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Trump is inspiring a renaissance of biting political caricature

As a new group show at New York’s SVA Gallery reminds us, pictures are worth more than a thousand words.

In late 2016, on the tail of the U.S. presidential election, Francis DiTomasso, the director of the SVA Galleries at the School of Visual Arts in New York, joined with illustrator and faculty member Steve Brodner to flesh out an idea for a group show, roughly titled Artists in Resistance. There was no explicit mention of Trump or the GOP, and yet the focus of the show was clear: To show how illustrators and artists are mirrors, reflecting, digesting, and opining on some of the most divisive social and political issues of our time.

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“We went on blind faith that many artists would embrace the project and join in–and in fact, they did,” says DiTommaso, who had urgently proposed and scheduled the show without yet having a single artist confirmed.

Now on view through November 3, Art as Witness: Political Graphics: 2016-2018 features political works from artists and illustrators across generations—including legends like Milton Glaser, Roz Chast, Art Spiegelman, and the late caricaturist David Levine—with 200 works by more than 50 artists in all. Mounted ahead of next month’s midterm elections as a call to action, the show of illustrations and artworks speak volumes.

Milton Glaser, Space Force, Bloomberg Businessweek (digital), 7/27, 2018 [Image: courtesy the artist/SVA]
“We did not want this to be The Trump Show because he already commands an inordinate amount of public attention, and because he is only incidental to much of our current sociopolitical discourse,” says DiTommaso, listing a host of topics addressed in the show: the women’s movement, Black Lives Matter, climate change, gun violence, immigration, prison reform. “Trump is a symptom of our time far more than a cause.”

And yet an undeniable highlight of the show is just how many various, creative, and powerfully rebuking depictions there are of Trump himself. The show includes dozens of images of Trump, in fact–a telling point that, for better or worse, he’s inescapable; a Trump satire is not only a small salve to today’s political chaos, but a compelling form of communication.

John Cuneo, The Swamp, The New Yorker, 5/21/18, Editor: Françoise Mouly. [Image: courtesy the artist/SVA]
A May 2018 cover of the New Yorker features the president aplomb in a murky swamp, pant legs rolled up and surrounded by reptilian slime, as he takes aim at a golf ball; another cover from July 2018, drawn in response to the trauma of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy, depicts children huddled in fear, hiding behind the gown at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. An absurdist map of Africa by Roz Chast, labeled with nonsensical country names like “Zamboni,” “Narnia,” and “Zombia,” is titled as Trump’s Africa, in a deadpan satire of the president’s cultural ignorance. One particularly haunting image, a photorealistic illustration by Tim O’Brien, merges the countenance of Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin into a single portrait. Also included is Milton Glaser’s proposed logo for Trump’s space force, an image the designer has said “can be read as his next conquest, or simply that there is very little inside that skull.”

Political art is currently experiencing a renaissance–at marches and protests, in art and design museums, and in children’s books; going viral on social media, headlining newspapers and magazines, and even (one can hope) flooding the fax machines of lawmakers favoring partisan politics over public interest. “This exhibition serves as a reminder of how many inhumane policies have been implemented or expanded in such a short time period,” says artist Anita Kunz, whose features poster design advocates for gun control. “I don’t think that most of our works will influence anybody who doesn’t already agree with the sentiments, but believe, regardless, that in the face of being furious and feeling impotent, it’s important to express dissent.”

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“The show reflects our community, which believes in the furtherance of democracy,” adds Brodner. “The new era in American politics is defined by Trump but cuts across all issues. It is bigger and more dangerous than the influence of one man.”

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.

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