A Vision in White

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A Vision in White views Michelle Obama through the lens of recent media coverage, capturing both her splendor and the limitations of its gaze. By distilling the media’s portrayal of Michelle Obama down to her most discussed features, this piece reveals the ways in which her national portrait remains partial and fragmented. What is visible points to what is invisible, ultimately showing how Michelle Obama, as a whole person, is publicly reduced into mere parts. A Vision in White underscores intersections and overlaps between power, race, and gender in American culture.

THE CONTEXT:

When the term “First Lady” is used apolitically, it describes a woman with an exceptional level of talent in a particular field (Aretha Franklin has been honored as “The First Lady of Soul”; Madonna is the “First Lady of Pop”). The First Lady of the United States of America, conversely, earns her title through her husband’s election. Stars in entertainment are celebrated for their unique gifts, while a First Lady is appreciated for her ability to assimilate into a role nearly identical to that of the woman who preceded her. She is championed as a wife, mother, hostess, and volunteer. It is the First Lady’s ability to adopt this persona that is key to her legacy: her dedication to politically non-divisive causes, ability to organize and attend ceremonies, and of course, to look good doing it all.

The few who have defied the prescribed role of First Lady by remaining meaningfully employed or by voicing their political views have faced intense public scrutiny. Interestingly, these “unladylike” activities have drawn attention to the First Lady as a cultural gague for historical shifts—and at times transgressions—in normative gender roles.  Over sixty percent of women in the U.S. are currently employed, a fact which would lead one to think that a professional First Lady would be celebrated in the White House—yet the nation let out a sigh of relief after the 2008 presidential election when Michelle Obama traded in her legal practice for designer fashions and the fight against childhood obesity.

Like a majority of Americans, I was excited to see Michelle Obama become First Lady in 2009. Obama, a black lawyer from Chicago, in many ways embodied an ideal portrait of the American dream. From her blue-collar upbringing to her graduation from Princeton, Obama was a bold choice for First Lady. Campaign interviews revealed her to be both articulate and driven.  She framed her marriage as a partnership, and her children as her greatest responsibility. Doubts about her ability to put aside her professional ambitions to assume the role of First Lady were quickly put to rest in the first term. During her celebrated tenure, it has become clear that Michelle Obama holds a specific cultural significance, unlike any other First Lady. Not only is she the first woman of color to become First Lady, she has become emblematic of America’s struggle to negotiate issues of race, power, and gender.

Cultural tensions have been visible in the media. For decades a First Lady’s fashion has been part of the inaugural blitz, but in early 2009, media outlets began reporting sightings of Obama’s arms, referring to them as the “Gun Show.” This unprecedented focus on her body crossed an unspoken line of civility; a president’s wife was being freely objectified by the media. Comparing the treatment of other First Ladies during their time in office makes this difference even more pronounced: Kennedy was celebrated as a fashion icon; Clinton for her many fashion faux pas; yet news coverage of the designers Obama wears runs second to how her figure looks in the clothes.

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Mainstream media discourse suggests that the American public is both mesmerized by and terrified of Obama’s strength and beauty. It is as if our nation is transfixed with the otherness of this First Lady of color. The convergence of the role of First Lady and the black female body have evoked a form of overt, sexual objectification never before directed at the office of First Lady. This focus on Obama’s body has sexualized what has been a historically sexless role encouraging a type of “parts and pieces” dialogue reminiscent of both auction blocks and meat markets in this nation’s not-so-distant past.

While some backlash against The Administration is expected in any presidency, the level of sexism and racism directed at this First Lady by men in power is astonishing. Attempts to overshadow Obama’s extensive education, professional experience, and value as a human being further reflect the unique struggle this First Lady has faced in overcoming social and cultural prejudice.

RELATED WORKS:

A Vision in White is part of an evolving series of artworks I have made over the past five years that explore the cultural intersections of the role of First Lady in contemporary society. As national role models, the ways in which each presidential wife negotiates the issues of marriage, identity, and power have historically correlated with normative gender trends for women and girls in the United States. Mrs. President, a piece I made in 2009, engages the obscurity of what it is to become a historical figure through marriage.  This piece features silhouettes of each first lady’s head with her corresponding husband drawn on top. The Great American Bake-Off features cross-stitched portraits of the 2008 democratic candidates’ spouses framed in bakeware. This piece focuses on the cultural interplay of gender, race, and domesticity that permeated political discourse during this historic election. To see more of these and my other works please visit my site.

