President Donald J. Trump reaches his first 100 days in office having achieved remarkably little save for turning politics into a bizarre spectacle. This circus-like atmosphere has inspired Sideshow, a new exhibition by Pentagram’s Abbott Miller on view at the Robert Busch School of Design at the Michael Graves College at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.
The exhibition reflects on the changed political and social climate in the United States and is comprised of three projects, The Wall, Monogram, and Trumptych, which were all developed in response to the new administration’s controversial actions and statements on immigration, the role of the press, women’s rights, and its isolationist policies. The Trump campaign offered a performance of grand promises and relentlessly deployed phrases such as “lock her up,” “drain the swamp,” and “make America great again.” The exhibition is called “Sideshow” in reference to the unprecedented (or unpresidented) culture of showmanship and improvisation in Washington, DC.
Miller was invited to create the exhibition to coincide with his participation in the school’s Thinking Creatively Conference. Rather than present a retrospective of his work, he was compelled to comment on the insanity of the election and the elevation of Trump. The project gave him an opportunity to work in image-making that incorporates the history of posters and graphics, something he has explored throughout his career. The Trump administration’s fun-house mirror distortions and the hyperbole, contortions and stunts are reminiscent of small-town carnivals and traveling circuses, yet they are occurring on a world stage. The works in Sideshow reinterpret iconic graphic images through the lens of this political midway.
The Wall bisects the Karl and Helen Burger Gallery and is painted in an electric pink hue inspired by the architecture of Luis Barragán. The installation displays collaborations with professional sign-painters (rótulistas) from Monterrey, Mexico. The project was inspired by the artist Francis Alÿs, who collaborated with rótulistas in Mexico City from 1993 to 1997 for a series called Set Theory. Alÿs was inspired by the game variously called “Chinese whispers” or “telephone,” in which someone whispers a phrase in someone else’s ear, who whispers the phrase into someone else’s ear, continuing across multiple senders and receivers, typically yielding an entirely different phrase at the end. Alÿs and a circle of sign-painters created a visual analogue of Chinese whispers, showing how a single subject is altered by the talent and techniques of the painter.
The Wall extends Alÿs’s idea to the realm of design and media imagery, adapting and remixing elements, and removing lettering to allow these “new” images to take on a different meaning when seen in relation to the border wall project. Miller worked with a group of current rótulistas in Mexico City to render new takes on the works of other graphic artists, some contemporary, others going back to the 19th century. Historic posters and graphic images by designers including Thomas Theodor Heine, Sandow Trocadero and Milton Glaser have been given a Trumpian spin, with guest appearances by Trump Train cronies such as Vladimir Putin and Kellyanne Conway. Circus imagery is prominent throughout the exhibition, as seen in Snake Charmer, in which Conway wrestles with a serpent that resembles the CNN logo.
At the center of The Wall is a painting of photographer Nadav Kander’s iconic portrait of Trump on his infamous “Person of the Year” Time Magazine cover. The painting is based on the many memes that circled on social media commenting on the position of the “M,” which looked too perfectly placed to be accidental, and is festooned with a golden garland of Twitter birds made of brass, a favorite material of Trump.
“Deliberate or not, this cover reflected the majority of public opinion on Trump’s capability and intentions as President, leading to the start of vigorous meme creation and media attention,” says Miller.
The Wall could not have been produced without the talent and enthusiasm of the rótulistas Enrique Becerra, Diego Farías and Heriberto Garcia Dávila “Beto,” as well as the support of Marco V. Garrido Félix, who helped coordinate the work with sign painters in Mexico. ¡Muchas gracias!
Monogram is a typographic emblem of the relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Trump has expressed support and admiration for Putin’s “strongman” leadership of Russia through public statements and on Twitter. The lack of clarity about the nature and extent of communication and coordination between Putin, Russian hackers and the Trump circle suggests that there are deeper connections between the American election and Putin’s interest in a Trump presidency, making him the shadow “VP” of the administration. The eight-foot-tall aluminum letters are festooned with another triumphal Twitter garland, made of brass.
Trumptych is comprised of three large brass stencils, a medium associated with the tradition of political protest posters. A building in the form of a hand is based on the famous icon for “Man with the Golden Arm” (1956), designed by Saul Bass. A champagne fountain is suggestive of trickle-down economics, a theory arguing that wealth at the top eventually trickles down to the bottom of the economy. A 1916 poem by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire called “It’s Raining” famously creates an image of rain with its drizzle of lettering. In the context of Trumptych, the dark edges of the poem come to the foreground, just as the Saul Bass image of the hand becomes a tower of aggression cast in gold.
Sideshow remains on view through May 15 at the Robert Busch School of Design at the Michael Graves College at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.