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The Shelf Life of Political Art

William Powhida, “Is Donald Trump an Existential Threat? Or Just A Major Asshole…” (2016), graphite on paper, mounted on panel, 16.25 x 23 inches (via postmastersart.com) (click to enlarge)

Tucked into a side wall at Postmasters Gallery in Tribeca, as part of a handsome group show called Grayscale, there are five new drawings by William Powhida, one of which is titled “Is Donald Trump an Existential Threat? Or Just A Major Asshole…” (2016).

The drawing is in the form of a graph in which the x axis signals “Cunning” and y denotes “Capacity for Violence.” The axes divide the sheet into four equal quadrants, which are labeled (clockwise from the upper right) “Ruthless Capitalism,” “Diabolical Evil,” “Violent Hatred,” and “Ignorant Patriarchy.”

At the center of the graph is the head of Donald Trump, his squinty smirk perfectly rendered in silvery shades of graphite. In close orbit around the upsweep of his glowing forelocks, a dozen of his more notorious pull-quotes, including those referring to news anchor Megyn Kelly and his daughter Ivanka, along with waterboarding, “the wall,” and Muslims, are laid out in all-caps, comic-book style.

In the outer orbit, eight portraits are positioned within the four quadrants, two per section, while four more intersect on the x and y axes, each overlapping two domains. The intent is to demonstrate the lineage of Trump’s thinking and the context for his behavior, and it’s telling that a third of the characters are fictional, given the extent to which his campaign is divorced from reality.

Under “Ignorant Patriarchy,” we find Homer Simpson and Archie Bunker; Lloyd Blankfein and Martin Shkreli share space within “Ruthless Capitalism”; “Diabolical Evil” gives us Baron Harkonnen and Adolph Hitler; and “Violent Hatred” is represented by Michael Myers and George Zimmerman.

The crossovers are P.T. Barnum (“Ignorant Patriarchy” / “Ruthless Capitalism”); Dick Cheney (“Ruthless Capitalism” / “Diabolical Evil”); David Duke (“Diabolical Evil” / “Violent Hatred”); and George W. Bush (“Violent Hatred” / “Ignorant Patriarchy”).

The ordering of Trump’s antecedents is chillingly clear and willfully kooky, at least at first glance. Homer Simpson, in the top left corner, starts a diagonal that runs through Archie Bunker, Trump, and Baron Harkonnen before ending in Hitler. The opposing diagonal begins with Blankfein in the top right and descends through Shkreli and Trump to Myers and Zimmerman.

The solidity of the graph’s 2 x 2 structure suggests the permanence of these four forces, which are more commonly treated, especially in novels and films, as destabilizing. The diagonals, like rods of rebar, reinforce their immutability as they conjure up a welter of unsettling associations. The line running from Simpson to Hitler is particularly disturbing — the universal symbol of vacuity paired with the universal symbol of barbarism.

It can be argued that the reference to Hitler is less a trivialization than a recognition that his persona has become as two-dimensional as Homer’s, and that his classification as a monster unique to history obscures the historical circumstances from which he arose (economic chaos, wounded national pride, discredited political elites) along with his skillful manipulation of a weak and polarized system, which allowed him to seize the reins of an ostensibly enlightened republic. Relegating Hitler to a symbol is a rhetorical palliative that diverts attention from those aspects of his pathology that cling to the very idea of pursuing and maintaining power. The way I see it, Powhida is having it both ways: exploiting the symbolic image of Hitler, whose entombment in history reassures us that, as the old refrain goes, “It can’t happen here,” while calling out Trump’s nationalism at its taproot. As the title of the drawing asks, is Donald Trump an existential threat or just a major asshole? It’s a question we can’t afford to answer.

The other fictional characters along the diagonal are Archie Bunker and Baron Harkonnen. Bunker (like Homer Simpson, a sitcom dad) was the central figure of the Norman Lear television series All in the Family, which premiered in January 1971, midway through Richard Nixon’s first term as president. It was also the year Trump began his Manhattan real estate career in earnest, leaving behind his home borough of Queens, where the blue-collar Archie, the prototype of the target audience for the candidate’s know-nothing xenophobia, lived in fear of losing what little he had. On the other side of the y axis is Baron Harkonnen, the villain of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965) as portrayed by the actor Kenneth McMillan in David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation. The Baron, whose first name is Vladimir, is described in his Wikipedia entry as possessing “a talent for manipulating others and exploiting their weaknesses”; the diagonal’s downward slide, then, runs from the powerless to the power-mad, with the endpoints (Homer and Hitler) bound together by their psychotic outbursts of rage.

The line from Blankfein to Zimmerman is just as troubling. Their portraits in opposing corners of the chart bring to mind the ruling classes’ historical reliance on the services of scoundrels and cutthroats to maintain the status quo; Zimmerman’s vigilante shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, while unrelated to Blankfein’s controversial tenure as CEO of Goldman Sachs, helped cement the racially divisive tone that Trump has exploited for his self-proclaimed “movement,” using wedge issues to splinter an economic underclass that could otherwise unite around shared interests (income inequality, job security, schools, and health care, to name a few).

