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Chief Executives, Well Roasted

Presidents and their pretensions are skewered in an exhibit whose satire says something not just about politicians but those who elected them.


At a time when political conventions have become over the top, staged love fests for presidential candidates, along comes an exhibit of funny, irreverent and sobering posters of occupants of the Oval Office.

There's a photographic image of Lyndon Baines Johnson tugging on the ears of his two beagles under the words, "He who meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears." Or Robbie Conal's fleshy portrait of Bill Clinton, captioned "Dough Nation."

The two street posters are among the 40 featured in "A Presidential Rogues Gallery: Satirical Posters, 1960s-Present." The show, which opens Tuesday at the Frumkin/Duval Gallery in Santa Monica, takes presidential dissing to a high art, skewering the last four decades of Republicans and Democrats alike, and yielding insights into the electorate along with the elected.

It's popular art as political touchstone, and what better time to give it a high profile than during the Democratic National Convention?

"The posters say that none of these presidents are so powerful that they can't be challenged," muses Carol Wells, executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, who curated the exhibit. "If you can laugh at someone with power, you are empowered. Change can happen."

The posters also indicate that "the 1st Amendment is alive and well in the print media at least," offers Josh Needle, who sells another form of political satire, editorial cartoons, at his Santa Monica gallery, Impolitic.

Satiric art has been a staple of American politics--President Andrew Jackson was a favorite target in his day. But during McCarthyism the art form waned, in part because open dissent was sometimes risky. "Making political posters is a fairly public operation," Wells says.

The Vietnam War brought a renaissance, attracting new artists and a new edge to the medium along with advances in graphics, color and design. Richard Nixon's Watergate troubles, Jimmy Carter's oil crisis, the S&L bailout under President Bush and AIDS and impeachment all have kept the creative juices flowing for poster artists.

"History is written by the winners," Wells notes, referring to elected politicians. The presidential posters, mostly by anonymous street artists, offer "the other side of the headlines." Carried in demonstrations, plastered on walls, and sold in head shops and bookstores, the best images of the past 40 years go for that last laugh, a dig, a thought or an image that echoes.

The heads of Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk--architects of the Vietnam escalation--are superimposed on a black-and-white photograph of the Nuremberg trials. A roll of toilet paper with multiple images of Richard M. Nixon's face makes its point without words.

"We've certainly gotten less respectful toward our presidents," notes John T. Woolley, a UC Santa Barbara political science professor. "But we've gotten less respectful about a whole lot of things in society," he adds, citing rap music lyrics and popular depictions of religious leaders.

If satiric artists have become more cutting, presidents have made themselves more tempting targets by blurring the line between public and private behavior. But, Woolley notes, even as the public laughs at a president's private peccadilloes, "the thing that still matters most is job performance. When we think of the great presidents--Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and FDR--they were aggressive in their use of presidential power. There is much forgiveness that comes with success."

The genesis for "The Rogues Gallery" was the "counter-inaugural ball" exhibit of Ronald Reagan posters that Wells organized in 1985 before the political graphics center was established. The onetime medieval art historian mounted the Reagan exhibit at the First Unitarian Church on 8th Street in Los Angeles for a Nicaraguan group opposing aid to the Contras. "I was upset," she says of Reagan's reelection.

Her collection was tiny then. Now Wells can exorcise her frustrations with the current presidential contenders by sifting through the center's archive of 35,000 domestic and foreign posters, on subjects ranging from the Cuban revolution to genetically modified food.

To Wells, the "Rogues Gallery" exhibit underscores what's wanted in a president: "a leader who understands that in our democracy it's not corporations who call the shots but people's needs--decent health care, housing and education."

Cartoonists, on the other hand, have slightly different priorities than satirists, Josh Needle notes. "They like presidents with funny faces--big ears, big noses and big lips."

"A Presidential Rogues Gallery: Satirical Posters, 1960s-Present" will be at Frumkin/Duval Gallery from Tuesday through Saturday, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building T-1, Santa Monica; (310) 453-1850.

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