Facing the movement: Obama Art Show

Facing the movement

Mixing the official and unofficial campaign imagery (From Chicago Journal 5/5/09)

Art review by Daniel Tucker

One month ago, “Officially Unofficial,” the exhibition of mostly posters of President Obama’s face, opened at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs special project space on Randolph Street. The works in the exhibition traverse a wide variety of aesthetic strategies to depict Obama and his promise as an agent of change. Some of the artists are well known while others are relative amateurs. Some of the more famous works include the now iconic Shepard Fairy “Hope” graphic, presented next to a revised version of pop artist Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” sculpture, altered into a simple “HOPE” text piece.

Shannon Moore of Maryland produces one of the more comical and also strangely visionary pieces — a campaign poster for a 2044 presidential campaign for Sasha Obama and Chelesea Clinton. Mike Jacobs made the most abstract work entitled “Obama44” which simply features 44 dots neatly arranged in 11 rows of four resembling something that could be a game board. Chicagoan Lowell Thompson, whose writing and art generally takes on racism, is one of the few painters in the exhibit. His “Dreams Can Come True” features an Obama side-facing portrait which bleeds into a series of smaller portraits depicting historically significant black leaders and events.

My favorite oddball piece was an unlabeled small oval painting near the entrance of the exhibit that included a misty fog in which Barack Obama rode a flying unicorn through space. The style of the drawing was naïve, and it was difficult to tell if it had been produced by a child or someone more experienced and motivated by irony and humor.

These oddball pieces are really just that, rarities in an exhibit of rather straightforward propaganda. The vast majority of the posters use conventional techniques common in political posters from Soviet Russia to Rooseveltian America: They depict the face of the leader in a bold and often simplified color scheme and mix in text made of affirming generalities, like “Our movement,” or virtue words such as “Hope” or “Change.”

The mixing of officially endorsed campaign materials reading “Paid for by Obama for America” with unofficial graphics, while fitting with the title of the show, warranted more explanation. There is a significant difference when someone is paid to produce graphics for a politician or has campaign support on some level, and independent citizens making graphics or art to communicate with their fellow people.

And strangely, so many of the independent artists made work that was entirely consistent with the political line of the campaign, with no difference beyond their financial backing. This begs me to question the use of the concept of a social movement running throughout official and unofficial campaign materials. If all the voters, including artists and non-artists alike, who were interested in Obama’s campaign were completely uncritical of it and the administration and supported its self-presentation entirely, that’s more fandom than a movement. And if the Democratic Party political line is a movement, then we’ve got to reclaim that concept for more radical and dissenting ideas. The real change comes in these moments of crisis when the margins push the center and the center rethinks its priorities.

Seeing all the posters and paintings in this exhibition in one room is impressive. But it left me concerned that if we cannot move beyond the vague belief that Obama will spawn change if we just believe in him and the party-line, then this movement will move nowhere fast.

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