Also along the same diagonal, on either side of Trump, are Michael Myers, the banally named slasher from John Carpenter’s Halloween horror movie franchise, and the pharmaceuticals kingpin who’s identified on the drawing simply as “Martin Shkreli, Scumbag.” Their proximity conflates Shkreli’s naked greed (like Trump’s, far more blatant and boorish than the financial sector, as personified by Blankfein, can countenance) with the floridly violent fantasies (à la Carpenter and Myers) that Trump indulges when he speaks of bringing back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.”

At the vortex of all of this, Trump is both recipient and agent; the forces around him simultaneously implode and explode, turning his head into the “living black hole” of narcissism and neediness that his former ghostwriter Tony Schwartz so alarmingly describes in this week’s New Yorker exposé.

Powhida’s scathing, hyperbolic analysis is clear, clean, and powerful, not to mention masterfully drawn and designed (the facial expressions, especially the creepily self-satisfied smiles on the faces of Trump, Shkreli, Duke, and Hitler, are highly effective; so are such grace notes as the reflected light in the shadow engulfing half of Michael Myers’s face). The drawing’s formal sophistication coupled with its levels of meaning and layers of context remove it entirely from the realm of political cartooning, but where does it land? And how will we address it once the threat of a Trump presidency (presumably November 9th) is over?

The validity of that question is a question in itself; either way, it is instructive to turn to one of the other drawings in the show, “Which Democrat Am I Voting For? The Republicans Are Not People, Fuck Them All” (2016), which is already dated. The composition is in the form of a Venn diagram with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the center of their respective circles. The portrait of Hillary is tart and unflattering, with shifty eyes and a sardonic half-smile, while Bernie gazes impassively, if not blandly, toward the horizon.

The diagram is filled with the candidates’ policy positions, differing over the Iraq War, Obamacare, gun control, Wall Street, the minimum wage, infrastructure, Israel, and so on, and intersecting with Planned Parenthood, immigration, climate change, and Citizens United, among others. (The voting checkbox at the top of the sheet, just so you know, is filled in for Bernie.)

Instead of coming off, at this point, as a throwaway image, “Which Democrat Am I Voting For?” feels more like the closing of a chapter, but one that leads to a companion piece of sorts, “What Voting Democratic Felt Like…(Because People Are Fucking Disgusting On Social Media Platforms)” (2016). Unlike the previous, relatively low-key pairing of image and text, this one, also a Venn diagram, is bristling with conflicting fonts underscored by pictures of an AR-15 (Clinton as tool of the military-industrial complex) and a hunting rifle (Sanders in thrall of the NRA). The candidates (labeled “Shillary Goldman Sachs” and “Old Man Slanders”) are rendered in full-throttle shouting-match mode, while phrases like “Iron Lady Thatcher” and “Green Spoiler Dickish Nader Third Party” summon the worst suspicions of one camp about the other. The only common ground is “Not Trump,” the intersection of the two circles evoking, uncannily, a black hole.

The overriding emotion of this drawing and the text-heavy “Something Has Gone Terribly Wrong On The Right!” (2016), which depicts Trump as a fanged, bloodthirsty zombie, is an incandescent rage that blows apart the matter-of-fact catalogue of policy positions in “Which Democrat Am I Voting For?” and bares the subtext of “Is Donald Trump an Existential Threat?” These two drawings, and a fifth on an adjacent wall that mimics an expletive-laden schoolboy drawing of Trump as Hitler, go to the same extremes as much contemporary political discourse, but with the self-mockery intrinsic to Powhida’s practice, which has frequently sprung from the mindset of his slippery alter-ego, an insufferable narcissist and inadvertent truth-teller also named William Powhida.

The real Powhida may well have voted for Sanders and will likely pull a lever for Clinton in the fall, but his art remains a reservoir of doubt and pessimism. Drawings portraying Clinton, Sanders, and Trump are prima facie political, but Powhida’s don’t advocate for one side over another as much as bore into the minds of the candidates and the electorate, pulling out, like a tapeworm, a meta-display of electoral scheming and media manipulation.

If anything, the layering of credulity and incredulity, dubiousness and polemic complicates if not obviates the artworks’ shelf life. The cast of characters may change, and we hope quickly, but not the ambition and guile they represent. Improbable as it now seems, there will one day be another election cycle, and these drawings will migrate from the immediate to the reflective, manifestations of nightmares avoided or sustained.

Grayscale, which also includes the work of Diana Cooper, Torkwase Dyson, Alexandra Gorczynski, Hugh Hayden, Bernard Kirschenbaum, Austin Lee, and Anton Perich, continues at Postmasters Gallery (54 Franklin Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through August 6.

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