The New Yorker:
The former First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to commission the Baltimore painter Amy Sherald for her official portrait was intriguing. Like the former President Barack Obama’s choice of the painter Kehinde Wiley for his own portrait, it was a demonstration of discriminating taste; these paintings, in the eclectic Smithsonian halls, will relate more easily to Douglas Chandor’s study of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s upper half and fiddling hands, the atomizing of Bill Clinton by Chuck Close, than to Robert A. Anderson’s conservative transcription of George W. Bush. Sherald and Wiley, the first black recipients of commissions from the National Portrait Gallery, are artists with points of view. Wiley is a glittering propagandist who catapults the common black man and the occasional black woman into historical environments of rearing equines and colonial fleur-de-lis tapestries. He placed Obama against his ancestral flora, “hyper-visible and yet always partly hidden,” as my colleague Vinson Cunningham writes.
Evidence of power is more elusive in Sherald’s paintings. Her models are black, and they are creatures of fashion who stand upright against backdrops of pastel monochrome. In the past, Sherald has chosen her subjects for their ineffable “quality of existing in the past, present, and future simultaneously,” her gallerist Monique Meloche has said; it is true that, before one of Sherald’s figures, you think not about the passage of time or the oppressive reach of the state. Instead, these paintings make the viewer speculate about the quieter wants and wishes of the black common men and women who have emerged on the linen en grisaille—Sherald’s taupe variant of grayscale—like ghosts.
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