Art We Can Believe In 

The Obama Campaign Recognized The Power Of Images


The phenomenon can be seen on Flickr, Photobucket and other websites that document street art, not to mention the campaign's Manifest Hope: DC Gallery in Georgetown. The candidate's visage and name were represented in myriad ways, from every kind of paint and ink to innovative media like Michael Murphy's bent wire sculpture seen recently in Columbus, to Michael Leavitt's portrait of the candidate in marshmallow, "Peeps."

Obamaartreport.com has one of those distressed, propaganda-informed works, "Announcing Hope Again," by an artist who shows occasionally in Cleveland, Bask. Artofobama.com has the president's face in brown coffee lines atop the foamy milk of a cappuccino. It's very hard to imagine that any previous president entered office with so many portraits already painted, sculpted, printed or brewed.

Most intriguing, in a grassroots-support kind of way, are the taggers and painters of the graffiti culture. Their currency is their own names, but they spent it on someone else, a candidate they felt they could believe in. Unsanctioned, uncompensated, in some cases illegally, a whole bunch of them took it upon themselves to spread the word.

The best known image - Shepard Fairey's screenprinted portrait, the one you've seen taped up in shop windows and wheat-pasted to the plywood walls around construction sites, the one that promises "HOPE" in red white and blue - was acquired last week by the National Portrait Gallery. Fairey made that image on his own initiative but was subsequently asked by the campaign to produce others with the words "VOTE" and "CHANGE." Heather and Tony Podesta, art collectors in Washington, bought the larger-than-life original silkscreen and mixed-media piece for an undisclosed sum and donated it. Gallery director Martin E. Sullivan called it "an emblem of a significant election, as well as a new presidency." They'll have it on view before the inauguration.

That a street artist, no matter how broadly known, should see his broadside take a place in the National Portrait Gallery makes the ears perk up. And how much impact did that picture have on the election? Clearly people embraced Obama's message and made their choices for much more profound reasons, but it's also true that the McCain campaign had absolutely nothing that looked as good as that portrait of that face above the word "hope." The iconic image has a lot in common with the same artist's Andre the Giant OBEY posters and stickers, which proliferated in the skateboard scene. The poster spills over with symbolic resonance for that reason, and because of its silkscreened "people's art" aesthetic, reminiscent of the WPA - a three-color job, simply and cleanly shaded, a view that appreciates the sharp lines of the candidate's face.

Cleveland-connected artists have not only ridden the Obama art wave, but played significant parts in it. First came a couple of journalistic treatments. Dana Schutz, the youthful star of the New York art scene who studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art, portrayed the candidate in oil for the cover of The New Republic (March 2007). Ben Blount, the former director of continuing education at the Cleveland Institute of Art, juxtaposed a striking relief print of Obama's face with things people said about him during the campaign in his provocative handmade book, Head Nigger in Charge. It includes Joe Biden's description of "the first African-American presidential candidate who is articulate and bright and clean-cut and a nice-looking guy," among other standout expressions of cultural difference. The title is a term for a person who's in charge, but not of much. Head Nigger in Charge was not so much about the man but about the nation's response to him.

Before long, artists were actively recruited by the campaign. Among those asked to submit poster designs was Clevelander Derek Hess who, like Fairey, came from the street-art scene, designing flyers for bands playing at the Euclid Tavern in the '90s. Hess took one of the covers he's done for Marvel Comics' Captain America series - a muscular male figure, one fist raised, its angles defined by thin, high-intensity slashes - then removed the superhero's shield and added a cloud of red, white and blue curlicues and stripes for the figure to rise from. The word "change" underlines the image. Hess says the campaign told him it was too aggressive though, and so they didn't print it. He did and is distributing free copies with his book, Please God Save Us (strhesspress.com).

The campaign's Manifest Hope: DC Gallery partnered with MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union and Shepard Fairey to celebrate the fact that "art plays a pivotal role in creating cultural momentum." A general call to artists produced more than 1,000 submissions. Among those specifically invited to show work there are Clevelander Cathie Bleck (who coincidentally also made illustrations for John McCain's book, Character Is Destiny). The gallery's scouts saw her kaolin scratchboard piece "Unlimited Love" online, and the California collector who owns the original agreed to lend it. It's a striking swirl of black and white; at its center a woman holds a four-spoked wheel. Sitting safely atop the wheel are mothers with children, and reaching down the sides from their safe positions are strong men and women, striving to pull more strong men and women out of the abyss below. It's both symbolically and graphically powerful, and just the sort of thing the Obama campaign was looking for. She made 20 prints, which the gallery has been selling.

The president-elect has plenty more to worry about than how his administration will treat the art world. But after his inauguration, he also has the opportunity to continue what his campaign has begun - motivating people by involving artists in the dissemination of his message. He will make tone-setting appointments, including the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts. He and Joe Biden support increased arts funding, and the campaign offered hints of an "artist corps" to work in communities and schools; an emphasis on arts in education; and even health care for artists. Whatever investment the new president makes in artists, the grassroots support they've already given ought to send a message to the rest of the country about the power of art to motivate change.

More by Michael Gill


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