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Artist Brian Whiteley claims he hung a painting of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Trump International Hotel suite overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue — and no one noticed. He says he displayed the image in the lavish Washington, DC lodging as a commentary on the “cult of authoritarianism” surrounding Trump’s allies and supporters. In the large painting, Putin sits, hands folded, foregrounding a stormy sky and the White House itself.
Whitely told Hyperallergic the work was initially hung on August 1, 2018, in room 435 of the hotel, which is located only about a 15-minute walk from the White House.
The artist said in an email:
Numerous guests had stayed there since I placed the painting and no one had an issue with a painting of Vladimir Putin (with the White House in the background) hanging up in the President’s Hotel … steps from the White House. This all leads me to believe that the guests are completely devoted to the President no matter what policy/authoritarian he embraces. As many have said, Trump has brought about a cult of authoritarianism where he can do no wrong no matter how blatant the transgression.
He says he went back earlier this month to pick up the painting, telling hotel employees he had forgotten something in the suite. “They allowed me access, and I was able to retrieve my painting but was forcibly removed once the manager saw what I was retrieving,” Whiteley claims.
The hotel, however, says the situation is fabricated. Patricia Tang, its director of sales and marketing, definitively told Hyperallergic over the phone: “It never happened.”
Hyperallergic spoke with a friend of the artist who says he participated in the scheme. The source (who wishes to remain anonymous) allegedly booked the room under his name and assisted with the hanging of the ominous portrait. He says while initially hesitant to participate, he gave into Whiteley’s pleas.
The source says that the night they stayed in the hotel, he and the artist went out drinking and brought back half a dozen Trump supporters who were in the nation’s capital for a birthday bender. He says they invited the group, also staying in the Trump hotel, for a nightcap under the shrine of the Russian politician. (He told Hyperallergic: “One of them even said ‘Putin, fuck yeah.’ I was blown away.”)
He claims that a few weeks after the initial event, he was again convinced to return to the hotel to retrieve the portrait:
I think [Whiteley] worked over 6 months on the painting, so I had some sympathy on that front. So we drove down again … and then the shit storm hit. We go into the hotel and we tell them we forgot something in our suite. The doorman/bag guy walked us up to the room, we go in and see the painting still hanging, I was shocked. I tried to get the guy’s attention by talking with him but eventually he saw Brian pull the painting off the wall (it was hanging on top of another painting that was screwed into the wall). The guy got on his walkie and called the security or management and soon enough they showed up. Brian had to explain that it was his painting and showed him his ID and signature on the back of the painting. They wouldn’t let us leave the room for about 20 minutes until they had inspected the suite to make sure we had done no damage or were not stealing anything. Brian got a pretty good grilling. My heart was pounding the entire time. Then the security/management escorted us out of the hotel quite hostilely. It was a scene.
“They got pretty aggressive about it. They grabbed his arm,” the alleged accomplice added in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “I was surprised they even let him out with the painting.” He says he was also questioned by hotel security.
Whiteley, who routinely uses Trump and his politics as the punchline in his artwork, says his projects are “designed to portray larger, more complex and abstract ideas festering in the public conscious about the Trump administration. Ideas that are generally known but are lacking the ‘proof’ — that is what I have been trying to supply.” In April 2016, the artist transplanted a gravestone for Donald Trump (reading “Make America Hate Again”) in a Central Park field.