This morning I was invited to attend the press preview of the official Obama Presidential portraits by artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. I'm sure you've seen photographs of the portraits by now. Disclaimer: I'm not an art critic, nor am I trying to be comprehensive here, just sharing my photographs of, and observations about, the works.
Regarding both pieces, I can say they look better in person than they photograph. I'm not sure if it's the scale (very large) or the color palettes (both atypical, though at different ends of the saturation spectrum). Both are stunning in real life. I've heard lots of talk about the likeness (or lack thereof) to their subjects and my only thought on the matter is that painted portraits will naturally deviate some from reality. And if we wanted exact likenesses of them then we'd have photographic portraits instead of painted portraits. We're seeing a stylized representation of how each artist sees their subject. And that's how it should be, in my opinion. Both portraits also have elements that remind me of graphic novels and this makes them feel very of the moment to me.
Portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald
oil on linen, 2018
75" x 63"
I had not heard of Ms. Sherald until a few years ago when she won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition and even then, because I'm so terrible with names, I didn't actually put two and two together that she was the artist chosen to paint Mrs. Obama's portrait.
All of Ms. Sherald's work features stylized representations of her subjects and utilize a high contrast color palette to great effect. One theme common to all her portraits is that she uses desaturated, gray-based colors for her subject's skin. In some ways this reminds me of old hand-painted photographs, where only select items in the frame were colorful. On the subject Ms. Sherald says, "In graduate school I was creating self-portraits. . . . I painted people in different colors. One was black, one was a raw sienna, and one was a yellow ochre. It was a way of deconstructing race and asking that question about what race means to us as a people. The gray was an under color and I decided to leave it. Each [figure] is a different color because each background is a different color. Green comes through, blue comes through, pink comes through. It just worked."
The desaturated color palette and the contemplative pose create a quietness that surrounds the work. It's almost as though the portrait has the effect of muffling sound the closer you get to it. And it drew me closer, more so than most works of art. I found it to be very compelling.
Portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley
oil on canvas, 2018
92" x 66"
My first introduction to Mr. Wiley's work was shortly after I moved to DC. On my first visit to the National Portrait Gallery, his larger than life, hallucinogenic portrait of LL Cool J blew my mind. When I heard Mr. Obama had picked Mr. Wiley to paint his official Presidential portrait I couldn't have been more excited. Having seen it in person I'm not disappointed one bit.
As is typical of Mr. Wiley's style, his subject — faithfully but not photorealistically rendered — floats against a vivid background. Mr. Wiley's portraits are typically full of bombast and he dialed it back only slightly here. The vivid blue-green he chose for the leafy backdrop seems to glow from within, almost as if backlit. Mixed in with the greenery are pops of color from chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), jasmine (representing Hawaii), and African blue lilies (representing Mr. Obama's Kenyan father). The traditional pose of Mr. Obama, juxtaposed with the pop art feeling background makes for a very dynamic viewing experience. My eyes jumped around from element to element. The entire thing feels very vibrant and alive.