Thursday, December 2, 2021

Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama on display at the LACMA exhibition

There are now more black faces gracing the gallery walls and pedestals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art than ever before in the museum’s 56-year history.

Perhaps more than all these years combined, but surely at least the same number in one exhibition since 1976, when LACMA celebrated the country’s bicentennial with the landmark event “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950”.

The stars are Barack and Michelle Obama, whose portraits were commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and were warmly received by critics in February 2018. Now they went on a national tour of five cities, the paintings – respectively Kehinde Vili. , 44, and Amy Sherald, 48 – open to the public in Los Angeles on Sundays. They occupy one of the walls of the large hall, and the empty space indicates the expectation of large crowds of impatient spectators.

To give these two paintings some context, LACMA has also brought together Portraits of Black Americans, an exhibition in a nearby gallery that features 140 works by 110 artists, most of whom, but not all, are black. Two-thirds are museum acquisitions and promised gifts, many of which are recent, while the rest is borrowed from galleries and private collections. They are hung in a salon style, allowing for visual conversation between disparate artists.

Obama’s paintings, where each figure is depicted seated and depicted at approximately life size, are stylistically different from each other, although in both aspects of the sitter’s personality are highlighted in italics.

In the blue field, the Sherald portrays the former first lady as an example of focused elegance. Her skin is gray, like in black and white photography – a frequent strategy of the artist when she asks viewers of the painting to go beyond superficial assumptions about race.

Dressed in a long but sleazy white evening gown, the geometric embellishment on the fluttering skirt is a nod to fashion design, African American quilts and modern fashion. She places her right elbow on her other forearm, draping it over her crossed knee. Michelle Obama’s right hand lazily touches her chin, dangling with blue nails that add a distinctive touch of modern color.

The pose is both self-defense, her body protected and exquisitely self-sufficient. The word that comes to mind sounds harsh. This admirable attitude is bold, unapologetic and emphatic – perfect for the topic.

A viewer looks at the Obama Portrait Tour installation at the Reznik Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during a press preview Wednesday. The show will open to the general public on Sunday and run until January 2, 2022. From left to right – “Barack Obama” Kehinde Wiley, 2018, and “Michelle LaVon Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, 2018.

(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

The former president is also at ease, leaning forward in his chair and resting his arms crossed on his knees. It is embedded, almost floating (see how his shoes float above the ground) against a backdrop of abundant topiary. The hedge of greenery is artfully dotted with flowers that do not naturally occur together.

Flowers are a tribute of respect that has long been used in art as ready-made symbols of nature for the development of a cultural object. Jasmine was born in Hawaii, where Obama was born. African blue lilies define Kenya, his father’s homeland. Chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago from where his social life began, are abundant. In this heavenly place, the first black president of America is New Adam.

The second, even more remarkable feature of Wiley’s composition is Obama’s seated pose. He leans forward intently in an elaborately carved wooden chair in the living room.

The pose is reminiscent of George P.A.Healy’s 1869 portrait of Abraham Lincoln, begun before the assassination of the Civil War winner, but completed much later. (The painting now hangs in the White House.) Healy worked as tensions around Reconstruction grew and Congress decided The 15th Amendment is an attempt, but often unsuccessful, to stem the hostility of southern opinion polls by prohibiting denial of voting rights on the basis of “race, color, or previous state of slavery.”

Lincoln subtly echoes the jubilant portrayal of Obama Wiley. This historical layering, using echoes of past art in dialogue with the present, is also a hallmark of Wylie’s wonderful recent commissioning from San Marino’s Huntington Library, the Museum of Art and Botanical Gardens, which are currently on display there.

His shrewd response to Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 “Blue Boy”, the famous art of the museum, is to redo the scene of an unidentified young black man wearing blue basketball shorts, followed by a baseball cap rather than a baseball cap. A 17th century cavalier hat with feathers, the trimmed ends of his dreadlocks were whitewashed with golden blond. The lithe dandy Wylie stands amidst a lush web of royal blue acanthus leaves, a classic symbol of immortality, and vibrant orange poppies, a modern British symbol of remembrance.

Kehinde Wylie "Portrait of a young gentleman" hanging between two portraits of women in exquisite dresses

Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman is a reprint of The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough at the Huntington Library, Museum of Art and Botanical Gardens.

(Joshua White)

Britain’s overwhelming wealth, immortalized in satin-draped young aristocrat Gainsborough, was built on colonial exploits. First, the country’s growing textile mills were fed by American cotton harvested from the free labor of a slave economy. The boy’s tie-dyed T-shirt, emanating from the heart of Wylie’s reinvention, is an explosive orange swirl spinning outward like a galactic Big Bang.

