Presidential Timber 

Lena Reynoso's expressionist portraits scrutinize the usual suspects.

Art and politics are considered incompatible, but many politicians, including Churchill, Eisenhower, and (surprise!) Grant were amateur artists (okay, Hitler, too), while painters like Jacques Louis David and George Caleb Bingham conversely held political posts. Charles Willson Peale, who fought in the American Revolution and later made portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, also founded a museum of natural history in Philadelphia, which is depicted in his 1822 self-portrait, "The Artist in his Museum." Lena Reynoso's shadow-box construction, "George's Museum," features the beckoning Peale unveiling his collection of oddities and curiosa, but here he is adorned with Washington's likeness, copied from Reynoso's painting: America is a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of marvels, and a collaborative cultural artifact — and not just capital's last, best playground.

Reynoso, a doctoral candidate and artist, has a scholarly yet idiosyncratic interest in American folklore. Finding herself fascinated by a placemat depicting the presidents, she decided to paint this "medley of men ... in a non-biased way." While the election and inauguration were certainly relevant, the artist sees herself as nonpolitical, and wants viewers to interpret for themselves her portraits. The series could thus be read as campy kitsch (redolent of shoebox dioramas and baseball cards) or as homages to the great and good dramatis personae of the national epic. Warhol's egregious Famous Jews or Kiefer's portentous German brain trust? The artist opts for centrist compromise: they're "simply humans." Her shadow-box assemblages about Adams, Lincoln, Harding, and Kennedy share the humanizing, demythologizing intent of the Washington/Peale piece. "Warren Harding Billboard," for example, employs a 1920s election poster emblazoned with the slogan "America Always First," and the photo of a luxury car. The painting "Presidential Menagerie" depicts various First Pets, predecessors of the irascible Barney Bush: Washington's horse, Nelson; Lincoln's dog, Fido; Benjamin Harrison's 'possums, Reciprocity and Mr. Protection; Teddy Roosevelt's badger, Josiah; and John Quincy Adams' alligator and silkworms.

But perhaps George's museum is not doomed. After too much acquiescence to ideological arrogance and corporate corruption, the voters have finally abjured their faith in messianic capitalism and fantasy flight suits and returned to reality. During the Civil War, Lincoln and Walt Whitman saw each other on the street nearly every day, and nodded gravely to each other, as equals. The poet wrote, "The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who are here for him." Forty Four Presidents runs through February 9 at Blankspace Gallery (6608 San Pablo Ave., Oakland). or 510-547-6608.


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