While making A Vision in White, two sculptures continued to resurface in my thoughts: Fragments of a Queen’s Face, from the 18th Dynasty of the Amarna Period of ancient Egypt, and Claes Oldenburg’s London Knees, 1966.

A Vision in White draws from the formal arrangement of these works, as well as from their aesthetic, which is both minimal and refined. From the jasper lips, I drew inspiration to create a likeness of Obama that was well crafted and reflective of her beauty. Casting the arms out of glass not only gave them a diaphanous quality, but also created a resonance with sculpture from the Classical period in ancient Greece and Rome, as did the draping of cloth across the armature that forms Obama’s invisible body.

A Vision in White and London Knees share the use of a hem line to delineate what part of the body is represented in the sculpture.  Similarly, they speak to a moment in the fashion continuum. What is true of Fragment of a Queen’s Face, London Knees and A Vision in White is that they are all informed by what is missing.  It is by recognizing what is not there that each portrait becomes whole.

Other artists who also make great work about the First Ladies worth checking out: Martha Wilson, Jean-Pierre Khazem, and Sarah Ferguson.

PROCESS IMAGES:

The slideshow below details the many steps taken in creating this artwork. You can pause it and scroll through by clicking at the bottom of any image.

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A Vision in White took approximately 400 hours to produce over the course of four months in three cities.

THANKS:

Many thanks to Martina Igerbraese-Cole, Angela Caldera, Jill Sebastian, Steve Feren, Matt Pipenbrok, Brian Nigus, Qiang Liu, Rory Erler and Mary Hoffman for the various ways you helped to make this piece happen. This portrait is a success thanks to you and your generous lending of time and knowledge. Thank you to Lea Johnson, Ginny Johnson, and Brandi Rogers for being my faithful editors. Your eyes and ears are invaluable. Thanks to Eric Baileys for the beautiful photographs. Finally, thank you to Debra Brehmer for including A Vision in White in the current exhibition at the Portrait Society Gallery, The Personal is Political: Martha Wilson & MKE.  I am ever thankful for the opportunity, support and risk your gallery takes in the name of fine art.

A Vision in White is now on display at the Portrait Society Gallery through July 14th.

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Eggs Benedict: Part 2


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A translator relayed this quote from Pope Benedict during his trip to Africa in 2009:

“I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.”

In 2009 I began working on a portrait of emeritus Pope Benedict, a latex embroidery made out of approximately 17,000 non-lubricated condoms. I completed the stitching just as Pope Benedict entered retirement in March of 2013. Eggs Benedict is currently on display at the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This post covers my experience of having Eggs Benedict go viral, riding a wild media wave (or two), and engaging global conversations about the importance of interventionist artwork.  I also discuss how the events of the past month have inspired me to auction off the piece in a relatively unconventional manner, in hopes of raising money to benefit AIDS advocacy worldwide.

GOING VIRAL:

It has been just over a month since I posted Eggs Benedict on WordPress, and four weeks since I gave my first interview. In this time I have talked to numerous print reporters in person and on the phone and I just completed my third televised interview. News coverage has crossed the oceans. My thoughts have been translated into languages I cannot speak. Story lines (factual and otherwise) have caught like wildfire giving rise to an onslaught of activity on comment boards worldwide.

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When the first articles hit the internet the portrait began to take on a new life; one that was relatively indifferent to my practice and completely within the context of the daily grind. Due to the unusual nature of the story, it found shelter in an array of news sections from Arts & Entertainment to “Weird News,” and from Religion to the front page of various publications. Bloggers began blogging about it.

My age was misquoted by one source, which then was piggybacked by numerous other news agencies, making me 10 years younger in only 24 hours. While such a shot at rejuvenation might be a welcome chance for some, I’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks emphasizing the full 35 years of my life, while being ever amazed at the laxness of fact checking that can take place at the high speed of modern journalism.

With that said, I have been very pleased with the type of coverage given by the reporters who have interviewed me. It is through their interest and skill that this story has gained traction.  Barbara Munker at the German Press Agency broke the story worldwide, while  Mary-Louise Schumacher and Kat Murrell contextualized the artwork within the broader scope of my practice.  Television reporters Stephanie Brown and Angelica Duria did an incredible job crafting as much depth as possible into two-minute stories for their respective news programs.  The list goes on, but in an effort to not laundry list I can say that all of the reporters I spoke with were careful not to stir additional conflict in this story or sensationalize the piece.

