ART OR ADVERTISEMENT? Ron English’s Abraham Obama caused a stir when it traveled beyond
There’s nothing like a brouhaha to make art feel relevant. And the Boston art scene has just been blessed by two. First, Gallery XIV caused a stir with its “a politic” show, the first thing it’s really done to turn heads since it opened last fall. Let’s hope that’s the beginning of something. Then PETA got riled about Pierre Menard’s “Meat After Meat Joy” group show. What else is new?
The Gallery XIV show has 40 artists exploring political themes. That didn’t freak anyone out. What got people in a tizzy was an appearance at the July 2 opening by New Jersey’s Ron English, who’s (in)famous for (illegally) pasting over commercial billboards with his own slogans: “Jihad is Over! (If you want it)”; “Jesus drove an SUV/Mohammad pumped his gas/The new H2 Hummer”; “Support our CEOs.” (An outdoor video screening at the gallery on July 25 will include Pedro Caravajal’s documentary POPaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English.)
That evening, on a construction fence across the street from the gallery (with permission from the landlord), English pasted up 11 13-foot-tall reproductions of his painting Abraham Obama, which merges the features of President Lincoln with Barack’s. Guests were given smaller posters of Abraham Obama. Within hours a number of these were plastered to South End lamp posts and buildings and the front of the Boston Center for the Arts. Police were alerted. A week later, the Globe announced on its front page: “Fans’ unauthorized ad blitz draws fire.” That night, it was on the local news.
It was a marvelous hubbub given that Gallery XIV director William Kerr says he only got four complaint calls and police didn’t bother to contact the gallery. Some suspect that the whole thing was a planned stunt. Kerr says it was just overzealous fans.
As for the art, Abraham Obama is catchy, cartoony, and cute. Your mind seesaws between the twin likenesses. Each poster has a different color; that creates a rainbow of variations, and a pleasing Warhol effect. It’s not trenchant, just an advertisement saying Obama equals Lincoln.
We’ll see. But it is fun to compare the two men. Lincoln was an attorney and a notable speaker who changed the way race was seen in America. Ditto for Obama. Lincoln served eight years in the Illinois House of Representatives and one term as a US congressman. Obama served eight years in the Illinois Senate and was elected to the US Senate in 2004. Their main résumé differences seem to be that Lincoln served in the Illinois militia in 1832 (no combat) and never joined a church.
The exhibit was assembled by Kerr, New Yorker Juliette Pelletier of event organizers Reflect-arts, Inc., and Artscope magazine publisher Kaveh Mojtabai of Boston from solicited submissions and their own additions. There are acid commentaries, like Basrah to Baghdad by Joseph Woolfolk of Las Vegas, a painting imitating old railway travel posters to show a soldier standing guard as a train chugs past Iraq oil derricks. There are earnest memorials, like New Yorker Bonnie Epstein’s collection of newspaper clippings tallying American war dead stitched into a patchwork tapestry. There is wishful thinking, like Oregonian Remedios Rapoport’s Gentle Revolution Mobile, a large mobile of signs: “grow what you eat,” “build community,” “now is the time to make justice a reality.” It’s a chirpy good-luck charm. But few things here make you stop and think.