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Hail to the Chief! — and other farewell art for our 43rd president

America, you have 122 days of the George W. Bush presidency left in you. And I can see it in your eyes: you’re searching for a way to commemorate.

I’ve figured it out for you: a walking tour that will take us from the front steps of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, through galleries inside, and will end in the gallery of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Not ceremonious enough for you? Call it a parade then—and dress in bright colors. Off we go.

Starting point: The East 24th Street steps of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Why begin at the steps? This tour is about nothing if not the projection of power. And nothing says power like the six pillars at the entrance of the MIA. Plus, if you squint, you can almost imagine yourself at the entrance of the White House itself.

Next stop: The MIA rotunda
Baby steps, friends. We’re stopping just inside the museum for a thought experiment. Close your eyes and ask a companion or a security guard to whisper into your ear: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States!”

Which president emerges from the darkness of your thoughts? I’m putting my money on number 43.

Now open your eyes and walk past the Greek and Roman art; then turn left and pass the art of the Americas; continue into the Photographs gallery and be sure to pause at the mythical beauty of Alec Soth’s “Misty.”

Next stop: “Hail to the Chief: Images of the American presidency”

Enter the Prints & Drawings Gallery. And welcome to the American presidency before George W. Bush.

Delagate pin, Republican National Convention, late 19th century.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Delagate pin, Republican National Convention, late 19th century.

“Hail to the Chief” was an unambiguous attempt to attract Republican National Convention traffic. There’s no shame in pandering if the exhibit is good. And it is, sort of. The trick is to look past the sterile detritus of the presidency: the White House china, a goblet honoring George Washington, the presidential seal.

Most striking is the large print of Richard Avedon’s Eisenhower portrait. You’ve seen it already—in bus stops and on billboards advertising the exhibit. This may have been the most subversive art to appear on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul during the convention. By night, delegates at the Xcel Energy Center cheered the mantra of military force and victory. By day, they were confronted surely a dozen times by the striking humility of Avedon’s Eisenhower, who remarked in his farewell speech to the nation:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government.”

Diana Walker (American, born 1942), Court Jester (Queen Elizabeth II and Ronald Reagan, San Francisco), 1983.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Diana Walker (American, born 1942), Court Jester (Queen Elizabeth II and Ronald Reagan, San Francisco), 1983.

There is no humility in Diana Walker’s “Court Jester”—but there is hilarity. The Reagan legacy is not one to laugh at. But this Reagan laugh—a response to a dry Queen Elizabeth II joke we can’t hear—is a laugh that ought to have a legacy of its own.

In a gallery corner is a piece by American trompe l’oeil—or fool the eye—painter John Frederick Peto that is worthy of its own wall. It’s a still life of a door carved and papered with scattered symbols of Abraham Lincoln’s life and death. Before you are close enough to see it’s a painting it looks as if it might be one of Robert Rauschenberg’s “combine” pieces of the late 1950s.

John Frederick Peto (American, 1854–1907), Reminiscences of 1865, after 1900.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
John Frederick Peto (American, 1854–1907), Reminiscences of 1865, after 1900.

In an era where most art featuring the president makes of its subject some form or another of demon, these portraits show the American presidency at its most naked. And naked in the era of the super secret executive and the super polished campaign is a novelty worth the price of admission—which, I grant you, is free.

Next stop: Unconventional wisdom
Now enter the adjacent Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program gallery. Welcome to the American Presidency after George W. Bush.

Here’s the thing about art that responds to the most controversial policies of the last eight years: there’s a lot of it.

Here’s the other thing about that art: it tends to be excruciatingly redundant.

“Unconventional Wisdom” is no exception. Art covers the walls–perhaps hundreds of pieces. It’s as if, with only 122 days of the Bush administration left, all art reacting to the administration must be purged and stuck to walls everywhere before it’s too late!

Still, you ought to have a look at the  prints of Ruthann Godollei, a professor of fine arts and former dean of fine arts at Macalester College in St. Paul. She achieves gravity—though her work is installed high above the endless scattered works of graphic designer Mike Elko, her partner in the exhibit and a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Fine Arts.

