Well, what did you think?
What sounded to me like the Gasp Heard ‘Round the World followed the unveilings of the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Or, as my own immediate, largely unschooled and low-brow reaction sounded, “Ooooh … ahhhh … huh?!!!”
Ah, well. I have learned from past experience with such high-profile reveals that it is best to give the work of great artists, as in the work of great vineyards, time to prove their value.
New York based artist Kehinde Wiley, who painted the president’s portrait, and Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, who painted Mrs. Obama, are the first African-Americans commissioned to paint official portraits of the first couple for the National Portrait Gallery.
That’s significant when you’re talking about the nation’s first and, so far, only First Family of color – and each artist has won high praise for their distinct ways of presenting black subjects.
Wiley painted Obama sitting in a chair, looking back at us like the community organizer he used to be, necktie gone, eyes intensely looking at us.
Sherald painted Michelle Obama in “grayscale” – a charcoal color with taupe undertones. She’s seated, with her hair falling around her shoulders, in a bold floor-length dress. Large geometric stripes and checkerboard trim, but mostly large blank white spaces. The design strikes me as lovely, like a fashion photo, but intriguingly incomplete – like a coloring book that only has begun to be filled in.
That’s how a lot of us Americans feel these days: diverse and divided, the opposite of what candidate Obama sought a decade ago. As with statues of Abraham Lincoln’s likenesses, the placid serenity we see only hints at the torrents offstage.
I pounced on Twitter after the unveiling and tweeted my own idea for a title for the Barack portrait: “POTUS in a Garden?”
Fellow Chicagoans might notice that oblique reference to the Latin slogan on the city’s official seal, “Urbs in horto,” Latin for “City in a Garden,” a slogan that the late, great columnist Mike Royko famously suggested should be “Ubi est mea” – “Where’s mine?”
At least this art project doesn’t touch on the contentious world of sports, I thought – until the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Thompson reported this viral reaction among local baseball fans: Why is Obama’s portrait set in the vines of Wrigley Field.
That’s art in a working-class but also gentrifying town. Old-timers like me can remember a similar shock when Pablo Picasso’s untitled lion-like gift to Chicago was unveiled in 1967. One North Side alderman sniffed that it should have been replaced with a statue of “Mr. Cub,” Ernie Banks.
But the Picasso not only was slowly but surely embraced by Chicagoans; it also changed the way the city’s civic community related to public art – for the better. Diversity since has been not only tolerated but encouraged. Could that happen with post-Obama presidential art?
Context matters. The former president is not backgrounded by greenery as much as he is floating, superimposed over the leaves like a Photoshopped image. The face is clearly and accurately that of a serious, stone-faced and thoughtful Obama, one who appears to be sitting and contemplating, What do I do next?
Obama’s hands at rest look accurate, too, but they look larger than normal. Maybe that’s supposed to be symbolic of a man with big work to do. Maybe that’s a cheeky cosmic joke, a subtle reference to our current president’s peculiar obsession with the notion that people think he has tiny hands. Portrait artists tend only to smile at such interpretations.
The Obama portraits might best be viewed through the lens of a post-Obama future that is only beginning to come into focus. They remind me of what continues in my mind to be the most compelling Obama portrait: Shepard Fairey’s 2008 red, white and blue collage of the upturned face of the young Obama over the upper-case word “HOPE.”
As campaign art, its message was powerful enough to accelerate history. It put a brand on a candidate, a political movement and a social era.
A decade later we can see how tough that act was to follow – for a president, for a painter and for a voting public. But some of us still have hope.
Reach Clarence Page at email@example.com.