- Courtesy National Portrait Gallery
The Portrait Gallery heralded the acquisition of their first Michelle Obama portrait in their “Americans Now” show, which opened Friday. But really, this Mickalene Thomas print is the first official selection for a portrait of the first lady? It’s a rather mediocre take on Andy Warhol’s prints of Jackie O. That’s what Thomas was going for, of course, in naming the portrait “Michelle O,” but let’s not fool ourselves: She’s replicated an outmoded style that is now regularly achieved with a Photoshop filter. Utilizing the imagery of pop art and advertising, with cheery, simplified colors, the image also shows shades of Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama, which hangs a few feet away. It is altogether devoid of originality.
“Michelle O” might have fared better if Thomas had maintained her usual style of painting, which entails rhinestones, acrylic and enamel. Her other paintings of strong black women are a little sexier and sassier. Perhaps out of respect for Obama’s position, she chose to keep it simple, effectively neutering the portrayal. And while comparing Obama to Jackie O has become a favorite pastime of fashion critics in this administration, doesn’t the first lady deserve to have a portrait in her own image and style, rather than a rerun image of one of her predecessors?
There are several options that could have been more suitable. First up: Annie Liebowitz’s portrait of Obama for Vogue. The Portrait Gallery frequently exhibits work from magazine photographers and advertisements (several of which are in the “Americans Now” exhibit), and Liebowitz’s image shows Obama in silhouette looking both regal and demure. The pose is not Kennedy’s - it is all her own.
And since the Portrait Gallery also culls illustrations from media (Wall Street Journal hedcuts are included in the exhibition), artists from the New Yorker provide fodder for a more enticing portrait of Obama. The March 16, 2009 cover of the New Yorker, by French Illustrator Floc’h depicts her as three models on the runway. It’s a good portrait because it is accurate - Obama’s legacy will certainly reflect her making the White House once again a place for fashion - but also because it comes with a bite of criticism for what some consider to be her frivolity.
Finally, the portrait gallery could choose to honor a local artist who’s painted a portrait of Obama - our own Lisa Marie Thalhammer, whose image of Obama was exhibited in the 2009 Manifest Hope show organized by Shepard Fairey. I interviewed Thalhammer at the time, and she said that she chose to depict the first lady in the Barack-heavy show because she looks up to her, and felt she needed to shine. Her portrait of Obama is casual and natural: The first lady in a moment of imperfection, her face wrinkled in a smile. Certainly there are other deserving portraits that I have neglected, and would love to hear about in the comments.