its possibilities. A man of the people.
As an artist, my practice is the contemporary reinterpretation of painting. I'm inspired by its history, by its mechanical act, and the human stories that can unfold on a physical plane. And what drives me is this notion of a history that is at once welcoming of those human stories—while being dismissive of those that don't correspond to some accepted notion of respectability.
And my aim was to use the universal language of painting to arrive at a much more inclusive commentary of our own collective potential.
The particular honor of being the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president has been, for me, beyond any individual recognition.
It is bigger than me, and anything I could gain out of this. It presents a whole field of potential for young people—particularly young black and brown kids who might see these paintings on museum walls and see their own potential.
Art can function in practical, descriptive ways—but it can also inspire in so many resounding multiplicities.
That is my hope for this painting.