Ruthann Godollei, Time Change 2, 2008, digital inkjet print.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Ruthann Godollei, Time Change 2, 2008, digital inkjet print.

Godollei offers a sort of alternative encyclopedia of the buzz words of this century’s first American wars. A print called “REDEPLOYMENT” shows a freshly dug grave and a shovel. “DETAINEE” shows a freshly filled grave marked with a wooden cross and a helmet. “TROOP REDUCTION” shows row upon row of generic military gravestones. “EXTENDED TOUR” is a single, solitary wheelchair. And then there is her editorial comment on the oft debated “surge” of troops to Iraq:

Ruthann Godollei, Surge, 2006. Monoprint, screenprint, 41 x 30 inches.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Ruthann Godollei, Surge, 2006. Monoprint, screenprint, 41 x 30 inches.

If “Hail to the Chief” was intended to draw delegates and others visiting for the RNC, “Unconventional Wisdom” was something of an trap. A second subversion—though a subversion that seems to have gone largely unnoticed.

Final stop: Position and imposition
Now it’s outside and around the corner to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s faculty exhibit. Remember what I said about the excruciating redundancy of Bush-era political art? They dodged the redundant-aesthetics bullet at MCAD.

A word of caution: the first piece in the exhibit drops things on you. “If/Then” is a series of six leaflets modeled on those air-dropped by the U.S. military over Iraqi defensive positions and neighborhoods in the early days leading up to the 2003 bombardment. Those flyers presented a how-not-to-die scenario  with a child’s picture-book simplicity. On an illustration of an anti-aircraft gun firing a round was the printed, in English and Arabic: “If.” In the next frame a U.S. warplane is firing on the gun’s operator next to the text “Then.” On the flip side, a ball of flames with the text: “You decide.” The U.S. “Psyops,” or Psychological Operations division, started making and dropping leaflets like this all the way back in the ’70s.

Piotr Szyhalski’s “If/Then” leaflets drop from a machine he invented, mounted high to simulate the U.S. military’s air drops. Szyhalski teaches in the media arts department, has shown his art at the Walker and a cadre of other national and international art museums. He intended for the series of six leaflets to be picked up off the floor and kept by visitors to the exhibit. The most striking of the leaflets shows an aerial view of Lower Manhattan and the white smoke trail of Ground Zero next to satellite footage of Baghdad and the black smoke trails of burning trenches filled with oil intended to confuse the targeting mechanisms of U.S. missiles.

The Arabic on Szyhalski's leaflets is lifted directly from the original PSYOPS leaflets.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design
The Arabic on Szyhalski’s leaflets is lifted directly from the original PSYOPS leaflets.

The three pieces of David Goldes’ “Reading the New York Times” are the thought-stopping result of a simple exercise: take a two-page spread of the New York Times and obscure everything but the photographs with a thick, brush-streaked blanket of paint. Suddenly the pictures become the art: The bones of a desert victim of Sudan’s long tragedy, a wall covered in the photos of the 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were murdered in Srebrenica, an apple, a cheesecake.

Goldes’ newspaper experiment puts George W. Bush’s America in its global and cultural context — it reminds us, like the scattered portraits and novelties of “Hail to the Chief,” that even something as discussed, documented and decried as Bush’s eight year experiment in governance will, in the end, fold into the endless hubbub of history.

So ends our tour. See you next week.

Jeff Severns Guntzel writes about the arts and other topics.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Christopher Bowman on 09/22/2008 - 11:08 am.

    Jeff-

    I feel that your writing is desperately needed in the arts community. You have the ability to see and understand conceptual/content oriented work, while at the same time are taking it all in with a playful eye.

    Your observations remind me of the way I approach a new work of art. Almost like that of a elementary student: ready for anything, excited by everything and not afraid to touch when no one is looking.

    I can’t wait to see what’s next!

    -Chris

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