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Obama-influenced art at MOCAD, Library St. Collective

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

In a coincidence of timing, two artists for whom President Barack Obama has been key to their careers have simultaneous shows up right now in Detroit.

But only one of them, New York post-pop artist Rob Pruitt at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, actually features the president in the work on display. Pruitt’s “The Obama Paintings” and “The Lincoln Monument” will be up through Aug. 2.

The other, street artist Shepard Fairey — he did the Obama “Hope” poster — exhibits his smaller stenciled paintings in “Printed Matters” at Detroit’s Library Street Collective through Aug. 15. But the “Hope” poster is not included, nor does the president figure anywhere else in the exhibition.

What Fairey gives us instead is a dazzling parade of portraits and political commentaries. Included in the former are numerous rock stars, from Patti Smith to George Harrison to Joe Strummer.

But in many respects, it’s the latter — Fairey’s politically charged panels — that are the most visually intriguing and amusing.

With left-of-center concerns about government surveillance, climate change and state-sponsored violence, the 45-year-old who catapulted to fame during the 2008 election often juxtaposes attractive images that he “challenges,” in his words, with contradictory elements — like happy sunbathers on a beach dominated by looming oil derricks.

These broadsides, mostly rendered in a minimalist palette of red, black and tan, are accompanied by tongue-in-cheek slogans in official-looking typeface like “Obey Propaganda — Sedation of Millions.”

Fairey, who was commissioned to paint a huge mural on the back side of the Compuware building, acknowledges success can be tricky for his sort of street art.

“I come from a culture of rebellion,” he says, “but now some say I’ve become part of the mainstream, that I’ve been corrupted. But I define a sell-out as someone who changes what they do to make more money,” he adds. “I haven’t done that.”

Uptown at MOCAD, Pruitt’s paintings of President Obama, all 2 feet square, cover every inch in gallery after gallery in this show organized by the museum. Over 1,300 canvases hang on the walls, with hundreds more neatly stacked on shelves.

The New York artist, 50, has given himself the high-concept assignment of painting one Obama canvas every day the president’s in office, drawing each image from the news coverage of that day.

Pruitt works in a muted palette of dulled-out blue and dulled-out red, as if drawn from a deeply faded American flag. His painting style is loose but controlled.

In these endless panels, we find the president variously angry, urgent, laughing, and just-plain weary. There’s Obama grinning in a baseball cap, leaning in so a baby can touch his face, and somber and alone at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

In front of all this is Pruitt’s “The Lincoln Monument.” In both its bulk and bright copper color, the monument provides a sharp contrast to the dim paintings behind it.

Constructed of concentric truck tires stacked on top of one another, rather like a fountain, the installation is liberally covered by 200,000 “Lincoln” pennies — the “most ubiquitous form of presidential iconography,” as the accompanying label puts it.

It’s pretty darned cool.



“Printed Matters” — Shepard Fairey

Through Aug. 15

Library Street Collective, 1260 Library, Detroit

11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Thursday - Saturday

(313) 600-7443


“The Obama Paintings” & “The Lincoln Monument” — Rob Pruitt

Through Aug. 2

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward, Detroit

11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday; 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Thursday & Friday

(313) 832-6622