Boling, a Kansas City, Mo., native who has a temporary teaching appointment at Virginia Commonwealth University, didn't realize that his pop culture-referencing work on display now would itself brush up against the sensibilities of political life. When U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama's advance team came to check out the Plant Zero space for a May 8 reception hosted by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, they needed a gut check about some of Boling's work.
It isn't that the two pieces they found troubling are obscene. But if by some random happenstance, that the candidate should be pictured near the paintings, within this high tension, zero-sum, blog-frenzy media-drenched society of the spectacle in which we at present find ourselves, somebody somewhere maybe could make something of how Obama came to be there alongside the images. And, the pictures themselves might prove volatile if placed in a political situation.
Boling recontextualizes images from magazines, television and film as art. That this little incident overlaps with his own creative endeavor isn't lost on him. Boling, who has spent months studying at theLouvre and knows his art history, is having a little fun with these giant pieces while also trying to make a point. One work, "Snake Charmer" an oil on canvas measuring 72" x 120" depicts the sudden iconographic image of Spears alighting from her car as the soon-to-be-jailed Paris Hilton is caught in a half-smile in the background. The offensive part of the image isn't even there. Why? Everybody's seen it already. The image isn't really erotic, but more like what it is: a sudden paparazzi picture taken on the fly that just happened to capture Spears in the act of, well, not being ladylike.
The second image is taken from "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" with the exact same large size, titled "Honest Abe" and shows a female torso in a red T-shirt with "KILL LINCOLN" emblazoned across a braless chest. Ah, sex and violence, can we not get away from it? As Pauline Kael, in a knowing and reductive manner, and with the intention of full-frontal punning titled her second volume of film criticism: "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Kael said she lifted the title from an Italian poster. For Kael, the phrase became a statement about film's basic allure. "This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this," she wrote.
Kael could also be writing about contemporary political candidates who are reduced to sound bites, talking points and a limited agenda with which they may not even agree. We may find them attractive and compelling, but, in the end, like so many blockbuster movies, they're almost always are forgettable.
Are these people who must demand of us our time and money really candidates at all but just suits and names and faces that are wrapped around whosever special interests? One needs to return to Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President, 1960," that ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Kennedy-Nixon contest, that discusses the effect of the television debate. One political advisor toward the end of the book laments that sensible politics in the U.S. is finished; for his own safety and those of his children, he's moving to France. And that was in 1960, pre-24/7 cable television and even bloviating pundits interviewing each other that is the miserable condition of what passes for news today. Look away Ed Murrow, look away.
Boling is philosophic. "It’s not Obama to blame, or his people, but this society and culture that participate in tabloid culture, and a political culture that isn’t far from tabloid culture. Which is the subject of my art, anyway."
Team Obama perhaps could see the several layers of humor in "Honest Abe;" based upon the appropriation of the image, its content and the words themselves. But they didn't want their man running the risk of getting a shaky cell phone cam image of the guest of honor standing next to it, even as a joke. This is not a time when ambiguity, nuance or anything that might cause three seconds of reflection is allowable, not even in something as important as a bid for the President of the United States.
Boling has followed Obama's career since his run for the Senate in Illinois and thinks he's a good candidate. What frustrates him — and it's a good guess Boling isn't the only one — is, "The idea of a collision of politics and culture that creates this overly cautious environment that is damaging to the right of free expression."
He's concerned about the puritanical element of the culture that makes some forms of critiquing it difficult, if not impossible. This serves as a reminder that despite the fake news shows and sketch comedy and satiric Web sites that it seems that the people who most like to laugh are the dead ones recorded on the sound tracks of TV Land reruns."
People take themselves too seriously," Boling says. "People who play the politics of it, that threat ends up hurting free speech and the arts, We’re supposed to be all about free speech then we jump on whovever exercises it, or those who are associated with those who exercise it. Was it Ashcroft who had the statue of Justice covered? That far-right, holier-than-thou knee-jerk reaction is a threat to our culture overall." Cultural and political powerbrokers, in order to advance their agendas, must walk a narrow path that's been laid for them that they don't agree with but aren't able to change. It's a bit like that old game "Operation," when you tried to remove the funny bone, and the buzzer sounded and the grimacing patient's nose lit up. There's not much margin for error. If you don't believe it, ask Howard Dean.
Boling explains that through Plant Zero management he was asked to speak with Obama representatives. "They were apologetic about the situation, and they wanted to be clear," Boling says, "that censorship isn’t what they are about. It’s centered on the perception and reaction that might come out of it."
He replaced "Honest Abe" and draped "Snake Charmer." Of course, now everyone will want to know what's under there, and that makes art out of it all, after all.
Boling was invited to the gathering and he's going because he thinks it'll be interesting. But this un-incident shows us something a little sad about what is out of kilter about the dog and pony show that passes for U.S. electoral politics in 2007.