Chân dung vợ chồng cựu TT(đế quốc giẫy chết)Mỹ :”đồng chí Ô Bá Mà(Obama& Michelle)

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The Shifting Perspective in Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Barack Obama

 

I keep coming back to a bit of skewed perspective near the bottom of Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of Barack Obama, which was unveiled on Monday, during a ceremony at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C. The painting seats Obama—looking serious, even slightly ruthless, around the eyes, but vaguely amused around the lilting, half-upturned corner of his mouth—in a delicately detailed wooden chair against a backdrop of bright leaves and vivid flowers. He leans forward, his elbows on his knees and his forearms loosely crossed. One cuff lines up perfectly with the other, forming a starched white stripe, with a watch poking meekly through. In places—behind the former President’s head, for example—the flora look flat, like designs on a tapestry or a particularly adventurous wallpaper swatch: firmly in the background, secondary to the subject. Elsewhere, the leaves assert themselves as alive. One sprout seems to have worked its way, sort of playfully, into the nook between Obama’s leg and the leg of the chair. Another tendril brushes past one of the Presidential triceps. This kind of dimensional ambiguity isn’t new to Wiley’s work; in “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” a large-scale painting that used to hang in the high-ceilinged front lobby of the Brooklyn Museum, a damask of ovoid gold-on-blood-red occasionally steals the foreground from the portly man astride his horse who is the painting’s ostensible star. (His Timberland boots might be the funniest touch in Wiley’s œuvre.) Leaves escape the backdrop of “Shantavia Beale II” almost sneakily, threatening, it seems, to swallow the haughtily regal Ms. Beale whole.

But look at the lower fifth or so of this newest—and, from here on out, inevitably the most famous—of Wiley’s works. The feet of the chair disappear into the brush, resting, one assumes, on a soft, unseen bed of soil. But the bottoms of Obama’s shiny black shoes simply float. There’s a similarly unanchored toe in Wiley’s “Judith and Holofernes,” but the isolation of the murderous figure in that painting makes it plausible that she has been rendered in one gorgeous dimension, made an icon. The presence of furniture in the Obama portrait, feet in front of feet in front of feet, is what creates a perplexing spatial puzzle. The gesture poses questions that seem equally applicable to the meanings of portraitist and President. Is this ecstatic realism or total fever dream? A momentary slippage or a new stability? An exercise in canon-making or sneaky deconstruction?

Wiley’s best works, whether backgrounded by brocade or a landscape lifted from art history, seem haunted by a quiet uncertainty: Are these depictions of black people, crashing the party of power as imagined in the West, ironic, or meant to reflect some real and hoped-for future? Yes, there’s comedy in the paintings, but is it the kind that ends with a wedding or at the gallows? It’s possible to split Wiley’s corpus fairly neatly in two—the much larger collection of portraits exalting everyday, all-but-anonymous people, and those portraying a rich, famous, and notionally powerful black élite: Michael Jackson, LL Cool J, the Notorious B.I.G., and now Obama—and to wonder which subset is, at bottom, more of a rueful joke.

FURTHER READING

Doreen St. Félix on Michelle Obama’s official portrait.

“What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege,” Obama said at the ceremony. Many of the early tussles about Obama’s legacy have had to do with the nature of his power and how he chose to wield it. Consider Cornel West’s much-discussed broadside against Ta-Nehisi Coates, and, by extension, against Obama. Coates’s interest in Obama has dealt, largely, with his symbolic power, both to inspire and to disappoint, while West’s most powerful critiques of the past Administration have centered on one of its frustrating paradoxes: that, through his fairly conventional deployment of the more fearful powers of the U.S. government—war-making chief among them—Obama proved himself ultimately powerless to make radical, concrete change commensurate with the message communicated by his face and his name.

Obama’s truest political gift, perhaps, was the ability to let a thousand flowers of expectation, born of history, bloom. The flora in the portrait represent the stations of Obama’s scattered personal and ancestral past—blue lilies for Kenya; jasmine for Hawaii; chrysanthemums for Chicago—and their momentary intrusions might hint at the ways in which the man was somewhat shrouded by the dazzling story that delivered him into his nation’s arms. He was hyper-visible and yet always partly hidden. In Wiley’s painting, his face is all gravitas, that little smirk notwithstanding, but—like George W. Bush, in his portrait before him—he is tieless, his posture at least semi-casual. He’s the leader of the free world, but also a guy you might know, taking it easy after work. As President, Obama was exceptional and relatable; aloof and an empath; a Bob Gates-style realist when it came to Syria and a Power-Rice interventionist in Libya; a global celebrity and a ponderous professor; a radical presence but somehow, simultaneously, a company man. I wonder whether that balance, captured so well in Wiley’s portrait, will persist. In the long run, history tips scales and issues verdicts. One perspective or the other will last.

