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American Presidents in Art
Artstyle 12 Oct 2020

American Presidents in Art

Highly publicized global figures since the dawn of media power in the 1960s, U.S. presidents have always aroused the world’s curiosity. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, these faces of presidents past and present are represented abundantly in contemporary art. Whether in paintings, sculptures or photography, there are many artists who bounce between art and politics, taking pleasure in magnifying, caricaturing and representing icons of the political scene. On the occasion of the 59th American presidential election which will take place on November 3, 2020, Artsper offers a modern approach to these American presidents, depicted through 10 contemporary works of art.

Shepard Fairey (Obey) – Obama Vote signed

When thinking about contemporary art and politics, Shepard Fairey, better known under the nickname OBEY, instinctively comes in mind. A highly influential and politically active artist, Shepard Fairey actively supported the candidacy of Barack Obama during the presidential campaign that saw him up against Republican John McCain. He produced this well-known portrait in 2008 along with his other iconic creations: Hope, Yes we did and Change. Shepard Fairey’s viral silkscreens in favor of Obama are recognized as playing a key role in the popularization of the president. They also helped spread a favorable image of the Democratic candidate, who later became the first African-American president of the United States.

In this work, Shepard Fairey’s artistic touch can be recognized from miles away from just a single glance! Particularly iconic is his graphic style and a color palette limited to the patriotic shades of red, white and blue. We are faced with a smiling and hopeful candidate. Shepard Fairey shows Barack Obama as a man who is not afraid to face change, looking to progress American society.

Cleon Peterson – Useless Idiot Red

Useless Idiot, these are the two adjectives at the heart of the portrait Cleon Peterson offers us of Donald Trump with this tricolor silkscreen. The originality of this work lies in its representation of Trump’s profile, which is like the paintings of Egypt or ancient Greece.

Viewers are facing a giant man, hungry for power and money, wearing a businessman’s suit. The gaze towards the sky and the head in the clouds creates the idea of an aloof character. Cleon Peterson’s president uses two symbols to encapsulate the essence of this country on his right shoulder: the cross and the scales of justice. Lost in his frenzy, he seems to have reached the end of his insatiable ascent. The right foot slipping into the void makes the building on which he is standing crumble. Is this an allegory of his country, the United States?

Mr. Brainwash – President’s Day Bandanna Edition

On the occasion of President’s Day, Mr. Brainwash shares an unusual portrait of President George Washington, the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797. President’s Day, a national holiday in the United States, is celebrated on the third Monday of February. It commemorates the various presidents of the United States and is considered officially as Washington’s Birthday. 

Here the artist amuses himself by hijacking an almost sacred emblem with fantasy and humor. This work originally belonged to a larger print composed of three other images. All depicting the President dressed in more eccentric outfits than the next. In this individual silkscreen print on paper, Mr. Brainwash features the illustrious George Washington casually wearing a bandana!

Onemizer – Le Mont Rushmore et les Présidents

Through this painting, Onemizer revisits none other than the most revered mausoleum in the history of America! Here you will recognize the National Memorial, located in South Dakota, in the heart of the Black Hills mountain range. It has been an untouchable monument since its creation in October 1927. The artist therefore questions the durability of an “outdated” representation and the glorification of these four American political figures. From left to right: George Washington, 1st president of the United States, from 1789 to 1797; Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president, from 1801 to 1809; Theodor Roosevelt, 26th president, from 1901 to 1909; Abraham Lincoln, 16th president, from 1861 to 1865. 

The work is the symbol of this overflowing youth that wants to take the reins of a stagnant world. With large strokes of spray paint, acrylic and felt pen, the street art spirit invades the stoney faces. Graffiti, brightly colored “drips” and this exaggeration of modernity lining the rock, intensify the divide between the historical past and present that is constantly moving forwards. The effect is a visual impact due to the clashing colors that makes this canvas so striking and intriguing.

Shepard Fairey (Obey) – Lesser Gods Nixon

In this silkscreen, Shepard Fairey denounces the lies and corruption within American society. The title, Lesser Gods Nixon, echoes the famous slogan In God we trust, found on the back of every American dollar. A paradoxical slogan for a country whose Constitution advocates the separation of church and state! The artist calls out the links between economic wealth and political power. This work reads like a satire, a revisited and derived copy of the American dollar bill, symbol of American power. The front, originally bearing the portrait of former U.S. president George Washington, now features the figure of the widely controversial president, Nixon. Fairey denounces a society in which economics and politics are intertwined, to the point where the figure of the political leader appears on each bill, a characteristic element, according to him, of totalitarianism. 

By observing this work with attention, you will notice certain codes that Shepard recurrently camouflages in several of his creations. For example, the icon of the Obedience Star and the words “OBEY”, respectively located behind and below Nixon’s face. Shepard invites us to remain vigilant and alert.

