Artist Pamela Joseph stages Trump administration ‘Wall of Shame’ exhibition in advance of Election Day
Despairing of her country’s future and shell-shocked in early days of the Trump Administration in 2017, the Aspen-based artist Pamela Joseph began conceiving of a body of work that might speak to the pain and sense of shame she felt about the president’s actions, policies and the team who carried them out.
Over the next two years, the idea manifested into Joseph’s 35-part “Wall of Shame” series, depicting Donald Trump, his cabinet and associates in bondage masks.
As Election Day 2020 looms with the prospect of Trump being unseated or re-elected and as a sense of chaos ripples through the country grappling with a pandemic and economic crisis, Joseph’s “Wall of Shame” will be exhibited for the public at the Michael Warren Contemporary in Denver.
“My hope is that the work and the energy of it can translate into something very positive,” Joseph said of the work and of staging a fiercely political show in these heated final days of the campaign.
The works, made in the fall of 2017 and into 2018, depict Trump himself, the strategist Steve Bannon, and figures whose support is seen as bringing him to power like white supremacist David Duke and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Cabinet members like Rick Perry, Ben Carson and Scott Pruitt also get the bondage treatment, along with Trump’s politically active family members and mouthpieces including Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as do the criminally convicted team members like Michael Cohen, Michel Flynn and Paul Manafort.
“Like a lot of people I was shocked by the outcome,” Joseph said of the 2016 election. “And then I tried to stay positive, but I saw what a disaster the guy was, and how the people he surrounded himself with also didn’t have any morals. It was scary and depressing.”
Her list of grievances with the president extend from the administration’s stance against the movement for Black lives and policies on immigration, COVID-19, economics, climate change and nuclear war. But the policies go unrepresented in “Wall of Shame.”
The work is disturbing and politically barbed, but it is infused with a rambunctious sense of humor that’s often present in Joseph’s work. She imagined “Wall of Shame” as a portrait gallery where Trump and his allies could be publicly shamed.
Her work has long concerned censorship and history. Along with her immersive traveling installation “Sideshow of the Absurd,” she is probably best known for her series of works that place censor blocks over nudity in classical paintings.
Around the 2016 election and into 2017, she had been working on a series depicting some of the more grotesque devices used historically to silence women in the 16th century. These facial harnesses and masks, also used for slaves in the U.S., were known as “scold’s bridles.”
“I got to the point where I realized this was so perfect,” Joseph recalled. “Why don’t I stop putting them on these poor women and start putting them on Trump and his thugs?”
Each of the portraits measures 13-by-13 inches and is rendered on layered plexiglass with a transferred digital photo of the subject, a mask painted on their face and a circle spray-painted around their head.
The circle surrounding the portraits — sprayed on in a variety of colors — was inspired by the August 2017 solar eclipse. Joseph recalled seeing an image of the president and an image of the eclipse on the front page of the New York Times.
“I was like, that’s just like Trump blocking all of our light and joy,” she recalled. “I almost wanted to cry.”
Joseph hopes the wall helps viewers to hold these public figures to account, so that their roles aren’t forgotten in history. But she also recognized that political art like this is often more disposable than other work.
“It’s hard for political art to last the test of time,” she said. “You’re choosing a moment an in time and someone in the future probably won’t know what you’re talking about. But I think of a lot of my work as documentation. Even if it’s a tiny footnote, I’m happy to be a part of this moment and this conversation.”
Joseph, based in Aspen since 1990, has been hunkered down for the past seven months in the home and studio space near Buttermilk Ski Area that she shares with her partner Robert Brinker.
“It’s been very productive for me,” she said of the COVID-19 stay-at-home period and months since. “I feel like I’ve been training for this all my life.”
Among her quarantine projects was a book collecting the “Wall of Shame” works. She mentioned that project to Mike McClung, the Denver-based gallerist who champions and represents a stable of Aspen-area artists. He immediately said he wanted to show the “Wall” before Election Day at Michael Warren Contemporary in the Santa Fe Arts District. He opened the show there this week, and will host a socially distanced reception Oct. 23. A virtual exhibition also is up at pamelajoseph.com.
All proceeds of book sales, as well as sales of a limited edition print of all 35 “Wall of Shame” portraits, will be donated to a social justice organization, the gallery has promised.
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