At the Brant Foundation, Jonathan Horowitz Puts Hillary Clinton among the Presidents
November 4, 2008. 11pm. Red, white, and blue balloons fall from the ceiling of Gavin Brown’s West Village gallery. A portrait gets hung on the wall, joining 42 others that have lined the space for two weeks prior.
The portrait is that of then-44th President-elect Barack Obama, the installation a work by Jonathan Horowitz. Eight years later, as the world watches another, less dignified election cycle unfold, the piece has been recreated in the lower level of Greenwich, Connecticut’s Brant Foundation for Horowitz’s exhibition “Occupy Greenwich,” which opened there this past Sunday.
In its latest iteration November 4, 2008 (2008) sees the two TVs that hang back-to-back at the room’s center play a recording of the election day’s full coverage on CNN and Fox News. (In its original run, they were airing the channels’ live broadcasts.) But the balloons are back in their netting and Obama propped against the wall on the floor, not yet having joined the 42 presidents’ portraits. It has the visual effect of saying, “What if?” Just down the hall, a portrait of Hillary Clinton hangs on the wall in the midst of an audio installation recorded just after this year’s Iowa caucuses.
The Obama installation is both the conceptual and literal starting point for the show, which brings together works Horowitz has created in the time since Obama was elected. Many of those works take a political bent. Politics, says Horowitz, is “a thread that runs through a lot of my work, but there’s not a lot of information to be gleaned.” His approach to political art is one that treats political content as subject matter like any other rather than taking an activist stance for a particular position.
“It’s difficult for art to function that way,” Horowitz explains as we sit on the foundation’s deck overlooking the polo fields that surround it. (The sport is collector and philanthropist Peter Brant’s other great passion.) “Even the work that’s more overtly political is also usually about other things as well. I’m making art in the end. Some of my work does advocate for particular positions but it also just describes things.”
Case in point is the latest iteration of Horowitz’s series of Contribution Cubes (2016). The 11 clear plexi cubes are each etched with the name of a particular cause, lobby group, or charitable organization, a slit at their top reminiscent of a ballot box allowing exhibition-goers to drop in bills or coinage. “In the past, I’ve only made these sculptures for organizations that I personally endorse,” says Horowitz. “But for this show, I chose a range of organizations. I wanted the piece to function as a portrait of all the people who would come through the space over the next six months, by the amount of money that ends up in the different boxes.”
A few hours into the opening, the National Rifle Association wasn’t doing so well. Greenpeace and Planned Parenthood had each garnered a $100 bill or two, along with twenties and tens. Black Lives Matter appeared to have received the most donations but mostly in the form of quarters and ones. As a cross-section of the general population and spectrum of attendees, the piece is apt.
This kind of population sampling isn’t always done in the context of politics. Take 402 Dots (2014), for which Horowitz asked 402 people to each paint a perfect 8-inch circle on a 12-inch canvas without any direct aid, ultimately capturing a portrait of the group through a unified banal act. (Another version of the piece was created at last year’s Frieze New York, to much buzz.)
On the adjacent wall, Coke/Pepsi (518 Cans) (2012/2016) maps another population sample of sorts. It could at one time be seen simply as “a very broad metaphor for capitalism,” says Horowitz. “Coke and Pepsi are rivals but they’re also best friends.” Develop a taste for cola and regardless of your preference, you’ll end up consuming both. But, says Horowitz, “the choice between Coke and Pepsi, in the context of an election season, can be seen as a political choice.” Does Diet Coke’s silver can still count as a vote for Trump? I hope not. But a vending machine nearby (Coke and/or Pepsi Machine, 2007) doesn’t provide that choice.
While some artists strive to set an unshakable message within their work, Horowitz doesn’t necessarily fit that mold. What excites him, perhaps the most, is the way his works constantly shift and evolve depending on their exact place in history. “A lot of the work is context- and time-specific, and so when the context and time change, the work changes,” he says. Take the bronze sculpture of Hillary Clinton (Hillary Clinton is a Person Too, 2008) that stands upstairs. “How the sculpture functions and what it means, for example, is affected by the evolution of its subject,” explains Horowitz. “In 2008, she was obviously in a very different place than she is today.”
The work is based on figurines that were popular when Horowitz was growing up in the ’70s. “They were kind of like the sculptural equivalent of a greeting card,” says the artist. “Hillary got the honor of being blown up into a life-size bronze statue.” A vibrant cast of characters created in the statuettes’ original dimensions sit on the wall to her right. They span from “Joe the Plumber” to “Community Organizers,” representing a wider swath of the electorate in 2008 and tropes from the campaign. This election cycle, one might imagine Megyn Kelly, Undocumented Workers, and Lyin’ Ted getting the treatment.
Eight months from now, many of the works on view that steal attention right now will recede in their immediate relevance. Like the post-election cycle political scene itself, this will allow more substantive issues—both in the world of public policy and within the swath of Horowitz’s oeuvre currently on show—to hopefully come back into view. They include the inequities addressed in Free Store (2009/2016), a piece that proposes an alternative economic system “that’s just based on need and desire.” (You can take whatever you want—a water bottle and teddy bear were among the items on offer when I passed by—and leave what you no longer need.) They include LGBT rights, represented in Crucifix for Two (2010) and Pink Curve (2010). And they include terrorism and the surveillance state, which finds form in 19 Suspects (2005), a series of portraits of the 9/11 hijackers hidden throughout the foundation.
These are issues that have, of course, been politicized (read: instrumentalized) in the current election circus. Xenophobic fear-mongering, culture wars, and 24k-gold-clad capitalism are chief among the currencies that have helped collect votes thus far in Decision 2016. But to the same extent that they’ve dominated Twitter rants and hot takes, not much has moved in either direction while the rhetorical volume’s dial has been set to 11. Art may or may not be a successful vessel for galvanizing political will and action. But politics, at least right now, is clearly not a successful vessel for progress.
“Jonathan Horowitz: Occupy Greenwich” is on view by appointment only at the Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut, May 9–Oct. 2, 2016.