A new universe begins.

A brilliant precedent for Wylie’s passionate acceptance of Euro-American painting traditions is the work of Kerry James Marshall. In LACMA, Marshall’s destructive little black-on-black Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self stands at the entrance to Black American Portraits. A black man, dressed in black, before the black background practically disappears, save for his toothy grin.

The painting, crucial to his development and now a treasure in the museum’s collection (a promised gift from Stephen and Deborah Lebowitz), turns Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel about black identity, The Invisible Man, into a spur to self-awareness. The history of European and American painting is for the black American artist as rich a heritage as the great African traditions, Marshall insisted cleverly.

Early American portraits of black people are rare, but nearby hangs a marvelous depiction of a successful sailor dating from 1800 and acquired 15 years ago. An unidentified artist – most likely a white male given the racial and gender restrictions imposed on studio training – shows him, framed by dark clouds scattering into the sun, a ship in a quiet haven in the distance. It is noteworthy that he is dressed in red, white and blue.

Almost everything else from the 20th century, especially after the post-war civil rights movement, or since the 21st century, which accounts for about half of the show. The third is photographs, stories of the life of black Americans that coincide with the mid-19th century. invention of the century and the modern diffusion of technology.

Ironically, there are several hundred portraits of black men, women and children by Robert Mapplethorpe in the LACMA collection, but none of them are included. Some have criticized Mapplethorpe, the white artist, for fetishizing black sexuality, but this omission is puzzling. Why fearfulness?

Rafael Esparza, "big chillin with Patrissa," portrait of a black woman leaning on a white figure.

Rafa Esparza, “Big Chillin with Patrissa”, 2021, acrylic, adobe, at the LACMA exhibition.

(Ruben Diaz / Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles)

Portraiture is also poorly defined in the show – sometimes too loosely, as something that has a figure in it.

“Sledge Hammer Mamma” 1996 Alison Saar strikes a powerful blow, transforming the hilt of a huge weapon of destruction into a powerful female totem. Glenn Kaino inserts a golden raised fist into a mirrored box for his 2019 Salute (Second Greetings), reflecting an image of resistance in infinity. Martina Sims’ 2015 10-minute video, Notes on Gestures, explores how race and gender determine language and meaning. All of this is first-class art, but none of it is portrait art.

Ultimately, however, cheating doesn’t matter, as it is the sheer volume of work that finally matters. A touching 2021 portrait by artist Patrissa Callors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, is a symbol. Painted on a 6-foot slab of dried adobe by Raf Esparza (artist uses lowercase letters), her head resting on crossed arms in an intimate pose of personal vulnerability, Callors is embodied as a true “mother earth” – the goddess who gave birth to movement.

Unfortunately, no catalog is attached to the exhibition, possibly due to the speed with which it was assembled and the recent acquisition (22 dates in the last two years). LACMA curator Christine Y. Kim, who co-hosted it with Liz Andrews, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts in Atlanta, told me that a book on the museum’s black art collection is in development.

Cedric Adams, "How i feel" 1972 graphite drawing of a shirtless black man.

Cedric Adams, Just How I Feel, 1972, graphite.

(Museum staff / LACMA)

It will include a particularly touching work – a lovely 1972 graphite self-portrait of Cedric Adams, frowning, set jaw and gaze. After retirement, Adams worked for a long time at LACMA, responsible for the care of collections and the installation of art. For many years, his Black Face was one of the few that could be seen in the halls of the museum. The artist’s drawing was recently purchased for collection by a group of more than 30 museum staff – a self-sufficient depiction of determined perseverance.

“Portrait of Obama” and “Portraits of Black Americans”

When: Obama portraits until January 2; “Black American Portraits” until April 17th. Closed on Wednesdays.

Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., LA

Tolerance: 10-25 US dollars; Children 2 years of age and younger are admitted free and discounts are available for Los Angeles County residents. All visitors 12 years of age and older must provide proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results within the last 72 hours. Face masks are essential indoors.

Information: (323) 857-6000,;

‘Kehinde Vili: Portrait of a Young Gentleman’

Where: Huntington Library, Museum of Art and Botanic Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino

When: Until January 3: closed on Tuesday.

Tolerance: USD 13–29; children 4 years and under – free. On weekends, advance booking in time is required. Masks are essential indoors.

Information: (626) 405-2100,

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