Isn’t Valentine’s Day an ideal time for remembering the most seductive of all US presidents, Bill Clinton? Who else could have twisted the meaning of a cigar in the Oval Office and kept Hillary — who doesn’t take shit from anyone (else)?
Perhaps, for an analysis of Clinton’s meaning in Christopher K. Ho‘s art, we should pretend sex doesn’t matter and focus on political achievements. But the tagline of his policy impact is just as sexy: eight golden years of prosperous expansion is the gross oversimplification that has stuck enough to define the 1990s and Clinton’s glowing legacy.
All that love and credit Bill gets? Well, finally an artist has explored it with the mixture of ambivalence, admiration, and revelation that Clinton deserves.
Ho’s installation at Forever & Today, Inc., may not be the most captivating eye candy of the year, but it’s provocative because of its unusual comparison. Ho places a framed stock image of Bill Clinton, which he’s titled “First Black President” (2012), next to a portrait of Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek, called “Young White Person” (2012). Now, there may not be a huge equal sign floating in the air between them, but the undeniable result is that viewers must ask what the former president has to do with a teen star.
Bill Clinton doesn’t get enough credit for his push to engage young people in public service and volunteerism. Don’t WTF me — that only sounds strange because we don’t talk about it. Why? Because advocacy for youth falls behind other priorities.
Ho wanted to draw attention to Clinton’s record of civically engaging youth. The 42nd president signed the legislation to create the AmeriCorps program in 1993, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the founder of Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller, in 1996, and launched an initiative to substantially expand the number of Peace Corps volunteers from 6,500 to 10,000 in 1998. In their best moments, all three programs channel the passion of young people seeking to change the world with concrete results. Ho found them emblematic of an era.
In juxtaposing Clinton with a young boy, Ho also shows the potential the president saw in young people with a hint-hint to the present. The rampant unemployment of 20-somethings 20 years later doesn’t live up to this legacy. Nor does indulging teens’ pipe dreams to become stars like Van Der Beek (except these days through YouTube and reality TV) achieve the worthy goals of a dirty volunteer project.
Let’s not get carried away, though; not all young people in the ’90s won big. White privilege is too often the elephant in the room that artists don’t have the guts to take on. It appears here, not as an elephant (too obvious), but rather a peculiar white glass table, ”Acceptance Letter” (2012). With this piece, Ho probes who gets the fat acceptance package and who gets the thin rejection letter. The white color of the glass says it all. Perfume bottles support the table. Are wealth and status such a sturdy pillar for determining which young people get ahead, or do we end up with a society that’s inherently unstable and wobbly?
To his embarrassment, the potential that Clinton saw in young people carried over to interns. Seeing the snowy-haired Clinton next to the young Van Der Beek, one is reminded of the vast age difference between the two and the responsibilities it creates. Although Monica Lewinsky is not the third portrait in the room, she will always float in the president’s iconographic moral orbit. And perhaps it’s more decent not to place her in the room and to leave it understated. It’s a rich irony that the president who invested so much in young people was nearly brought down by a relationship with a young person.
Rainbow-colored drafts of Ho’s TV pilot, “Trout College” (2013), might seem like an odd addition to this juxtaposition of portraits. But the script makes two mentions of Clinton that add texture to the work. In a scene at the beginning, economists debate who controls the economy and settle upon Clinton as the master of their money’s fate. In a scene near the end, a young character finds a picture of Clinton shaking hands with a professor who teaches the class “From Radical Politics to Effective Policy” in a course catalogue. The youth is inspired to dream big.
Like any father or lover, Bill Clinton probably deserves both our love and our scorn. What makes Ho’s work special is his investigation of the future and the folly that Clinton saw in our nation’s youth. And by not casting any powerful judgements in the work, Ho lets viewers develop their own takeaways — crucibles and models — from Clinton’s story.
Christopher K. Ho: Privileged White People is on view at Forever & Today, Inc. (141 Division Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 17.