Obama Portrait artist Wiley: sort of a play on the “kill whitey” thing

By Eric Wayne Art, Art Criticism FEBRUARY 15, 2018 – from his website

My cmnt: This guy (Eric Wayne) is amazing. He has the strength of character and wisdom to criticize contemporary art for the fraud much of it is. Click the link above to read his whole article. I’m only excerpting a portion to whet your appetite for the rest. His website is full of interesting thought and commentary well worth the read.

Wiley, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 2012 [Detail]

My first impression of the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama was that they were suitable, fresh, and good. I also instantly recognized Kehinde Wiley’s signature style in the painting of the president.

Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Barack, and Amy Sherald’s of Michelle

A little research unearthed that Norman Rockwell made the depiction of Nixon; Elaine de Kooning had done the JFK painting; and Chuck Close (appropriately enough considering his sexual assault allegations) painted Bill Clinton.

Rockwell’s Portrait of Nixon.
Elaine de Kooning’s JFK.
Chuck Close’s portrait of Clinton. (I’m not sure if we need to take this down with the rest of his work in the great purge of Close paintings.)

None of these portraits are terribly exciting or risky or inspired, but they’re pretty good, which is about what I’d expect – the expected.

Looking at the Wiley Obama, well, it occurred to me that since Kehinde outsources a lot of the painting process to assistants, if he did so this time, then it would mean he couldn’t be arsed (i.e., bothered) to paint the president’s portrait entirely with his own hand. I don’t know whether this is the case or not, because he doesn’t like to reveal too much about his process, which would be, he says, like revealing the secret recipe for his secret sauce. That kinda’ makes me think the assistants do the lion’s share of the painting.

It bothers me that some of the flowers are in front of Barack, like cut-out stickers, though that’s just Kehinde’s style, and why change it just because the subject has changed, I guess.

Kehinde has received a lot of flack for being formulaic, mostly using those floral wallpaper type backgrounds and then some of the same patterns superimposed in front, which makes the whole thing look like a collage done with scissors. He likes to put unknown black people he meets on the street into his oversized renditions of classic paintings in order to put people who look like him in the museums. Obama’s just the latest cut-out figure to be slapped into the gimmick.

Wiley, Judith and Holofernes, 2012.

These are like the patio furniture versions. No blood, no gore, no struggle, no horror. It looks less like Judith cut off Holofernes’ head than that she cut it out of a magazine and pasted it on wall paper.

Kehinde’s goal was to make, y’know, strong, noble depictions of black women, which he’d neglected to do up until then as his focus (perhaps because he’s gay) was on young black men. Thus, when searching for a classical painting to insert his models into, he chose the most obvious one from art history.

Then, well, he changed Holofernes’ head from male to female, and used his assistant as a model. Admittedly, Wiley said in an interview that the portraits were a sort of a play on the “kill whitey” thing. That would have been more convincing, if you think about it, if he’d left the heads males, as in the familiar hashtag killallwhitemen.

It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of power behind that sort of play on a punch. It’s as scary as the neighbor’s chihuahua with the pink ribbons in its fur when it’s just standing there and not even growling. And we can assume he doesn’t actually want any harm to come to his assistant, most likely quite the contrary.

It sounds like he just needed beheaded heads, he changed the genders, and there wasn’t much more thought in it before setting the assistants to paint the giant flowers that are as big as the heads and distract from them.

I think we should reserve our moral outrage for clear, unambiguous instances of inciting violence, and actual crimes. Here the artist is doing little more than just switching up who plays what role in a theater production.

Folks, they are just paintings, much like Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmett Till was just a painting (and one we know was well-intended). We don’t really know what the artist’s intent was in this instance because his wording is ambivalent. A “play” on something implies some sort of ironic distance, in which case we’d be literalists to take it too literally. We see this sort of violence all the time in comedy – Robot Chicken comes to mind – and it doesn’t occur to us to take it seriously.

Even if Wiley did mean it, as in he was clamoring up on that “kill whitey” bandwagon (not cool), I still wouldn’t be all that bothered. There are lots of bad, tasteless, and otherwise offensive paintings out there, and none of them killed anyone. Worrying about violence in art is a lot like worrying about violence in video games. And here we have some of the same people who defend slaughtering people (often gratuitously) from the beginning to final level of Grand Theft Auto complaining about contemporary painterly interpretations of classic paintings.

Whaddya wanna’ do? Censor them?

These days everyone’s a wannabe censor. I prefer when everyone was a comedian.

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