Make It Official

John Haber
in New York City

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald: Obama Portraits

Troy Michie

For the first time in my life, I miss the last president. For the first time, too, I miss the National Portrait Gallery. Credit both to Barack and Michelle Obama.

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald treat them to flora and fancy dress. Yet they also speak to politics and the presidency. So does Troy Michie, who makes the zoot suit stand for black culture and race riots. Conservatives may want back the dignity of the office or American history. They overlook art's way of seeing more than surfaces. Amy Sherald's Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (National Portrait Gallery, 2018)

Flora and fancy dress

What makes an official portrait official? Is it all about varnishing over the truth? Not this time. Say what you will about politics, but the last president and first lady sat for portraits that have people talking—and museum attendance climbing. To my mind, they made that possible, too, with more than just their choice of artists. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald often fall for a kind of politically correct official art, but for once something more ambitious shows through.

To be sure, Donald J. Trump would have me missing all forty-four of his predecessors, going back to those who led America into the Great Recession, the Gilded Age, Jim Crow, and civil war. Still, not even Trump could turn the presidents gallery into one of Washington's leading attractions. The very idea of an official portrait has an awkward place in art. It dates to a time long past Renaissance princes and their commissions—for now one does, after all, have to designate a portrait as official. Then, too, photography has taken over much of its role, in magazine and album covers. If Marilyn Monroe or Patti Smith has anything like an official portrait, thank Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe.

The painters did not have me expecting a change. Wiley has become a celebrity artist by treating ordinary Africans and African Americans as celebrities. His young black males strut their macho stuff in front of decorative backgrounds that make them stiffer, shallower, and shinier still, modeled at times on Napoleon crossing the Alps for Jacques-Louis David. A less familiar name, Sherald puts style first and foremost as well. Icy grays stand for black flesh, and sharp colors pop out from patterned clothes. Still, she leans to flat erect figures, as if afraid to disturb their dignity by a reminder of their thoughts and lives.

Again, not this time. Wiley has dropped the horses, military hardware, and bright hanging fruit in favor of a canopy of leaves. Filling the picture plane, it propels Obama forward to where his eyes and crossed arms engage the viewer. They make him recognizably the thoughtful ex-president and community organizer one wants to remember. They also overlap now and then his stately chair and informal seated pose. That works well, too, for the man who asked to lead from behind.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama does better yet as lawyer, teacher, activist, and fashion plate, in a portrait that John Singer Sargent might admire. She, too, is seated—with one hand on her knee, an elbow resting on that hand, and the other hand beneath her chin. These, a mostly white dress, a pale blue background, and a refusal to smile keep her at a measured distance, even as their pyramid spreads in all directions. Sherald is no longer simply empowering her sitter, but rather keeping everything quiet except for character and paint. Try to remember a past official portrait that mattered as much for the first lady as for the president. But then try to remember a single artist in the presidents gallery since Gilbert Stuart.

If the pair marks a departure for both artists, give credit where credit is due. It helps that Obama must have sat for Wiley, with every expectation that the painter would have shown up for occasion rather than delegating the job to his factory. Still, he and his wife had to have pushed the envelope. He reportedly told Wiley that he had no interest in playing another Napoleon, and who knows what she told Sherald? Wiley is probably not going anywhere new, even at barely age forty, but Sherald, now forty-five, has had to put a career all but on hold for matters of personal and family health. Like her subject, she can afford now to sit down for a moment and to take a deep breath.

Clothes make the man

They say clothes make the man—unless, that is, clothes unmake him. Both came to pass in the darkest hours of World War II, when some of LA's growing minority population dressed for the jazz age. White resentment then, fed by thoughts of others living to excess amid wartime austerity, led to the mass assaults of the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. History has largely forgotten, but not Troy Michie, who creates a chronicle of racism and high style. It also cuts across past and present, to the demands of Black Lives Matter. American servicemen led the assault then, just as another point of reference for "the man" has now.

Troy Michie's Fat Cat Came to Play (installation view) (Company, 2017)But really, the Zoot Suit Riots? Their invocation in the press release sounds like a hoax or maybe conceptual art, but they were all too real. They also brought a swift response that puts the present Republican administration to shame. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of the need to address race in America, and Earl Warren, then governor of California and later the chief justice who presided over Brown v. Board of Education, appointed a commission. The contrast with today underscores the persistence of prejudice and the threat. For Michie, though, it is also a matter of art and style.

His larger collage has the bright fragmentation of Stuart Davis and American Cubism, already a stepping back to the jazz age. The Whitney has called Archibald Motley, the black artist, "Jazz Age Modernist." Smaller work becomes thicker and muter, thanks to button-down clothing and tailor's specs. Both incorporate photographs of black men and women that could belong to then or now. Michie often excises faces, miming acts of enforced anonymity and violence. Chain-link fences divide the gallery, along with bundled newspapers and an empty suit, and more fencing lies on the floor, rolled up around what could be forensic evidence.

They could be deeply evocative or merely confusing, especially for those like me who had to turn to the Web for a point of reference. They also shift the focus awkwardly from Chicanos and LA to blackness and Harlem. Michie's title speaks of "Fat Cat Came to Play," and he quotes Malcolm X. Still, the fences bring in not just racial barriers, but also barriers to immigration. Then, too, that quote is double-edged in its appreciation of dress as identity or rebellion. It describes the zoot suit's "killer-diller coat" with "shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell."

Implicit, too, is another barrier, in gender. All those shows of fashion designers at the Met revolve around not just whites and wealth, but also women, no? Talk of "the black male" may seem provocative, as in a legendary show curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney—or dated to the point of embarrassing, as at times with the Whitney's "Incomplete History of Protest." It takes on more currency, though, for the LGBTQ communities, and Michie also appears in "Trigger" at the New Museum. That show's account of "gender as a tool and a weapon" can itself seem slippery enough to encompass immigration and race. As with Cubism, though, sometimes it pays not to keep one's head straight.

Yet another problem for male identity extends to white males, like the ones that voted for Donald J. Trump. Right next door to Michie, Alex Mackin Dolan evokes automation and a crude form of AI as "Particle Accelerator of Angels." His constructions could pass for slot machines, juke boxes, or robots, not least with a mechanical humanoid slumping listlessly forward. It might have replaced workers, or it might share their anxiety. Men, too, might have pushed any number of protruding buttons, illustrated with photos and schematic images, expecting another button to pop out. Then again, men these days are expecting a lot.

BACK to John's arts home page

The National Portrait Gallery unveiled the Obama portraits February 12, 2018. Troy Michie ran at Company through January 21, 2018, Alex Mackin Dolan at David Lewis through December 22, 2017.


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