The Mystery of Amy Sherald’s Portrait of Michelle Obama

 

The former First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to commission the Baltimore painter Amy Sherald for her official portrait was intriguing. Like the former President Barack Obama’s choice of the painter Kehinde Wiley for his own portrait, it was a demonstration of discriminating taste; these paintings, in the eclectic Smithsonian halls, will relate more easily to Douglas Chandor’s study of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s upper half and fiddling hands, the atomizing of Bill Clinton by Chuck Close, than to Robert A. Anderson’s conservative transcription of George W. Bush. Sherald and Wiley, the first black recipients of commissions from the National Portrait Gallery, are artists with points of view. Wiley is a glittering propagandist who catapults the common black man and the occasional black woman into historical environments of rearing equines and colonial fleur-de-lis tapestries. He placed Obama against his ancestral flora, “hyper-visible and yet always partly hidden,” as my colleague Vinson Cunningham writes.

Evidence of power is more elusive in Sherald’s paintings. Her models are black, and they are creatures of fashion who stand upright against backdrops of pastel monochrome. 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. Instead, these paintings make the viewer speculate about the quieter wants and wishes of the black common men and women who have emerged on the linen en grisaille—Sherald’s taupe variant of grayscale—like ghosts.

At the Smithsonian unveiling, Michelle Obama and the forty-four-year-old Sherald together pulled down brown wraps to expose a painting of shocking mystery. It is a portrait of the first black First Lady in an abundant gown, designed by one of her favorites, Michelle Smith for Milly. Smith, in an interview with Vogue, has said that the dress’s “clean, minimal geometric print” is “without a reference to anything past or nostalgic” and is “forward-thinking,” like Obama herself. But at the lectern, introducing the six-by-five-foot “ ‘Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,’ oil on linen, 2018,” Sherald said that the shapes reminded her of Mondrian, and the diligent quilt-making of the black women artisans of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “My approach to portraiture is conceptual,” she said. Obama herself emphasized that she did not come from the sort of family that had had members sit for portraits. As a variation of the classical American pioneer, she sought out Sherald to translate what being the first meant to her.

The painting is shocking because Sherald has somehow conjured a vision of Michelle Obama, one of the most photographed women in history, that we have not yet seen—one free of the candid Washingtonian glamour found in photographs such as those in Amanda Lucidon’s “Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer.” Obama sits against sky-blue oblivion, the triangular shape of the dress turning her into a mountain. Sherald may be the portrait artist of “American people,” and Obama, looking askance, leaning slightly, may want to be a part of that record, but she is also a symbol, an aggrandizement. The racializing schema of Sherald’s work is to “exclude the idea of color as race,” she has said, in her artist’s statement. To Sherald, the photorealistic depiction of race—a quality determined by others’ eyes, externally—is a dead end. Applied to Michelle Obama, the lack of brown in the skin feels first like a loss, and then like a real gain. This is a different Michelle, a woman evacuated of celebrity, who appears provisionally dreamlike, nearly a shadow. The mouth and the eyes and the strong arms that we know are present, but fainter. From some distance, I can imagine, the figure might not be immediately recognizable.

FURTHER READING

Vinson Cunningham on Barack Obama’s official portrait.

To some, the lack of racial verisimilitude may be intolerable. And yet this is how the subject would like posterity—young black girls especially, she said in a speech—to see her, through Sherald’s vision: as a herald of success. In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture. Looking at it, I thought for a moment of Kerry James Marshall’s portraits, especially his 1980 self-portrait, in which the artist depicts himself as an actual black void, only eyes and teeth gleaming. The phantasmic grayscale of Sherald’s painting makes one work to bring its subject to life—to remember what Michelle Obama has endured. From her husband’s first campaign she was scrutinized, even more than her husband, who was the one running—an appearance on “Larry King Live” had viewers nervous about her stridency. She was exhorted, by worriers of all races, to be soft. She had to give America fewer reasons to say ugly things, to make ugly cartoons. It is undeniable that there was a shift in how she was marketed. Commercials de-emphasized Michelle Obama’s legal career—in fact, it was she who had mentored Barack, not the other way around—and pushed her domestic identity as a mother. The tenure of the first black First Lady was defined by her no-nonsense charm, her easy beauty, her rhetorical gifts, her championing of healthy meals for the young and the poor. She had a long-lasting emotional effect on millions of people. And then she had to hand the baton to Melania Trump. One wonders what the sitter divulged to the portraitist, who has experienced her own trials—deaths in the family, a heart transplant. One wonders how the years in the White House—which, Michelle Obama reminded the country, had been built by slaves—affected her.

I think the portrait is one answer. It is an intensely private work of art that will seem otherworldly in whichever state gallery hall it is hung. “What have we done?” Michelle Obama has said she asked her husband the first time she watched her two daughters leave the White House for school, shadowed by a Secret Service army. In public exit interviews, Michelle Obama is open about her relief that the eight years is over. The portrait, beautiful and discomfiting, is like a memory of what we never knew.

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