Yes We Can Art
The Nervous, Worshiping Iconography of Candidate Obama
Barack Obama is visual culture's number-one subject right now. Combining fine art, street art, and folk art— YouTube seems as good a folk medium as any—the output is unprecedented: There has never been this much art made about a presidential candidate.
One artist has set up a website called Obama Art Report to track it. A Flickr set of Obama street art has 479 items and counting, including political cartoons, stencils, and stickers galore; a watch with Obama in the role of Rosie the Riveter; a portrait of the worldly candidate made entirely of world maps; photographs of Obama images printed large and laid in a grid on a public lawn like the AIDS quilt; and layered prints reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg's 1960s-era mashups. At Comic-Con in San Diego recently, comic-book artist Alex Ross unveiled his Superman Obama print, which looks just like a velvet painting. Barry Blitt tried out a limp Obama satire on the July 21 New Yorker cover, featuring Barack and Michelle Obama dressed as terrorists, doing the infamous fist bump. It quickly became a meme, generating dozens of knockoffs, like Obama's charismatic dances on Ellen, or his behind-the-back basketball dribble, which was the climax of last week's YouTube mashup featuring the new Ludacris song "Obama Is Here."
Chicago artist Ray Noland has been making Obama art since 2006, but the current explosion really kicked off in February, with Shepard Fairey's blocky, graphic view of Obama's face—depicted in red and slate blue, gazing into the future, above the word "PROGRESS" (or "HOPE," or "CHANGE"). A stencil collage version of the print commanded a high price in a benefit auction a few weeks ago at Russell Simmons's house in East Hampton: $108,000. That was a few days after the Wall Street Journal reported that 889 Obama-related art items had sold on eBay since mid-May with an average selling price of $127. Six pieces of McCain art went on eBay, for an average price of $57.
Fairey's image is interesting largely because it has attracted such a following—especially given its vaguely totalitarian propaganda style. Much better for prolonged looking is Ron English's recent Abraham Obama, a merging of Obama's and Lincoln's faces that sold out online as a limited-edition print for $200 on www.upperplayground.com. (Fine-art auction house Bonhams will sell one of the prints in the fall, with a presale estimate of $2,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.)
Upper Playground is a streetwear retailer in San Francisco that has a gallery; the gallery has commissioned several Obama prints, and English made this one in June not by digitally superimposing the two men's faces but by overlaying them freehand in paint. For a recent gallery opening in Boston, English created a 100-foot Abraham Obama mural and the gallery handed out copies of the image for free. Before long, the city was so covered with it—it had been plastered everywhere, including on homes—that the gallery put out a statement asking Obama supporters to stop.
Abraham Obama is coming to Seattle as part of a West Coast tour. In September, a giant mural of it will grace the exterior of the Belltown building that houses BLVD Gallery and Roq la Rue. BLVD owner Damian Hayes says he supports the candidate, but he questions why so many artists are making these. "I don't know if I'm being cynical, but sometimes it feels as though some artists are capitalizing," he said. "I mean, it always works to go with the winner."
Hayes sees Abraham Obama as "creepy." It is, in part because it leaves the impossible impression that Obama's and Lincoln's faces are actually similar. Obama is perhaps the best-looking man ever to run for president; the Ichabod Crane–ish Lincoln wouldn't even place. Obama said as much himself last week when he reminded a crowd of the obvious, powerful truth: "'He doesn't look like those other presidents on the dollar bills'"—including Lincoln, on the five.
The precedent for Abraham Obama in fine art is dark: Nancy Burson's 1983 digital composite photograph of the faces of Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Hitler, and Khomeini. As in Abraham Obama, what makes Burson's image unsettling is that in a single visage you can see more than one face. They emerge as you pick each of them out, then they retreat back into Burson's grotesque, black-eyed mask. Abraham Obama is warmer—it's meant to support a candidate still running and still vulnerable, after all—but by making such a grand claim for Obama, it plays into the hands of Obama critics. (There's a whole series of YouTube videos comparing archival footage of Hitler's supporters to contemporary Obamania.) It also triggers a fear of Obama supporters—that he can't possibly be as great as he seems.
There is no Obama art yet that rises to the level of the best political, or even presidential, art. Nothing like Andy Warhol's pitch- perfect green-faced Nixon with the words "Vote McGovern" scrawled along the bottom in 1972. Or Robert Colescott's 1975 fearless blackface version of the 1851 history painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware. Or even the 2003 video We Shall Overcome, of artist Dave McKenzie wearing a Clinton mask and pressing flesh on the streets of Harlem, where past president Clinton—"the first black president," right?—had rented an office.
Right now, art is being made for Obama. Eventually, it will be made about him. It's begun with a tiny, unimpressive trickle. This spring, a New York artist named Yazmany Arboleda played (and preyed) on fears in a show he called The Assassination of Hillary Clinton/The Assassination of Barack Obama. He mounted it in a vacant storefront and said it was intended to examine the media's character assassination of the candidates. He was rewarded with a visit from the Secret Service and later responded by parading a giant black penis along New York streets, followed by a sign that said "Once you go Barack." The penis piece had been in the show, which was shut down by the Secret Service and NYPD; now, the performance is on YouTube.
For his senior project last spring, David Cordero, a student at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, made Blessing, a full-size sculpture of Obama as a smiling Christ, with a blue neon halo over his head. The awkwardly executed face and hands were just barely recognizable, but the Obama-as-savior theme was plain. "It could be dangerous, I think, to assign all these expectations to one person," Cordero told reporters. His testimony underscores art's willful divorce from its age-old flame, iconography—and it's not coincidental that the fall of iconography in art coincides with the rise of the image- controlling totalitarian leader. The fall of iconography in Obama art will coincide with his election or defeat. Come November, he'll become a real, sturdy subject for art.