Former U.S. President Barack Obama joked about his ears and grey hair and praised his wife Michelle Obama's "hotness" at the unveiling of the couple's official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Portraits can also be entirely conceptual, but the process whereby the National Portrait Gallery commissions presidential portraits is structured to prevent anything too radical emerging from the artist.
The paintings were revealed Monday at the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums. It was a unusual enough for a presidential portrait that even CNN declared it to be a portrait of "the lonely president".
Other people chose to poke fun of the lush background of the portrait. "You exist in our minds and our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you", Sherald said.
"I'm also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color". Her paintings have less realism and focus on shape and color.
The challenge, then, for Wiley - and for Sherald - was that neither subject was ordinary.
To place the pieces in their artistic and political context, I spoke to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture.
Kehinde Wiley is a NY native recognized for his depictions of young African American men with urban vogue appeal. She's seated in a pensive pose against a background of powder blue, and the painting is very clearly not meant to be photorealistic. Nor does Sherald, who often depicts her subjects with some curiously evocative object (a bunch of balloons or a model ship) that creates a dreamlike atmosphere, emphasize the phantasmagorical in her portrait of Michelle Obama.
Valerie Mercer, curator of African American art at the DIA says she isn't concerned with the facial detail on Sherald's painting because art is about an artist's impression of reality.
While some critics complimented Sherald's signature style, which included her trademark "grayscale", others thought Obama's floor-length dress, which was reminiscent of the quilts made by a black community in Alabama, was distracting, or worse - that the former first lady's portrait looked nothing like her.
"What we're positing here is a new vision of the possible", Wiley says,"one which is inclusive, one that says yes to people who happen to look like me and one that will increasingly catch fire as we go on to inspire young people to imagine new possibilities".
If anyone was in doubt about Obama's extreme political leanings before, hopefully his choice of Wiley to paint his official portrait clarifies the matter for good.