Behind the portrait of Barack Obama

The selection of the artists painting the Obamas' new portraits commissioned for the Smithsonian revealed much more than two pieces of "art."

One would surely think that the chosen artists of the former president and first lady of the United States would have been carefully vetted – for quality of work, appropriateness of artistic style for the venue, and reputation in the community.

Barack Obama's selection of Kehinde Wiley for his portrait is proving to be more atrocious than the painting itself.

The major media outlets, though, such as CNBC, were quick to observe a momentous occasion, breathlessly reporting that "The Obamas made history not only as the country's first African-American presidential couple featured in the gallery but also for selecting the first African-American painters to receive a presidential portrait commission from the museum."

That same CNBC piece also recounted the history of Obama's personal selection of Wiley, writing that Obama "thinks 'it's safe to say Kehinde and I bonded'" and "how much he and Wiley had in common."

It was the painting itself, however, and not the artist, upon which my friends in the conservative Twittersphere focused at first.  I couldn't help offering my own opinion, sarcastically tweeting my suggested title: "Obama Manspreads in Sea of Poison Ivy."

Others noted the oddness of a "sixth finger," the unusually large proportions of Obama's hands, and the prominent vein on the side of his head.  Some, after showcasing the presidential portraits that preceded Obama's, observed the obvious and radical change in tone.  I'm no art critic, but if past portraits were considered stately, this one, if not more interesting and colorful, also has an aura of something else entirely.

That "something extra" is apparently the calling card of the artist.  And, fittingly, the provocative nature of such a selection is also the calling card of Obama.

Of course, in all the mainstream media gushing about the painting and its painter, a disturbing career history and reputation were left unquestioned.  With just a little research, it's not difficult to discover.

In a 2012 piece on Wiley in New York Magazine, the very first paragraph described a painting in his studio that "stands out: a tall, elegant black woman in a long blue dress – the canvas is enormous, eight feet by ten feet – calmly staring down the viewer.  In one hand, she holds a knife.  In the other, a cleanly severed brunette female head.  'It's sort of a play on the "kill whitey" thing,' Wiley says."

Described as "a riff on classical depictions by Caravaggio and Gentileschi of the biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes," the painting is actually one of two that Wiley has painted in the same "riff."

That piece also noted the disturbing description of the openly gay Wiley's chosen models – "the boys" – as well as his 2002 creation of "his own Sistine Chapel ... which featured guys in modern hip-hop garb posing as saints in front of swarms of sperm."

The Daily Caller reported that in 2015, the Village Voice described Wiley's selection of male street models as "predatory" and "perverse."  An art blog, Mr. Sawyer's Opus, described Wiley's themes of gay culture and his habit of filling the backgrounds and frame designs of many of his works with dozens of spermatozoa.

And since Wiley often uses "riffs" of the setting and poses of other famous portraits as his theme, it is interesting to note the identity of the leaders found in similar-looking paintings: Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Back in 2010 on the pages of American Thinker, I wrote about the "blank screen" that Obama told us he offered, noting that in The Picture of Dorian Gray, author Oscar Wilde wrote: "It is not [the sitter] who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself."

And since Wiley enjoys producing these "riffs" of famous artwork, should we assume that he managed to paint a "riff" of the U.S. presidency that's actually displayed in the Smithsonian Institution as a serious piece of our nation's historical art?  Is this a joke on Obama, or is it on us?

As a side note, just imagine if Trump selected an artist with a similar but reverse outrageousness for his presidential portrait.

For now, this is the "message" we're supposed to hear, as Obama noted in his Instagram post following the unveiling:

Thanks to Kehinde and Amy, generations of Americans – and young people from all around the world – will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens.  They'll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love.  Clear-eyed.  Big-hearted.  Inclusive and optimistic.  And I hope they'll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.

Obama certainly did promise transformation.  No matter how successful Trump is in his undoing of what Obama had wrought, it is Obama's portrait, however, that will endure, preserved in a museum, forever transforming the lineup of presidential portraits.

As I said, I'm certainly no art critic.  But the quality of the portrait that spoke to me the loudest was actually not the sitter nor the painter, and was probably not the intended message.  It was the overwhelming botanical background: that the man "we've been waiting for" who could stop the rise of the oceans is not  "standing over the world as "a sort of God," but is instead enveloped in a suffocating sea of ivy.

Follow Cindy on Twitter @simpsonreport.

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