San Francisco Artist Turns Trump’s Words Against Him
Unless you have been in a cave for two years, and/or watching Fox News, you know that Donald Trump is a con man, provocateur and prevaricator nonpareil, logging nearly ten lies a day, according to the latest count, with a grand total in the thousands. He is aided and abetted by his staff, by friendly media like Fox and Sinclair, and, all too often, by a supine mainstream corporate media: shitstorms sell, after all. On the other side, we have great satirists and comedians telling truth fearlessly and hilariously to power (and the powerless); the late-night talk-show hosts, I think, deserve particular credit in pointing out the emperor’s new clothes.
The art world, which skews decidedly liberal, has been active as well (although major galleries and museums are timid, as usual, as afraid of their wealthy base as the Republican Party is of its). A notable exception is Ward Schumaker’s painting show, currently on view until Election Day at Jack Fischer Gallery, in Minnesota Street Projects, in the Dogpatch neighborhood. (Kudos to Fischer for standing up on behalf the blue Bay Area against Agent Orange.) Schumaker is a veteran illustrator and longtime San Franciscan who made a stunning debut as a fine artist at the same gallery, with a show entitled Years of Pretty, in September, 2013, following a June show at Dominican College in San Rafael. (There were earlier shows in San Francisco (at the nonprofit Meridian Gallery), Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and Shanghai, but I am always the last to know....) About Schumaker’s breathtakingly beautiful painting albums, Kenneth Baker wrote, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Seldom will you encounter contemporary art in any medium of such relaxed, fearless [painterly] confidence... Here and there he takes on the additional challenge of incorporating words into the books. Surprisingly, for the most part, the text does not interfere, nor does it disappear by settling down into obvious meaning. Very rarely does a critic encounter new work that immediately rewards a lifetime of learning to look.
I was similarly enthusiastic, reviewing for ArtLtd.
Recurrent reports of the death of painting are greatly exaggerated, of course, as are related rumors about the death of the individual and the death of art in the hurry-hurry postmodern age. Ward Schumaker's generous display of painterly bravura at the newly relocated Jack Fischer Gallery makes the case for subjectivity and colored mud [artist Philip Guston’s ironic description of oil paints] yet again. Schumaker's work clearly derives from modernist precedents--savory Abstract Expressionism foremost, with notes of Minimalism and Conceptualism--but his synthesis is personal rather than programmatic or theoretical.... "Years of Pretty," a large show of work from the last decade, stunningly confirms that impression, managing to avoid the twin traps of conventional prettiness and conventional iconoclasm... With two highly regarded recent shows, this has been Schumaker's well-deserved year of plenty.
What a delight, then, to see such artistic chops standing up to Trump’s shameless mendacity! Trump Papers (hoisted by his own petard) is a group of thirty-nine of Schumaker’s mixed-media paintings on heavy, textured Stonehenge print paper, mounted casually on the gallery walls, like wheat-pasted event posters, depicting Trump’s provocations, insults and word salads. The title, from Shakespeare, means, to be blown up with one’s own bomb (not pierced by one’s sword); Hamlet, betrayed by his spying college chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dispatches them on a diplomatic mission to England, with a lettre de cachet commanding their execution: royal dispatches, indeed. (The Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam War, the internal Defense department memos leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, may be another allusion implicit in the show title.) Schumaker turns our king’s diatribes and jests against him, by painting them without editorializing, but with stunning effect, with the slurred stenciled letters serving as metaphors for Trump’s slippery-slope verbigerations. The painted words have two natures: as beautiful, expressive aesthetic objects of mysterious power and meaning; and as symbols of vacuous, benighted speech and thought; and they never quite settle into one or the other, remaining visual and verbal contradictions, in unsettling but bracing opposition.
But what glorious paintings they are, responding—with deadpan irony—to our perilous political situation! When I visited the gallery, on Halloween Day, Schumaker told me that he had never made political work before, but that he simply had to make the works, painting around the clock starting right after “the night of horror,” as he puts it, in November, 2016. Three bodies of work have emerged from the Trump debacle. First, the album Hate is What We Need, sold to a private collector, I understand, but published in a reduced-sale facsimile edition by Chronicle Books. Then, because, Schumaker writes, “to paraphrase Mitch McConnell, the man persisted,” a second album, The Administration of Cruelty and Stupidity, emerged. Finally, just in time for election season, Schumaker created the current set of Trump Papers broadsides, improbable meldings of Trumpist blather and visual delight. The paintings are hung unframed, and often overlapping each other, like advertising posters jockeying for wall space. Each painting is accompanied by a short explanation of its context, printed on a handout sheet. Return with us now to those glorious days of yesteryear: Omarosa Manigault’s threat that Trump critics would have to “bow down to the President” (PBS, 9/23/16); Staffer Kelly Sadler’s dismissal of GOP critic John McCain as ”dying anyway” (5/11/18); Trump’s preference, stated before an Iowa audience, for “heroes ...who weren’t captured” (7/18/15); Giuliani’s mystagogic declaration that “Truth isn’t truth” (8/19/18); and Trump’s advice to Missouri veterans that “What you see isn’t really happening” (7/24/18); Trump’s invitation on live TV for electoral interference by Russian trolls (7/21/16); and Trump’s Twitter declaration that “your favorite president did nothing wrong (7/21/18).” Historians of the future—assuming that we have a future, despite the shenanigans now going on— will be astonished and dismayed by what Americans countenanced in this era. Lincoln addressed his Republican Congress in 1862: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.... We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility.... We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”