by Philip Fletcher Payan
Last week, I was making lunch when the news program cut over to the unveiling of the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. I'd just been talking about portraits the other day with Eva Avenue as we wrapped up our talk about her new project - The Sweetwater Morning Monthly Florida Coffee Zine. She'd mentioned she was working on a portrait of a St. Pete artist and here I was watching a breaking-news portrait unveiling. Struck by the timing, I was so caught up in the perfect Baader-Meinhof phenomenon that I never formed a real opinion on the latest additions to the National Gallery and I simply didn’t know enough about portraits to do much more than nod and utter an approving, “Hmmm.”
I knew who could give me some insight. I asked Eva Avenue if she’d talk about the recent unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery. Lucky for me she was free, with trademark enthusiasm.
Philip Fletcher Payan: I think I like the portraits, but I'm not sure. What do you think?
Eva Avenue: Outside of politics, as people, I think Barack and Michelle are just really cool. So when I saw that Kehinde Wiley was doing Barack’s portrait, besides it being an obvious choice for a black man seeking the perfect painter for his regal portrait, I was like, “That’s so current of Obama to pick this guy.”
I had seen Wiley’s work at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. years ago. It's so big and so magical and majestic and insane. It is just next level.
Honestly, I always wanted to paint Obama’s portrait. I was like, “How do I get to be the one who paints Barrack’s portrait?” He was leaving office and all they had was that photo and I wondered are they not doing the portrait? Helloooo? Is it just going to be a photo? Then they announced Kehinde Wiley and I was like, damn it! Too late! But then I said, “Oh, of course!”
I’ve heard some people going on about the background of Barack’s portrait. Could you share your thoughts on that?
Here is what I think about that. I mean, have you looked at Wiley’s other work?
No. I haven’t.
Oh my God! Well here is the thing, let me just tell you, he makes these beautiful wallpapers. These rich backgrounds; succulent, opulent, larger-than-life, just beautiful designs. Very colorful. The background of leaves is in keeping with his style.
I don’t know how objective this is but, when you see a really strong piece of artwork there is, like, this sensation you get in your body. It’s a physical sensation. The artist brings some sort of spirit to it. Like when the artist is infusing this pigment on a canvas but you feel like the sum is greater than the whole. That is is more than just pigment and oil.
I can't believe you just described paintings like that! That's how I described seeing the Taj Mahal! I'm jealous you get that feeling from paintings. That’s amazing.
However, when I looked at that painting, it was dead. I was not turned on. There was not that feeling. Wiley did not apply that feeling he usually puts in there. He has his wall of leaves. There is no openness. The was no opening. He didn’t create any air or flow. Barack is totally swallowed, and all of Wiley's other paintings breathe a lot better.
My brother sent me something. I was like did someone make this or was it from an actual thing? What is this? It’s this picture where half the Obama portrait is outlined like paint by numbers to highlight where the leaf pattern has been repeated.
So, it’s like he built in photoshop and then… painted it. There is this idea that, like, when this person was brought in to paint the most esteemed goddamn man in the nation he couldn’t pull it together? Which is kinda what I am wondering about Amy Sherald?
I mean, if it's not your strongest suit to paint people, but you're going to paint the First Lady, can you take a refresher portrait class? You’re going to paint the president's wife. I mean, it’s not that it didn’t just look like her but there was a line that cut halfway up her face, under her nose, that went around, that went up her face. I was just like, “Dude! Wha-?”
I get it. You can say that, “This is my style,” but sometimes people will use a style to cover up they lack a certain ability. And it’s like, can you just pull it together for this one lady? Can we not use this as an opportunity to argue about what constitutes a successful portrait? It’s so maddening.
Wow. Really? I had no idea it was getting this level of reaction.
Listen, I know there are no standards and everything is postmodern but please. It's like, when you paint the portrait - you’re capturing the person. You’re elevating them. It is why someone has got a sculpture of themselves on a horse in the park.
I am getting a better understanding of why I wasn’t blown away when I saw them on TV.
I was so excited to see their work! I was number one rooting for it. Like, fuck yeah, they are so ahead of it. The Obamas are picking real artists.
Then I saw this post of the past presidential portraits. Which, however stodgy and stuck-in-the-office, they’re open. You know, the person is in a space and there is this sort of elevation. I know they are trying to make Obama look worldly and casual, maybe? And still elevate him? It doesn't work. I don’t know what he was going for.
When you see it in context next to those others he really looks swallowed up. The lighting looks like a washed out photo almost. Wiley painted it well but I am really wondering if he outsourced it. And I am like, why would you outsource a job like this unless you’re not painting your own work or something?
What? You can do that? I did not know that was even a thing.
So, apparently he does send some of his stuff to China to get painted. A lot of artists who work on a big scale do that. Literally, they don’t have the time or the physical space to do that. It’s just too much. You just need assistants. And some artists, yes, once they have got their designs down will just outsource it to China. But I'm not saying he did this for this portrait.
It just doesn’t make any sense. Something about this doesn’t make sense to me.
Looking at Wiley’s previous work and then this, I’m just like, there is no way. There is just no way. You get better over time not worse. They weren’t wrong for picking the artists they picked based on what they saw. Based on what they might have expected out of it.
I feel like people are coming up with a justification of how to appreciate it or they really don’t know.
Also, one of my best friends - she works at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens. Do you know the Magic Gardens?
No. I don’t.
It’s the crown jewel of South Street. It's this building that in the '70's this folk artist bought up and just started on. You know in old Europe how they cement broken wine bottle shards up on the castle walls? Well ,he just stuck all this shit in there and it's like tiles and faces and spoons. It’s all patterned and paint and color. It’s like a casual maze and there are mirrors everywhere and you just go explore this building and explore the outside.
So, my friend works there and she said that everyone there was freaking out over how great this portrait was. She felt alone and didn't want to say anything and get made fun of. On that first night we saw this, I texted her at like ten-thirty at night saying 'We need to talk about these portraits.' We went on for like twenty-four minutes. That was our phone call! Twenty-four minutes of us going “What the hell?!”
I know we're all going to die in a big heat burst in the end and nothing matters but right now on Earth this matters to me! I just want to have some nice portraits of our former president. Hahaha!
Sounds like you’re a bit of a nihilist? Good to know.
I’m an optimistic nihilist. I am a rose-colored nihilist. Ha!
With all this talk of portraits, didn’t you say you were working on one?
Yeah, I am painting one of those muralists I mentioned to you. I worked on it just last night. If you want, we can talk about that another time.
To be continued....