Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Art Criticism

I’m no art critic.

As a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up … well, for about six months … but after awhile, I figured out that I could draw a really mean stick figure (I mean, these were good), but that was it.

When I tried watercoloring, the paints ran wherever they pleased. When I dealt with clay, it never quite made the shape I had in my mind – regardless of whether the clay was spinning or just sitting there. In a soapstone carving class, I took a block of the stuff and, after much struggle, settled on carving … a pair of dice.

Frankly, anyone who takes up brushes, chisels, or their own hands and fingers, and is remotely successful at creating works of visual art … I tip my cap to ya. Heck, I can’t even figure out how to make a cap. (And don’t ask what my creations in the sewing part of middle-school home-economics class looked like. I said don’t ask.)

With that as background and backdrop … I got a thought or two about a painting I saw this week.

Its creator was Philadelphia-area painter Nelson Shanks, who has been called America’s “eminent painter” … whatever that’s supposed to mean … and its subject was former president Bill Clinton.

The painting was first displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, DC, in 2006, and was rotated out of the American Presidents exhibit.

In an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News this week, Shanks revealed something about the painting which, at the end of the day, I think says much more about him than his subject, or even his abilities as a painter.

A cursory glance at the official painting of President Bill Clinton that is part of the National Portrait Gallery collection would easily miss an ode to the lowest point of his presidency — Monica Lewinsky. But it’s there, the artist revealed … [he] cunningly included a shadow over the fireplace cast from a blue dress on a mannequin.”  [This, from the Washington Post article about the Daily News article, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/in-the-loop/wp/2015/03/02/portrait-artist-says-he-painted-lewinsky-reference-in-bill-clintons-official-painting/&gt; .]

Well … I suppose there’s no denying that the Clinton presidency had two parts: the pre-Lewinsky era and the post-Lewinsky era. This cannot be denied or changed.

But is a reference to the post-Lewinsky era appropriate for a portrait to be hung in the National Gallery?

Would you put a piece of Native American memorabilia in the background of a painting of Andrew Jackson?

Would you put a bottle of whiskey on a mantlepiece in the background of a painting of Ulysses S. Grant? (It’s not what you think. Look it up.)

Would you put a teapot on a desk in the background of a painting of Warren G. Harding?

I’m not even sure I’d have the grit to put a hint of anything referencing the Watergate break-in in the background of a painting of Richard Nixon. And that guy might have had it coming.

Would you do anything so tasteless as to put a playbill from Ford’s Theater on a desk in the background of a painting of Abraham Lincoln, or some reference to the city of Dallas in a painting of John F. Kennedy?

I can’t speak for presidential portrait artists; but if I were one, I think I would aim to create the most realistic image of the actual person, and leave the background – the Oval Office – fairly generically White House. Maybe that’s just my opinion about how to do it appropriately. If I were creating a work of art to hang in a sports bar, then maybe I might feel less constrained toward scoring dignity points.

Hold that thought, about realism. I’ll get back to that.

Shanks said, in the Daily News piece:

Shanks said painting Clinton was his hardest assignment because ‘he is probably the most famous liar of all time.’ So he added the nod to the Lewinsky scandal because it had cast a shadow over Clinton’s presidency. ‘He and his administration did some very good things, of course,’ Shanks said, ‘but I could never get this Monica thing completely out of my mind, and it is subtly incorporated in the painting. … It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.’”

Oh okay. I see where you’re going, now.

That’s just plain immature.

Maybe it’s just my take on the presidential portraits that hang in the National Portrait Gallery, but I would think that such an environment, and such works, are not the proper location for an op-ed piece.

When judges have a strong prejudice about something in a trial they are asked to oversee, very often they recuse themselves from hearing the case. Feeling that strongly about President Clinton, maybe Shanks might have done a similar thing.

Gentle suggestion for the painter of a presidential portrait: it’s not, strangely enough, all about you.

Back to “realism”, now.

And actually, “realism” turns out to be the hallmark of Nelson Shanks’ work, at his own insistence.

Shanks was interviewed by Paula Marantz Cohen as part of the “Drexel Interview” series (an interview which is about fifteen minutes of dour and unlikeable … but that’s just my opinion). You can find the interview on YouTube: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ekwg0jXUMzY&gt; . Within the first two minutes, Shanks answered a question about his philosophy of art this way:

I happen to be an advocate and believer in realism, because I think that nature, in its incredible vastness and variety, is the best and really the only real vocabulary that an artist can legitimately work with, without falling off the cliff of self-indulgence and just basic nonsense.”

Unless, Shanks continued:

…unless he does it for his own personal therapy and nothing else.”

And thank you, we have just added to “immature” … “hypocritical”.

As it happens, I think Shanks’ portrait portrays Bill Clinton’s face as a bit too wide – and there’s a photograph of Clinton standing next to the painting that makes it easy to compare the two faces. A bit too close to Ted Koppel.

But that’s just my opinion.

I’m no art critic.


March 4, 2015 - Posted by | arts, Famous Persons | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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