The New Yorker:
I keep coming back to a bit of skewed perspective near the bottom of Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of Barack Obama, which was unveiled on Monday, during a ceremony at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C. The painting seats Obama—looking serious, even slightly ruthless, around the eyes, but vaguely amused around the lilting, half-upturned corner of his mouth—in a delicately detailed wooden chair against a backdrop of bright leaves and vivid flowers. He leans forward, his elbows on his knees and his forearms loosely crossed. One cuff lines up perfectly with the other, forming a starched white stripe, with a watch poking meekly through. In places—behind the former President’s head, for example—the flora look flat, like designs on a tapestry or a particularly adventurous wallpaper swatch: firmly in the background, secondary to the subject. Elsewhere, the leaves assert themselves as alive. One sprout seems to have worked its way, sort of playfully, into the nook between Obama’s leg and the leg of the chair. Another tendril brushes past one of the Presidential triceps. This kind of dimensional ambiguity isn’t new to Wiley’s work; in “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” a large-scale painting that used to hang in the high-ceilinged front lobby of the Brooklyn Museum, a damask of ovoid gold-on-blood-red occasionally steals the foreground from the portly man astride his horse who is the painting’s ostensible star. (His Timberland boots might be the funniest touch in Wiley’s œuvre.) Leaves escape the backdrop of “Shantavia Beale II” almost sneakily, threatening, it seems, to swallow the haughtily regal Ms. Beale whole.
But look at the lower fifth or so of this newest—and, from here on out, inevitably the most famous—of Wiley’s works. The feet of the chair disappear into the brush, resting, one assumes, on a soft, unseen bed of soil. But the bottoms of Obama’s shiny black shoes simply float. There’s a similarly unanchored toe in Wiley’s “Judith and Holofernes,” but the isolation of the murderous figure in that painting makes it plausible that she has been rendered in one gorgeous dimension, made an icon. The presence of furniture in the Obama portrait, feet in front of feet in front of feet, is what creates a perplexing spatial puzzle. The gesture poses questions that seem equally applicable to the meanings of portraitist and President. Is this ecstatic realism or total fever dream? A momentary slippage or a new stability? An exercise in canon-making or sneaky deconstruction?
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