Pittsburgh Glass Center's 'American Idol' exhibit shows U.S. presidents in a different light


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There's no escaping politics for the next few months, so why not have a little fun with it while testing your own attitudes and savvy?

You can do just that at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, where "American Idol" debuted last weekend. Illinois-based artist John Moran was present to unveil the project, which was three years in the making and comprises busts of the 43 U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama. (Mr. Obama is our 44th president, but Grover Cleveland was elected to two non-consecutive terms.)

While they were modeled on official presidential portraits, don't expect the representations you saw in history books. Mr. Moran sculpted the heads of glass, then finished each figure with clothing scavenged from resale shops that he modified and finished with a polyester resin coating.

The contemporized figures may raise a few eyebrows -- Richard Nixon appears in what may be construed as prison stripes, and John F. Kennedy wears an image of Marilyn Monroe -- but Mr. Moran is more interested in humanizing the leaders than in challenging their legendary status. And, like most artists, he's reflecting current culture.

Mr. Moran had been musing upon how reality television has begun to influence the way people perceive on-the-streets reality. "On 'American Idol,' you vote for your favorite singer. That's how the elections have become," he said. "It's like a celebrity culture."

Mr. Obama's first 100 days were "like a second coming. When President Reagan died, he was almost canonized."

We don't know as much about earlier presidents, so he decided to embellish their personas a bit and "make them tangible, to poke fun at the idea of celebrity worship and at politics. I would look for obscure things about them while trying to understand their political views."

The word "mule" on George Washington's shirt, for example, was inspired by his being the first to breed mules as work animals, Mr. Moran said. As the first president, he is the only one to hold an American flag. Two rearing horses were Photoshopped and printed on the back of Washington's Goodwill-find jean jacket because he brushed his horses' teeth but neglected his own. "People now take care of their cars, but not themselves."

Mr. Moran, who is 32 and a Philadelphia native, found other parallels between the past and the present.

"Politics today is divisive, but it always was. It's changed in the way it's perceived. We have more access to it."

The artist has a long-standing interest in politics, philosophy, religion and social behavior, and owns 30 or more books about the presidents including several biographies. He began reading in earnest about them after he returned from a year and a half of teaching English in China in the mid-2000s. He draws inspiration from the observations of historian Howard Zinn as well as from "The Daily Show" satire.

Mr. Moran's first concept was to make small presidential figures, and that evolved into a major project, started while he was in residence in 2009 at the storied WheatonArts in southern New Jersey.

He begins each piece by blowing a bubble, which he tweaks using tools such as butter knives, tweezers and others that he's designed. "Glass is very fleshy," Mr. Moran said, "the way it moves when it's hot. Clay is a reductive medium. Glass isn't additive or reductive. [You] just push it around."

After working the initial form, he adds eyes (he makes about 10 for every pair used), eyelids and ears. He may sandblast or etch a piece. Most of the work is done outside of the hot shop.

The presidents are displayed at the gallery in groupings rather than chronologically. Those may be as simple as presidents that appear on common U.S. currency, i.e., Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Jackson. Martin Van Buren, the eighth president, is placed next to number 41, George H.W. Bush. It was common for vice presidents to be elected as presidents through the Van Buren term, Mr. Moran said. That trend was interrupted until Mr. Bush's win in 1988.

Mr. Obama shares with Bill Clinton a space both divided and aligned. Mr. Clinton's jogging jacket is unzipped, revealing a superman logo hanging on a gold chain over a muscular chest. The gold refers to his presidency's budget surplus, Mr. Moran said, the exposed chest to his ladies man reputation. "But it's not his real chest." He wears an anatomical T-shirt. "Is that the way he was? Or not?"

Mr. Obama is shown in hip-hop attire -- a hoodie and Public Enemy T-shirt -- inspired by his campaign. (The piece was completed before hoodies received negative press.)

"Public Enemy is very politically active," Mr. Moran said, and the musical group addresses subjects such as racial equality. The target refers to Mr. Obama's being targeted by the opposition over issues like his place of birth.

Each president is identified by his nickname only, giving visitors the opportunity to puzzle them out before checking a key.

"People aren't infallible. People just make mistakes. Even if I don't agree with them, I don't like to think they're biblically evil. People do dumb things and they do good things."

Mr. Moran said that too often people's attitudes are either black or white, Republican or Democrat, left or right. "There's no gray area in the way they view things. But that's the area I find most interesting."

"I think an artist's job is to pose questions, to start discussions. It's good as long as you're hearing each other."

"Idols" continues at 5472 Penn Ave., Garfield, through Nov. 10. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Information: 412-365-2145 or www.pittsburghglasscenter.org.

Modern Dialect

A reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 221 N. Main St., Greensburg, for "Modern Dialect: American Paintings From the John and Susan Horseman Collection." The collectors will speak at 6:30 p.m. about the 68 works on view. The exhibition continues through Nov. 4. Free admission; cash bar. Information: 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org.

nation - artarchitecture

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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