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Power has many white, male faces: Andy Warhol’s Vote McGovern.

Hail to the Chief

 

By Nadine Wasserman

Mr. President

University Art Museum, through April 1

When George Washington took office as the first president of the newly independent nation, he began his inaugural address to congress by stating: “Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order.” Despite his trepidation, he was committed to the success of the American experiment and established a precedent for the office for which he was elected. In the 218 years since, the nation has seen a total of 43 presidents, each bringing to the office a different tenor and style and a new interpretation of the job. At a moment when one former president has just died, the current president’s approval rating is at a new low, and the next set of candidates are beginning to gear up for the 2008 election, the exhibition Mr. President at the University Art Museum couldn’t be more timely.

Mr. President includes the work of more than 30 artists who have each taken a different approach to presidential portraiture. Most of the works included are recent, but there are some gems from the 1970s. One is a classic Day-Glo Andy Warhol portrait of Richard Nixon titled Vote McGovern. The other is Robert Colescott’s signature piece George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook. It’s a real treat to see this often-reproduced painting in person since it is, in fact, part of a private collection. The piece is a parody of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware. In Colescott’s version, which is simultaneously funny and scathing, the heroic figures are replaced by black caricatures as commentary on American racism. It was painted in 1975 as a bicentennial statement, but it’s no less pertinent today, as African Americans are still marginalized in politics and in the study of the history of our country.

A more contemporary take on politics and race is Dave McKenzie’s We Shall Overcome from 2004. In this video, the artist, who is Jamaican, strolls down 125th Street in Harlem sporting a suit and a Bill Clinton mask. Ultimately, the video exposes the emptiness of Clinton’s gesture in setting up office in Harlem. The soundtrack, which plays a version of the title song, is both hopeful and suggestive of many broken promises. There are other works that deal with race, such as Kerry James Marshall’s Momento, which references Kennedy and the civil-rights movement, and Justin Richel’s two paintings, both called Black Abe, which reference Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. As the prospect of a black president seems ever more probable, these pieces are important inclusions.

While several of the works in the show use traditional portraiture to explore a particular medium or style, such as Martin Schoeller’s chromogenic print of Bill Clinton, or Chuck Close’s giclée print of the same, or Robert Terry’s multicolored impasto portraits of Lincoln, the majority of works are satirical and iconoclastic. What better way to celebrate our civil liberties than to mock the most powerful figure in the world? Perhaps the most outrageously funny piece in the show is Rachel Mason’s Kissing President Bush. In this piece the artist depicts herself and the current president a moment before a passionate kiss. Made of plaster, the two figures are presented from the shoulders up in colossal proportions. The piece clearly makes reference to the intoxicating effects of power and the dynamic that often plays out between women and powerful men.

Other works in the exhibition also toy with the erotic nature of power and politics. Geoffrey Chadsey’s Sweet George depicts the current president as a pretty young man with long hair flowing suggestively around his body, which is clothed only in a tight red, white and blue Speedo. Yasser Aggour’s George and Abe has two nude figures, a female wearing a Washington mask and a male wearing a Lincoln mask, clinging to one another as if they were Adam and Eve about to be thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Aggour seems to be suggesting that with power comes knowledge and with certain knowledge comes shame and vulnerability. Phil Whitman’s very witty miniature diorama, Jimmy Carter Baptizing My Mom, shows Whitman’s mom in an ecstatic pose seated next to Carter, who holds his upturned palm above her head. The two figures are seated on the grass surrounded by tools. Presumably they are at a Habitat for Humanity worksite. There is a water-filled wheelbarrow beside them, which most likely is serving as the baptismal, and behind them and out of their view is a figure, probably the artist, secretly photographing the intimate event on his cell phone.

Other works are irreverent while also paying respect to the presidency. Andrew Lenaghan’s huge portrait of George W. Bush has him in aviator glasses with a look of intensity on his face that is enhanced by an acid-green background. The artist presents him as both prominent and foolish. Greta Pratt’s photographs are both homage and a bit comedic. Nine Lincolns depicts a group of men each dressed as Lincoln. While each man differs in physical appearance, one gets a sense that they are all devoted to the legacy and history of the great man. Similarly, the reenactors depicted in her Washington Crossing the Delaware exhibit a gravity of purpose as they march across a bridge that clearly was not there in Washington’s day. Jeffrey Vallance’s Richard M. Nixon is a full-sized replica of Nixon holding a reel-to-reel tape. The figure appears both tragic and comic as he stands there a little befuddled and deflated, yet fully aware of his importance to history. Jonathan Herder’s History of Executive Hair demonstrates the absurd notion that a president’s hair is as recognizable as his face. Wake Me Up by Diango Hernandez is a series of works that have the artist resting his head on the shoulder of each president since Eisenhower. This intimate gesture suggests a fondness for the presidents while its title suggests that the artist, who is Cuban, is frustrated and exhausted by the continuing embargo and by the animosity between the two nations.

Overall, the exhibition presents a wide variety of works that speak to the many and varied interpretations of the role of president. One gets the sense that the exhibition could have been much bigger, given the subject matter, and that the curators had a hard time narrowing it down.


PERIPHERAL VISION

-no peripheral vision this week-

 



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