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May 15th, 2002 Lisa Lambert | Visual Arts
 

Fun with the Executive Branch

Martin Van Buren is a lamp! Jimmy Carter is a cartoon character! Don't even ask about Lincoln.

     
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Call it the power of quirk. As the world's avant garde wrestles with technology, biology or other heady ideas, Portland's underground has recently tackled the stuff of junior-year history class: U.S. presidents. The Presidents Show, at disjecta until the end of the month, is the best example of Portland's younger artists' deep infatuation with being quirky.

The list of the exhibition's participants reads like a directory of the independent scene, with Red 76, charm bracelet, Entertainment for the Peasants and Alphabet Dress all represented. Curator Khris Soden was able to match almost every U.S. president with an artist. There are some portraits, but there are also coloring books, a lamp, and the sure crowd pleaser: a piñata of Reagan, to be cracked open at the end of the exhibition (but will there be anything inside?). Each depiction is accompanied by a short narrative explaining the former commander-in-chief's career highlights and strange personal moments.

Jim Jarmusch once complained about his films being called "quirky" because, in all honesty, he didn't know what it meant. It's a light, airy, insubstantial-sounding word, like a name you'd give a wacky Saturday-morning television character. It denotes something with odd attributes and eccentricities At its best, a quirky film, story, exhibition or art work is delightfully offbeat and new. At its worst, it is something that's odd for the sole sake of being odd.

The Presidents Show has its share of the second. But most of the artists went for something more meaningful. They either opted to treat their subjects with the same seriousness other artists might treat, say, the history of pornography. Or, they addressed the role of president directly. With Zefrey Throwell's portrait of Calvin Coolidge, in which Silent Cal is barely distinguishable from the background, or Charlotte LaVictoire's painting of Woodrow Wilson as a joker playing card, we are given something more emotionally resonant and human than a mere biography or history documentary. The pieces that imitate fifth-grade reports, illustrate political points with coloring books, or humorously chart a president's life like that of a pop icon knock the presidency from its pedestal and address what the leader means to the led.

Sure, there are conclusions to be drawn from the show about the American presidency. When you're surrounded by the faces of privileged white men in power, you're bound to think something. The personalities and background of the men chosen to hold office during this current era of universal suffrage seem frighteningly close to those who were elected when voting was left to a small group. The side of the gallery dedicated to 19th-century presidents shows how vulnerable those men were to disease and assassination. It's hard to imagine George W. suddenly succumbing to pneumonia.

In the end, this show isn't about politics (after all the exhibition's theme was conceived in a bar conversation). The Presidents Show is more about tackling a subject out of the ordinary in the art world. It's about how younger artists find inspiration in the peculiar and offbeat. For the most part, the contributors have succeeded in turning something textbook-dry into original, lively works of art.


The Presidents Show
Disjecta, 116 NE Russell St., 335-6979. For directions and other information go to hiss@wweek.com.
 
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