That’s significant when you’re talking about the nation’s first and, so far, only First Family of color — and each artist has won high praise for their distinct ways of presenting black subjects.
Wiley painted Obama sitting in a chair, looking back at us like the community organizer he used to be, necktie gone, eyes intensely looking at us.
Sherald painted Michelle Obama in “grayscale” — a charcoal color with taupe undertones. She’s seated, with her hair falling around her shoulders, in a bold floor-length dress. Large geometric stripes and checkerboard trim, but mostly large blank white spaces. The design strikes me as lovely, like a fashion photo, but intriguingly incomplete — like a coloring book that only has begun to be filled in.
That’s how a lot of us Americans feel these days: diverse and divided, the opposite of what candidate Obama sought a decade ago. As with statues of Abraham Lincoln’s likenesses, the placid serenity we see only hints at the torrents offstage.
I pounced on Twitter after the unveiling and tweeted my own idea for a title for the Barack portrait: “POTUS in a Garden?”
Fellow Chicagoans might notice that oblique reference to the Latin slogan on the city’s official seal, “Urbs in horto,” Latin for “City in a Garden,” a slogan that the late, great columnist Mike Royko famously suggested should be “Ubi est mea” — “Where’s mine?”
At least this art project doesn’t touch on the contentious world of sports, I thought — until the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Thompson reported this viral reaction among local baseball fans: Why is Obama’s portrait set in the vines of Wrigley Field.
That’s art in a working-class but also gentrifying town. Old-timers like me can remember a similar shock when Pablo Picasso’s untitled lion-like gift to Chicago was unveiled in 1967.
But the Picasso not only was slowly but surely embraced by Chicagoans; it also changed the way the city’s civic community related to public art — for the better. Diversity since has been not only tolerated but encouraged. Could that happen with post-Obama presidential art?
Context matters. The former president is not backgrounded by greenery as much as he is floating, superimposed over the leaves like a Photoshopped image. The face is clearly and accurately that of a serious, stone-faced and thoughtful Obama, one who appears to be sitting and contemplating, What do I do next?
The Obama portraits might best be viewed through the lens of a post-Obama future that is only beginning to come into focus. They remind me of what continues in my mind to be the most compelling Obama portrait: Shepard Fairey’s 2008 red, white and blue collage of the upturned face of the young Obama over the upper-case word “HOPE.”
As campaign art, its message was powerful enough to accelerate history. It put a brand on a candidate, a political movement and a social era.
A decade later we can see how tough that act was to follow — for a president, for a painter and for a voting public. But some of us still have hope.
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.