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Presidential Look: UK Art Museum exhibit examines changing American attitudes about the presidency

By Whitney Hale
Special to KyForward

With all the talk of what it means to be and look presidential during this year’s inimitable election, it makes perfect sense that the University of Kentucky Art Museum is displaying an exhibition of representations of individuals who have been president, as well as those who aspire to the office.

“POTUS,” which is free and open to the public, is on display as part of the museum’s permanent collection through Nov. 27.

“One of the joys of our permanent collection area upstairs is that we can be flexible and respond to current events like the election. It seemed like the perfect time to use art to examine how our attitudes toward the presidency have shifted over time,” said UK Art Museum Curator Janie Welker.

Gilbert Stuart portrait of 1795 oil of George Washington (UK Now Photo)

Gilbert Stuart portrait of 1795 oil of George Washington (UK Now Photo)

“POTUS” (President of the United States) features both historic and contemporary art work ranging from the museum’s iconic 1795 portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart to drawings made by Lexington artist Joel Feldman in response to the 2016 presidential primaries.

Other highlights include a Gutzon Borgulm bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln (on loan from UK Special Collections Research Center) and political cartoons by Edward Sorel and others of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

Described as “wonderfully personal and irreverent” by Welker, Feldman’s art is specific to the 2016 campaign and features satiric drawings of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and other candidates, as well as U.S. citizens contemplating their choices, or lack thereof. Feldman loves to make sketches responding to current cultural and political events as part of his daily art practice, so the museum commissioned a series called “Commentary.”

He made watercolors and collages featuring almost everyone who threw their hat in the ring, along with a variety of alien invaders, robots and sometimes scary members of the general public.

The museum also included a video installation piece by Harry Shearer, a radio show host, voice actor for “The Simpsons” and former writer and cast member of “Saturday Night Live.” It dates to the 2008 election when he was working on NBC late night comedy show and would see live satellite feeds coming into the network. It features Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton — then all candidates — sitting in studios, waiting to go on air.

“It’s fascinating to see how their characters are revealed in these generally unseen moments, and sort of startling to see these moving ‘portraits’ next to more traditional art forms,” Welker said.

While many voters may not naturally connect this year’s election or the actions of government to a concept for a museum exhibition, art has a long and complicated relationship with politics. “It goes back many, many years, definitely to Egyptian times, and probably beyond,” Welker noted. “Think of the French Revolution and Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People.’ Or the Guerilla Girls in the 1970s asking why women need to be naked to be shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art is about culture and all that is essentially human, from a sense of humor to death. How can we avoid politics?”

As visitors take in “POTUS” at the UK Art Museum, Welker hopes they are not only struck by the images in front of them but their own importance in the political process.

“I hope it spurs them to think about their political views and to get out and vote! You know, when my mother was born, women could not vote in this country. We got the vote two years later, but still, I am one generation away from being disenfranchised. I always feel that for all the people who can’t vote or who have been prevented from voting because of sex, race or dirty politics that I have an obligation to show up at the polls.”

The UK Art Museum, located in the Singletary Center for the Arts at Rose Street and Euclid Avenue, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. For more information on membership, contact Lyndi VanDeursen at 859-257-8164 or lyndi.vandeursen@uky.edu.

The mission of the UK Art Museum, part of the UK College of Fine Arts, is to promote the understanding and appreciation of art to enhance the quality of life for people of Kentucky through collecting, exhibiting, preserving and interpreting outstanding works of visual art from all cultures. Home to a collection of more than 4,800 objects including American and European paintings, drawings, photographs, prints and sculpture, the UK Art Museum presents both special exhibitions and shows of work from its permanent collection.

Whitney Hale writes for UK Now. Reach her at whitney.hale@uky.edu or 859-257-8716

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