Reaganography is an unusual show. I was expecting it to be mostly political commentary, figuring that a show about Ronald Reagan, particularly one opening in New York, now, would among other things have something big to say about the Great Recession and Wall Street greed. And my big hunch about the show was that there would be at least one piece in it that addressed the issue of deregulation. But instead, and to my amazement, what I discovered was a show with a minimal amount of political commentary and, a strangely ambivalent attitude towards the former president.
There’s a smattering of politics in Reaganography, just not the sort you’d expect and it’s definitely not what the show ultimately seems to be about. Rather than make political commentary about Reagan or the issues typically associated with him, the artists in Reaganography play or mess with Reagan as an image or an icon.
From my perspective, there are two tendencies in the way the American artists in Reaganography approach Reagan. The more matter of fact treatments, such as Mark Albright’s “Sorry John, I Wrecked Your Truck,” a relatively straight ahead portrait of the man, and Melanie Baker’s “Reagan with Raspberries,” a very nicely rendered charcoal drawing of the man with a plate of raspberries. These works are at best only mildly odd. Albright’s portrait uses an unusual color palette and Melanie uses an unexpected crop of the image. And then there’s the approach to Reagan’s icon that involves what I want to call “memetic splices” or grafts. These are works that splice Reagan’s icon with unrelated memes. For example, Felix Esquivel’s “The Education of Reagan” depicts Reagan rapturously reading Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope. And Steve Locke’s “Fuck Reagan” splices Reagan’s head on to a homosexual sex scene, depicting Reagan being penetrated in the rear by a teenage boy. For some reason I want to read the teenage boy as a young David Wojnarowicz, a high school runaway hustling for money in Taxi Driver-era New York. Most people will know that Wojnarowicz died of AIDS and Reagan didn’t give much of a shit about people afflicted with that disease.
Why Reagan? Why now? The show opened just days before the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a historical event often associated with Reagan, but there’s nothing in the show about it — other than Reagan. It’s not clear whether this was intentional or simply an accident. Or perhaps as the curator, Frank Meuschke, contends, Reagan just won’t go away, as he writes in his statement about the show, Reagan seems to have “an eternal morning in America.”
At the opening, one of the artists, Mark Albright, said to me that Reagan, for better or worse, is our Kennedy. I did not think he was idolizing the guy (although he confessed to me that he did as a kid) but, rather, that his iconic image pulses in our consciousness through shear repetition. As Albright explained it, the Reagan assassination attempt was, in a way, our first “where were you then” moment. I took him to be talking about Gen Xers, the older half really, the original slackers, those now hovering around the age of 40. Kurt Cobain was a member of this cohort group. All the artists in the show are also roughly this age — perhaps, Reaganography is a mini “Older than Jesus” show — and the press release describes them as coming of age either during or after the election of Reagan. That the show takes an ambivalent and somewhat ironic approach to Reagan is actually rather Gen X.
Reaganography is curated by Frank Meuschke at No Globe Exhibition Space, 488 Morgan Avenue, Third Floor. It opened November 8 and runs until December 6, 2009.
The “Reaganography” image on the homepage is John O’Connor’s “Untitled” (2009).