Crowds around Barack Obama painting

Trying to understand contemporary art: painting today

Or #thedogdidnoteatmyhomework

Some of you will know that contemporary art always plays a big part in my Fiskfest birthday celebrations.

Some of you will also know that for my birthday this year I was given the great present of a six week evening course at The Barbican in London, run by Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Some of you will already know about the life-changing effects of the course.

Ahead of the final week’s course we were tasked with giving our take on what had stayed with us from throughout the class.

Here, for your delectation and delight, is my homework:

Barack Obama painting
This portrait of Barack Obama is near lifesize, and painted by Kehinde Wiley (“President Obama in portrait” by afagen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Crowds around Barack Obama painting
The Barack Obama painting is very popular whenever it is on display in galleries (“Crowds around Obama” by afagen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Eyes are supposedly the windows to the soul but what if, in the art world, it is actually the hands? (Not the hands of the artist but the hands of the subject) This is a question I’ve been contemplating since seeing Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama in Week 3.

For a president who marketed himself as a man of the people, including playing basketball for the cameras and using Sesame Street’s Big Bird in an attack ad, I think the position of his hands is very telling.

Instead of being the open, warm-hearted president he wants to be remembered as, it seems that with his arms crossed and his hands grasping his elbow and knee, he has closed himself off from the American people. It is almost as if he is saying his time is done and he is wishing Americans luck with their next presidential choice, but making it clear he won’t be there to help when things go wrong.

This is in stark contrast to Junius Brutus Stearns’s work in 1856, depicting the signing of the constitution.

Their similarity lies in them both being completed some time after the political event. But their overall messages are very different.

In Stearns painting George Washington has been put on a pedestal, with a chair not entirely dissimilar to the one in Wiley’s portrait in the background. But the key difference is how he is presenting himself.

Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787 by Julius Stearns
Washington Constitutional Convention 1787 by Julius Stearns (Picture from Wikipedia)
The Barbican
The comtemporary art course is held at the Barbican in London (“barbican” by osde8info is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Instead of gripping himself, like Obama does, in his hands he is grasping the constitution and projecting a message of hope. With the message of hope that Stearns created almost 60 years after Washington left office I’m left wondering what both president and painter would have made of the world we have today.

In this world of conflict and struggle, I’ve also been thinking about how Mohammed Sami and George Shaw use the depictions of barriers in the paintings Refugee Camp and Landscape with Dog Shit Bin to politically-charge their works.

Both have a level of ambiguity, leaving the viewer to question the work and, in doing so, to question themselves, with both moving away from the often-thought idea that the aim of a ‘traditional’ landscape painting is to be pretty.

In Sami’s work it is unclear whether he is in the refugee camp looking out at the wooded scene and longing to be in the wooden building that can be seen in the distance – through the wire fence. Or, alternatively, is he looking through the fence into the refugee camp and longing to be in that place of safety?

Landscape with Dog Shit Bin by George Shaw
Landscape with Dog Shit Bin by George Shaw (Picture from @TateEtcMag Twitter account)
Mohammed Sami - Refugee camp
Refugee Camp by Mohammed Sami (Picture from

For me I think the use of colour, both in the bright blue sky and the light brushstrokes depicting trees and branches, suggest that he is looking in to the refugee camp, and seeing it as a place of safety away from a tortuous regime.

There is also a lack of clarity in Shaw’s work about what exactly the viewer is looking at because (at least in the versions of the painting I have seen online) it is not possible to see what it says on the white sign near the gate.

The woods behind seem to occupy the space of being more of a traditional subject for a landscape painting – with Shaw saying he feels excluded from this space and cannot go through the gate.

Instead, he is left looking on, painting a drab scene but illuminating it with the red of the everyday object of the dog shit bin, and making the greens of the verges much brighter than they would be in real life.

But the white sign might not say something like ‘Private: Keep Out’, it might not be functioning as a barrier, like the fence is in Refugee Camp. It might just be a sign telling people to pick up after their dog, or it could be a community noticeboard.

For whatever reason though Shaw has decided to not inform the viewer and doesn’t go past the gate to paint the woodland. By making this decision he leaves the viewer with a heightened sense of unease.

Stay safe for another week!