Who is the first politician you remember? It was likely a white man with a large face, hovering there in the world. You might have glimpsed some mayor or local alderman pass by in a parade, but you probably remember his image on an advertisement, staring out, trying to reach you. At age six I preferred Gerald Ford even though my parents were for Jimmy Carter. Carter’s huge smile was terrifyingly vivid, and Ford seemed like an innocuous uncle, unlikely to ask much of you. What you probably don’t remember is your politician’s ideas. You remember his face.
We’ve been carrying faces of leaders in our pockets since at least the Ptolemies, closer to our crotches than almost anyone will ever get. I can draw Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s profiles perfectly from memory—even writing this from Rome, I can feel their diverse American noses under my thumb. Contemporary politicians aim for repetition rather than proximity, pasting their faces on city walls and underpasses, hoping to fix their images in our memories. But printing a poster and minting a coin do not have the same staying power. The dyes in inexpensive CMYK offset printing can be fugitive, with rain and snow and sun tending to swallow the magenta and yellow dyes first. The cyan dyes stay. After a few months, these full-color images look like ghosts of themselves, still standing in some eery twilight, trying less to reach us, and more desperately to just be seen.
When I first noticed this faded blue, I thought of it as the blue of disappearance, of atmospheric perspective in Netherlandish painting taking the landscape back, back, into the infinite. It reminded me of the ectoplasmic blue of faked sÈance cyanotypes, a naked blue never intended to be seen alone. But in its universality it became more sinister, more like Bataille’s Blue of Noon, where the light of the midday sky is seen as a sign of the inevitable slip into the darkness of perverse tyranny. For although the politicians seen in these pictures espouse a full spectrum of political positions, from Communist to Neo-Fascist, their ideas fade even faster than the ink they are printed with.
Portraiture remains, its tropes and aspirations. This generation learned from Jimmy Carter. Their smiles are the subtle smirks that Archaic sculptors figured out could make their rigid marble figures look alive. Their poses and clothes are as conventional as Baroque popes’. The lighting hardly eclipses your average passport studio in subtlety or invention. And yet, through this fence of conventions, a sense of self shines through. You see in their faces a desire to be seen, a giddy stroke of ambition here, a smirk there that says I can’t believe my luck, a squint that is trying too hard. There are hints of fear and rage. “Portrait” comes from the Latin, portrahere, to draw forth, and though no photographic portrait can really capture anyone’s inner essence, (cameras see only surfaces), these guys emit will. They may be all surface, but their surfaces —faded, degraded, familiar, scraped away— have something to say.
A NOTE ON “DRAWN COCKS”
These photographs of political posters are photographs of walls. The more I looked at walls the more penises I noticed, and the landscape began to feel marked with masculinity. Whether these cocks are horny teenage graffiti or ancient fertility worship, they are often gorgeously drawn, with a range of unknown graphic allegiances from Lascaux to Art Nouveau to Twombly and Guston. There is a lube of release and taboo in the hand at work, and a certainty of content that I envy.