Karl Rove is a baby. Or, at least the Karl Rove of Michael Caines’ art collection Perfect Happiness is. In one painting Rove’s bulbous forehead peeks out from under a bonnet, while a smiling Ronald Reagan, depicted in a blue frock and enormous hat, holds on to Rove’s tiny body like a proud mother.
“I think black comedy is my territory,” said Caines, a Toronto native now based in Brooklyn. “These are serious and intense paintings, but hopefully funny to look at. I’m definitely playing, and doing something a bit naughty.”
Rove, the Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff under President George W. Bush, is also depicted as a version of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz in another of Caines’ paintings. He wears the signature blue dress and red shoes, but walks with a deer in the scene from Jean-Honord Fragonard’s 17th century painting, “The Swing.” The head is distinctly Rove’s, only the corners of his mouth are droopy and his facial features cinched close together in the center of his face as though he’s about to cry. His political power has been stripped — he’s in Caines’ world now.
“There’s something so wretched and mean about Rove, so I was thinking about where I could put him so that he’d be safe and good!”
For this project, Caines chose to depict mostly American political figures and place them in settings inspired by fairytales and 18th century Christianity. The paintings and sketches are technically well done — the characters have realistic features and the lines and shades executed with thought and precision. But Caines’ work also succeeds because it comes across as both sincere and ridiculous. It’s a grotesque, and yet an accurate portrayal of political pomposity.
“Perfect Happiness” was launched in December 2010 at the Mulherin Pollard gallery in Chelsea, New York. Caines says it’s the most overtly political work he’s ever done, and that it’s had the best reception of all his art.
“I think we’re in a very political time and that that makes these images have a richness,” said Caines. “I’m political in the sense that I’m always trying to ask myself questions and probe at things I’m curious about,” he added. “[The portraits] give me pleasure and I hope that if they’re juicy for me they’ll be juicy for other people.”
Caines didn’t paint Canadian political figures because he felt they didn’t have the same worldwide significance as the Americans he chose to represent. He wanted to make his work as universal as possible.
“I’m interested in these political figures because in a way they represent the worst and best of our great aspirations and failures,” he said. “In a way they become stand-ins for all of us and I think that’s attractive to me.”
In another painting, a young Reagan, this time in a brown robe, holds a bleating lamb in his arms. The lamb has the face of Glenn Beck, the infamous talk show host on the Fox News Channel. There’s a sense of sweetness to the pastoral image. The smiling Reagan, surrounded by an aura of light, looks almost godly. But the half-man half-lamb version of Beck, which looks as though it belongs in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is rather creepy. With this image Caines said he wanted to address the revision of Reaganism he feels is taking place today. He also wanted to play with stereotypes and his own perceptions.
“I usually think of right-wing ideologues as overly macho somehow,” said Caines. “But Beck is oddly soft and feminine almost. His face is soft, he has soft, lamby hair, and he often cries on his show.”
Caines took a similarly unconventional approach to conservative political figures in an earlier collection called Revelations and Dog. The pieces were part of a project organized by New York publisher Mark Batty, where five artists would each create a version of the Book of Revelation. This is where politics first entered Caines’ work as he appropriated scenes from the biblical text to fit his worldview.
“Revelation has always been kind of a coded political critique, and since then it’s been reinterpreted in all kinds of political ways,” said Caines. “It’s generally the right wing kind of world that uses Revelation as propaganda, so I thought it would be fun to have a left-leaning take on Revelation. I interpreted it playfully with a different slant.”
The passages 8:13 to 9:11 tell the story of locusts being sent to earth to torture “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” According to scripture, the locusts had human-like faces. According to Caines, they had the face of Rush Limbaugh – with a cigar in his mouth, of course.
In the collection, Sarah Palin plays the role of “The great mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth” sitting atop the seven headed beast, from Revelation 17:3 to 17:18. She also makes a cameo as a bird in Caines’ depiction of verses 14:1 to 14:6.
“There’s something about absorbing images through media where I feel like I’m being constantly acted upon by what they do as people but also as images,” said Caines. “I think that making paintings or images with them is a way to act on them in return.”
“I hope in some way they’re not just unkind,” Caines added, in reference to both “Perfect Happiness” and “Revelations and Dog.” “I do feel in an odd way that making those images is a way of finding tenderness in myself for those images and the ugliest parts of myself. I don’t think they’re mean. I hope they’re not. That wasn’t the intention… Okay, the Sarah Palin one is a bit mean.”