On first seeing an image of Barack Obama’s head festooned with small figurines of previous United States presidents I took an immediate dislike to Brian Tolle’s solo show POTUS at CRG Gallery. The image seemed like a kitschy, failed attempt at humor, which nevertheless also sought to make a discerning observation about Obama: that he has borne the burden of the legacies of all the presidents who came before him precisely because the nation had never had a black man in office before. We started off on the wrong foot, however; on seeing the rest of the exhibition I grew to appreciate the strategy of slyly and mischievously memorializing our past presidents, partly because it is rare in our culture to allow mischief in commemorative portrayals, particularly for the holders of that office.
A Nixon mask, “No. 37,” (2011), is shown on a reel-to-reel recorder with audio tape streaming out of his eyes and nose — a reminder of the illegal recording of the opposition’s party that was his undoing. A bust of President Abraham Lincoln is presented on what seems a log with red, white, and blue confetti streamers shooting out of his eyes, each word of his inaugural address cumulatively printed on them. John F. Kennedy’s bust moves away from humor toward pathos with a bust of gleaming aluminum or nickel that is pierced by metal rods connected to stilts that hold it far above the viewer.
For me, the show’s funniest work is the one that contains actual historical documents: vintage campaign buttons for candidates that never made it past the post in “Winners and Losers” (2016). Some of the buttons are ridiculous, like the one that depicts Jeb Bush with his presidential brother and father and reads “The Bush Legacy: Integrity, Service.” Some seem like inside jokes: “Baker will sizzle Reagan’s rear in New Hampshire.” Others seem like wishful thinking: “Cleaver (Eldridge) for President”; “Barr (Roseanne) for President 2012”; “Vote Socialist Workers, Camejo for President.” Others are melancholy and literary: “Waiting for Perot.”
The presidential memorials in POTUS are successful in that they inspire amusement rather than awe or reverence, which is a timely intervention in our current conversations on the upcoming elections. Awe is dangerous because it tends to blunt or even shut down our critical faculties, and certainly in this election season, we need them intact.
Brian Tolle’s POTUS continues at CRG Gallery (195 Chrystie St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 12.