Odd Portraits of the Obamas Meet with Shaky Public Reception

Former president is seated among shrubbery, while former first lady is shown in large, flowing dress — guests debate art on 'The Ingraham Angle'

by Michele Blood | Updated 14 Feb 2018 at 10:04 AM

“Michelle’s hands are too large. [Her] dress is like a mountain,” said Fox News contributor Raymond Arroyo, Tuesday night on “The Ingraham Angle,” about the just-released painting of former first lady Michelle Obama.

And of the one of Barack Obama: “It is an odd picture. It really doesn’t look like the president as we know him.”

“It’s all relative. I liked his a lot better than I liked hers,” noted former Clinton aide Phillipe Reines, also appearing as a guest on “The Ingraham Angle,” as the two chatted with host Laura Ingraham. He joked at first that he’d been told there would be no math or art when he agreed to appear.

“It’s a goofy painting,” added Ingraham. She said she sees Barack Obama as a handsome man and Michelle Obama as a beautiful woman — but that the painting of the former president is set in such a way that it invokes images of Audrey II, the man-eating plant from “Little Shop of Horrors.”

In the segment exploring the latest additions to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, no one held back.

The public got its first peek at the former president’s portrait in a ceremony Monday at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Michelle Obama’s portrait, painted by a different artist than her husband’s, was revealed during the ceremony as well.

Kehinde Wiley's depiction of former President Obama shows him seated in an ornate wooden chair against a background of greenery and a symbolically meaningful assortment of flowers. Amy Sherald's depiction of a grayish-skinned, stylized Michelle Obama shows the former first lady in a very long, full dress. She's seated in a pensive pose against a background of powder blue, and the painting is very clearly not meant to be photorealistic.

Wiley's former work includes paintings of black women who are dangling the decapitated heads of white women by the hair.

"He says it's his take on the 'kill whitey' thing," said Arroyo, commenting on the above-described paintings.

A piece in The New Yorker described Wiley as "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."

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That same piece in The New Yorker described Sherald's body of work this way: "Her models are black, and they are creatures of fashion who stand upright against backdrops of pastel monochrome ... 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 gray-scale — like ghosts."

To say that public response was "mixed," though technically accurate, does not quite do justice to a gobsmacked public's immediate and ongoing reaction to the unveilings.

To begin, both portraits depart sharply from those of the Obamas' predecessors. These are not your mama's portraits, in other words. Some media outlets described them as "nontraditional." They truly must be seen — at least online — to fully appreciate.

"Art asks questions, and the artist answers them," Arroyo said during the segment.

The "memeification" of the portraits happened at lightning speed. From photoshopped images of Barack Obama peering through the background greenery of his portrait at an obscenely gesturing President Donald Trump to jokes related to what appears to be a sixth finger in the painting of the former president's hand — the denizens of social media got straight to work.

"Art asks questions, and the artist answers them," Arroyo said during the segment. Folks on the internet don't seem quite sure what those questions and answers might be — but they definitely had some opinions to offer on the matter, just the same.

Opinions on art, like politics, are passionate and fiercely held. Clearly, combining the two in creating images of political figures is bound to generate some pretty polarized reactions.

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and regular contributor to LifeZette.

(photo and homepage image: C-SPAN, Smithsonian Unveils Obama Portraits)

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