The Double Narrative of the Kehinde Wiley Portrait of Barack Obama

Portraits of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the unveiling, February 12, 2018.

 

Kehinde Wiley‘s portrait of Barack Obama is a nice addition to the history of presidential portraits. It contains a wonderful and strange double narrative. He emerges, calm and distinguished, from a wall of bushes: the Bush Era. The Bush, however, still ensconces him. It clings to his feet and begins to shroud the regal chair upon which he sits, just as the context set by George W is never too far away from the Hope and Change Obama partially realized. He is separate and beyond that Bush. But it still forms the space within which his history takes place.

Though he made strides in some human rights issues, in some economic issues, and in some issues of global policy, too much of the damage wrought by Bush and Cheney remained. And all too many Bush era policies lived on in the Obama White House. Cornel West has famously railed on the ways Obama failed to be the change he heralded. Particularly in terms of US war efforts, Obama maintained and expanded the failed, horrible strategies that have kept us stuck for nearly two decades. Sure, Obama got Bin Laden and drew down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also massively increased drone usage and attacks around the world (both issues that have been mostly ignored by the American people). He continued attacks on whistle-blowers. He continued aid to various military forces around the world known for illegitimate attacks.

We can blame Bush and Cheney for starting it, but we have to admit that Obama made mistakes in dealing with shit they started. And we have to deal with the reality that there are unfortunate continuities from Clinton through Bush, Obama, and into the Trump administration. Yes, he helped end the recession and signed Dodd-Frank. But he also bailed out the banks and auto industry, moves which were not necessarily in the best interests of the 99% of us. Yes, he spearheaded the reform of health care and a nuclear deal with Iran, but both of those – like so many of his accomplishments – have been constantly undermined and/or reversed; the solutions weren’t robust enough.

President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley

The portraits are wonderful, but the President’s is a reminder that his legacy is double. I’m certainly not negative against President Obama. I think he did a decent job with the hand he was dealt. I think he was an inspiring leader and a person who used the government to help many people. Unfortunately, he also maintained a lot of the ways and means of previous administrations. He had to work within structures that often subvert human dignity and fail to lead to lasting change, which is partly why Trump has been able to counter so many of his best efforts.

I hope that we soon have leadership who will take the best desires of a man like Obama and reject the insidious systems operating within this country that keep us from truly liberating “the better angels of our nature.”

 

 

New Books

I’m always on the look out for new books to add to my collection. As an artist and educator, I know there is something wonderful about the physical feel of a book, the way the pages smell, and the beauty of a really high quality reproduction. Recently I’ve added the Diebenkorn Catalogue Raisonne, a wonderful investigation of Hilma af Klint, and some other texts. A few of the new books are listed below.

Riva Lehrer – Circle Stories

Riva Lehrer is a profoundly important Chicago-based artist who has worked on disability and identity for her entire career. Circle Stories, put out by Gescheidle in 2004, is a wonderful way to introduce her work to my students and to commemorate the power and presence of her work. The portrait of Rebecca Maskos (above) is particularly special to me, as one of my daughters has osteogenesis imperfecta.

I appreciate the leanness of the book. The statements are direct and clear. The images are evocative and give an indication of the passionate work and depth of feeling that Lehrer brings to her painting.

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Chester Arnold – Evidence

I love Kelly’s Cove Press, a small publisher focused on California and Bay Area artists. Their Squeak Carnwath and Diebenkorn books are, to me, essential viewing for painters. I REALLY hope they plan to publish something on the drawings of Manuel Neri or the wonderful paintings of Kim Frohsin sometime soon.

In this book, the work of Chester Arnold is featured. There is a wonderful play between smaller works and larger, more realized pieces in the design flow of the book. Covering a number of decades, this is an ideal introduction to Arnold’s work for those of us who aren’t as familiar with it. Frankly, I was blown away when I received the book. Arnold’s handling of narrative structure and symbolic force is rare. So much of contemporary representational painting pays lip service to story and metaphor without the depth necessary to deliver an image of lasting power. Chester Arnold really hits home with these paintings, and he’s been doing it for decades.

Arnold’s manner of painterly facture, compositional array, and use of symbolic objects and associations strongly reminds me of the great Maine-based artist Robert Barnes, as well as the frenetic interiors of Gideon Bok (also working out of Maine). What an interesting show these three would make together.

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Emil Ferris – My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

Ms. Ferris is a force of nature, and her first graphic novel is set to become legendary.

Every single page is a wonder to behold. The story moves with a familiar strangeness, recalling the moodiness of fellow Chicagoan Chris Ware’s work. It’s also an ode to the Pulp Era and Hammer Horror films. The artwork feels so close to the artist’s hand – the line quality and the sense of notebook paper (complete with “holes” for a 3-ring binder) are astounding. Ferris’s use of ballpoint pen exists here as both a limitation and an extravagant, magical tool.

I also really love how Ferris constantly brings art history into her work as a real player in the story. She does this particularly with art that’s readily available to be seen in Chicago. The city, its buildings, its people, and its art are all palpably present.

My suggestion would be to listen to the fantastic profile conducted by NPR here. I think you’ll find yourself as compelled as I was, and you won’t regret picking up this phenomenal book.

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