Thomas Dellert – The American Dream Couple

Thomas Dellert-Bergh also known as Thomas Dellacroix is a contemporary art photographer known for his provocative and often satirical tone. The American Dream Couple paints an unflattering portrait of American society during President Kennedy’s term in office. Marilyn Monroe takes the place of Jackie Kennedy, the iconic First Lady of the early 1960s. Carried in particular by the famous and very allusive “Happy birthday mister President”, the affair between John F. Kennedy and this Hollywood star was known throughout America. But it was kept secret to maintain patriotism!

It is a false America. Full of betrayal that the artist denounces here under this masquerade of colors and this superimposition of collages. The bright pink slogan “VOTE FOR AMERICA” jumps out at us. It seems to incite the people to bend to the orders of a government that lies openly to them, to keep up the appearance of a fantastical “American Dream”.

Chris Britz – Obama

Committed American painter and political artist, Chris Britz expresses himself through abstract illusionism and portraits of famous political figures. This watercolor was produced in 2008, the year that marks the opening of the mandate of Democratic President Obama. Britz focuses his work on the representation of icons in media. Through his art, he celebrates the images of celebrities revered and shaped by newspapers, television and American radio. The sparkling white smile almost dazzles us. The work is covered and stamped all over with the name of the president, almost becoming an advertising slogan detracting from its meaning. In the end, the subject of the work, though central, gradually disappears. A metaphor for the way Obama finds himself erased by his constant over-mediatization and media overexposure.

Shepard Fairey (Obey) – Demagogue

Great admirer of British rock band Franz Ferdinand, Shepard met them at a concert in Los Angeles and expressed the desire to collaborate with them if the opportunity arose. His work Demagogue is the result. In 2016, the presidential campaign, in which Clinton and Trump were facing each other, was in full swing. It was at this time that the singer of the group, Alex Kapranos, contacted Shepard. He then informed him of his willingness to collaborate with him around the creation of the visual of their very first politically themed song, namely the song Demagogue. Demagogy is any authority exercised by one or more people, most often using a flattering speech that stirs up passions.

Shepard was inspired by the legendary work of George Orwell, 1984. A dystopian reflection of a totalitarian regime drawing from Stalinism and Nazism. Thus, in his work Shepard calls out the madness of a politician who advocates a world in which freedom of expression no longer exists. The artist portrays Trump here as a sociopath; a totalitarian maniac hungry for power. Demagogue shines a light on the frightening rise of this political practice of fear and division at the expense of hopeful and inclusive politics.

Shepard Fairey opposes Trump’s policies and calls on the American people to show their disagreement. He vocalises his belief that this is detrimental for America and the rest of the world, and calls on you to vote and speak out. Every act of moral courage makes a difference. For a total immersion, we invite you to listen to the song while observing the work with attention.

Karl LagasseOne dollar original

Fascinated by the United States, Karl Lagasse is known for his sculptures that revisit the well known symbol of the American economy, the “one-dollar bill”. In 2016, during the Art Paris Art Fair, the French sculptor exhibited his star piece: a 2-meter long One Dollar at the Grand Palais. He was even congratulated in person by the President of the French Republic for the success and quality of his work. 

When he is creating, Lagasse is led by his emotions. It is only once he completes his creation, that he deciphers and analyzes it. The artist’s work is a personal, spontaneous and original visual translation of this very allegory of American society. Therefore, on the front of each American banknote, the former American president George Washington appears. A president frozen in time, who 300 years later still embodies the epicenter of today’s economic and political scene. The static, even dusty portrait of the president contrasts with the dynamic movement that the artist confers on the banknote. Moreover, through the use of aluminum (a modern, malleable and silvery metal), the artist comes to suggest this schism between past and present.

Bambi Artist – Lie Lie Land

Nicknamed “the female Banksy”, Bambi is the pseudonym of one of Britain’s most famous street artists. Here she offers us a parody street art version of the film La La Land which received several awards at the Golden Globes. This almost burlesque representation appeared for the first time on the wall of a street in Islington in the north of London. Here she chose to immortalize the film’s iconic jazzy dance scene, swapping Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for the Trump-May duo.

Indeed, we recognize the American president Donald Trump dancing with Theresa May, leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2016 to 2019. The artist seeks to draw a parallel between the lightness that escapes from this dance in the film, and the complex and disturbing political context of the era in which it came out. She replaced the original figures with these two political stars, whose presence was constantly in the headlines of the London tabloids.

Between caricature and cult, the representations of presidents in contemporary art are manifestations of mixed messages. Traditional or more original mediums? Figurative or subjective representation? These once untouchable and highly glorified heads of state have today become subjects of controversy, inspiring street artists, sculptors and painters from all over the world.