Not surprisingly, some factual fabrication has surfaced. A few conservative publications claimed that Eggs Benedict was proof that federal funding for the arts should be cut entirely, which I found ridiculous. No federal funds were spent on this project. I paid for it all out of pocket, like most artists do. However, I see no reason why this piece or any other piece of artwork  gives reason to condone censorship, or the removal of federal funding for the arts. Good art often makes people uncomfortable as it asks viewers to reconsider aspects of their lives that are often accepted, denied, or just plain taboo.

The online comments have been incredible. From the anonymity of their computer armchairs, commenters have both celebrated and condemned the artwork. Some have celebrated or condemned me as a person. From what I have seen (and yes, I have peered into the small infernos of disagreement) the majority of response to Eggs Benedict has been overwhelmingly positive. While admitting this may dampen the cry of controversy from the media, I believe it makes room for the greater conversation that is at stake concerning the accountability world leaders must face when their statements put the greater good of all at risk. Over the past five weeks I have witnessed a global conversation about safe sex, scientific fact and the place of public health in relation to moral platitudes. Further, I have witnessed how important and necessary art is in creating room for these difficult conversations to happen.

MOST ASKED QUESTIONS:

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Over the past month I have been asked a number of questions about Eggs Benedict. While most of the key points of my answers have been published, I feel it necessary to take this opportunity to address a few of these questions more fully.

What do you think of all of the attention Eggs Benedict has generated? Was it expected? Was this piece a media grab?

I think the global response to Eggs Benedict signifies that people are ready to engage in a conversation about the issues the work brings up. No single person could craft the level of media interest that this artwork has received. It is a welcome surprise to me. As an artist I have very little control over how far the story of a particular artwork will travel. I simply make art because I need to. I write about it because that is part of my process. My contribution to this experience has been making artwork, writing a blog and granting interviews. If there was any media grab at all it was the media grabbing my story.

What do you say to people who think this work is disgusting or disrespectful?

I can respect that not everyone will embrace this artwork. There are also communities of people who see Eggs Benedict as a necessary and brave statement. We all may have differing opinions and ways of looking at the world, but the freedom of expression is central to who we are as a people. Respecting someone else’s perspective is civilized, and engaging in thoughtful dialogue (even if it’s heated) is healthy.

I dedicated a great deal of time crafting this portrait in a way that it is immaculate in its presentation. I encourage all of the people who have taken offense to see it in person. My guess is that you might just be surprised by what you see.

Who is your next condom portrait going to be of? Any other spiritual leaders on your list?

I would like to encourage everyone who has wondered this to visit my website. Perhaps it’s natural to think that condoms are my specialty with the amount of coverage this piece has gotten, but if you take a look at my other bodies of work you will see that I work in a wide array of materials. Each project I begin usually demands learning how to use materials I have little experience with. Material choice plays a central role in each artwork I make and is necessary in helping create the total meaning of each piece.

While looking at my other bodies of work you will also begin to notice that the people I have chosen to depict are from popular culture. I am not particularly interested in taking on spiritual leaders nor do I have issues with Catholics or people from any denomination. What I am interested in is bringing focus to a number of public figures whose statements, life decisions, or personas are reflected in the personal challenges we face as participants in our current cultural climate.

If there was one thing you could say about this Eggs Benedict what would it be?

Art starts multiple conversations at a glance. Eggs Benedict encourages dialogue about our world leaders and their responsibility to public health. It also presents condoms in a festive and positive way. Further, Eggs Benedict incorporates the plight of the poorest of the poor; women and children, in that the portrait itself is made through embroidery, which is a form of women’s traditional craft. Family planning and sexuality are woven into the very way the artwork was made. AIDS prevention and advocacy are the central to concepts to Eggs Benedict, but included in it’s message are notions of sacred sculpture, ritual and reverence.

ART FOR A BETTER WORLD:

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The events of the past month have brought me to make an unconventional decision concerning the sale of Eggs Benedict. I have decided to open the sale of this work to the world through an online auction. My hope is this will continue the global conversation this artwork has generated.  I have also decided to donate a portion of the proceeds to help fund AIDS advocacy and relief.

Eggs Benedict, which began as an intervention will now to evolve into action. Through the power of contemporary art and philanthropy this artwork will bring positive change to the world. The more generous the bid, the more good will be done. My hope is that Eggs Benedict will be purchased by an institution or collector who envisions this work on public display with the possibility of seeing it travel.

The percentage of the sale that to be donated and the organizations to be awarded funds will be decided in collaboration with the highest bidder. Once the piece is purchased the details will be made public.

I look forward to reporting back on the results of this auction! Thank you all for your interest. Without all of you, this would not be happening.