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Museums in Detroit and D.C. display Obama-themed art

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the National Portrait Gallery exhibit decorated busts and a pair of portraits, respectively.

January 19, 2013|By Liesl Bradner
  • This portrait of President Obama by Chuck Close is a 95-inch-by-73-inch woven Jacquard tapestry.
This portrait of President Obama by Chuck Close is a 95-inch-by-73-inch… (Chuck Close, On loan to the…)

As the nation watches President Obama take the oath of office Monday for his second term, Americans may notice a more mature (and grayer) version of the hopeful candidate depicted in Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous 2008 campaign poster.

Since then, Obama's likeness has been cartooned, lampooned and masterfully crafted by artists of varying inclinations. Although the official presidential portrait will not be revealed until the end of his second term, some interesting interpretations are already on view.

"Visions of Our 44th President," an exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, showcases 44 busts of the president interpreted and designed by 44 contemporary African American artists including Faith Ringgold and Tyree Guyton. Designs are as varied as stained glass, a half-zebra, half-lion mask-like painting and one with his words written around his face.

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"I wanted to honor, celebrate and expand on the historical importance of Obama's election," said curator Peter Kaplan, founder of Our World LLC, a design and marketing company, who collaborated with the museum on the exhibition. The impetus of the project began in 2008 while Kaplan was working with Santa Barbara scratchboard artist Antar Dayal, who contributed artwork for the 2008 campaign.

"I think the biggest challenge for many of the artists was going from a two-dimensional canvas to a three-dimensional form," said Kaplan. Each artist was presented with a blank white cast resin bust of the president designed by Santa Fe artist Matthew Gonzales.

"I wanted to do something about the progress and events of this country legislatively that made Obama's election possible," said Woodland Hills-based collage artist Phoebe Beasley. Crafted on the bust are newspaper clippings and paintings reflecting Rep. Shirley Chisholm's (D-N.Y.) 1972 run for president and Thurgood Marshall's role in 1954's Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation ruling.

Los Angeles-based artist and illustrator Kadir Nelson was keen to share the company of fellow artists Barkley L. Hendricks and Charly Palmer. Nelson's piece features a black and blue celestial sky painted across Obama's face and head atop a gold base. "One of the things I enjoyed about Obama's message was that it was universal and painting the cosmos depicts him in a universal way," said Nelson.

The show runs through Aug. 14. The busts will eventually become part of the museum's permanent collection.

A little closer to the festivities, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is displaying two side-by-side tapestries of the president by leading portrait artist Chuck Close. The 95-inch-by-73-inch woven Jacquard tapestries, on loan from Democratic power couple Ian and Annette Cumming of Jackson, Wyo., reveal a serious side and a smiling version.

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Close, who has photographed Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton for fundraisers, had been offering to paint Obama's portrait since 2008 but to no avail. Finally, he got the call early last summer for that elusive sitting. He was given 10 minutes in a small room at the Jefferson Hotel in D.C..

There was barely enough room for Close (who is confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed in 1988 from a seizure), his assistants and a massive camera. "It was like pushing a VW [Volkswagen] into a very small space," said the 72-year-old artist, referring to the 235-pound camera that makes instant 20x24-inch photographs on Polacolor film.

The two bonded after Close shared his experience photographing the Dalai Lama and the president ending up staying for an hour and a half. "The president said to me, 'My friends just call me Barack.' I didn't know if I could do that so I just didn't call him anything," said Close.

"These guys kept coming in telling him it was time to go to the White House, and he kept sending them away," recalled Close. "He said there was a picnic for Congress at the White House and he wasn't in any rush to get back and mingle with the people who had tried to destroy him."

From that sitting Close created 10 tapestries and reproduced watercolor portraits in multiple sizes signed by the president and himself. They were unveiled at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., during the Democratic National Convention. Proceeds from a subsequent auction went to the Obama Victory Fund.

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