Chris Santa Maria
Jim Kempner Fine Art, New York, NY
By JONATHAN GOODMAN December 2, 2020
Chris Santa Maria’s PRESIDENT TRUMP (2016-20), a six-foot-square paper collage on canvas, began with the election of Trump four years ago and was finished this November, the time of his defeat--should he accept defeat!--in this year’s election.The collage consists of thousands of tiny images cut out from various magazines (with a wide range of political leanings). Overall, the image is a bit rough, but readable: Trump’s tan face is located in the upper left of the canvas, along with a white area surrounding his head, and a blue sky in the lower middle of the composition, beneath which sits a green sea. The upper right side is a dark brown, but it should be remembered that the planes of colors are made more than moderately intricate by the presence of all kinds of tiny magazine pictures--of the American flag, of individual people, of star shapes, of satiric images such as Trump golfing off the top of his penis, which juts out from the left side of his head.
According to Santa Maria, when Trump first took office, the artist began reading articles by experts on authoritarianism. Generally speaking, it is not mistaken to see America’s current political leanings as profoundly conservative, and it sadly makes sense that a man as authoritarian as Trump would be elected. Santa Maria is one of many, many artists who were deeply troubled by the election, and set his energies to the creation of a collage that would, as the big picture, reflect the bloated face of a buffoon, and in the microcosm, the innumerable visual components we come across in life, including examples of people, culture, nature. It is not difficult to comprehend the overall composition from a distance, but viewers of the collage must be very close to its surface to make out the detailed elements filling the image. They are impossible to decipher without standing right beside the exterior of the work.
In a way, then, the busy surface composing a readable overview is a way of bringing in the complex confusion of the world--in a picture in which that confusion underscores the posturing of a man whose blustering narcissism distanced himself from the voters and, indeed, the world. The image is grossly presented--it is hard to make out the general features of the face, except for a pair of misfocused, goggle eyes, and while the blue strip of sky and the dark green strip of the sea are readily apparent beneath Trump's head, it is clear they are busy with tiny images that are hard to immediately recognize. Thus, the big picture is apparent from the start, but there is another truth--the more than countable number of elements that interact on earth. Santa Maria is portraying Trump like the petty tyrant he is, but we also should be wary of the extraordinarily numerous objects and people making the world more complex, on some level even unfathomably complex. Perhaps it is this complexity, and our inability to understand it effectively, that created the vacuum enabling Trump to take over power.
Usually, political art in America doesn’t work--we don’t have a tradition of outstanding art in this genre, and the comfort of our lives is a distinct counter to the political messages we wish to convey. But to the artist’s credit, PRESIDENT TRUMP is not only a striking work of art, it is also an effective political condemnation. The collage’s success is likely built to a good extent on the decision Santa Maria made to construct an image from thousands of cutout magazine pictures. It also results from the composition’s double perspective, long and short, that works on either level. In this piece, it is clear that Santa Maria is an artist of unusual craft--someone with the patience to collect and place tiny images, over years, in service of a larger image arrangement. Maybe it can be said that the collage’s overview is a satiric reading of power, while the closeup reveals quite literally the little man, emphasizing the democratic nature of American politics. The contrast is genuine and is cause for worry: we elected an autocrat before deposing him: someone who took no notice of the nation in his drive to accumulate power. That Santa Maria’s image can be read in this way, and in the others mentioned, means that his visual insights are inspired. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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