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Benji Whalen, “Kaprowcchhshkshhhh” (2017), India ink, watercolor on paper, 8 x 10 inches (courtesy of the artist)

To find a way to draw during a political and moral descent, I can look to a painter working at a nadir, as Thomas Micchelli did at the outset of this series by pointing to Max Beckmann’s “Birds’ Hell.” Beckmann gives us overgrown, foppish birds, dealing out topsy-turvy payback to their subjugated enemies. Describing a different painting, “Departure” (1932-33), Beckmann reportedly said he aimed for “departure, from the illusions of life to the essential realities that lie hidden beyond.”

Instead, we have a president who chases a life of illusion. The hair, the cloaking suits, the hotels, the pageants, the constant talk of “winning” — they all belong to a preening surface. Artists aren’t the only ones who believe in what Beckmann called “the magic of reality.” But as a practice at this time, an artist’s pursuit of essence may be our best instinct and way forward.

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Benji Whalen

Benji Whalen earned a B.A., summa cum laude, from Columbia University and an M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute (Cadogan Scholar). Whalen has had multiple solo shows in New York, San Francisco,...

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