Go Tell Mama I’m for Obama
The first time I saw one of Ray “CRO” Noland’s Obama campaign posters, I wondered if it was a parody.
The image appeared to be an homage to the iconic Hoop Dreams movie ad: a large basketball hoop in the foreground, wit the White House instead of the Chicago skyline in the background. Instead of Obama leaping for a dunk at the center, he stands to one side with a ball, dwarfed by the other details, perhaps weighing his options.
The possible meanings were compelling. Hoop Dreams is a modern documentary classic about Chicago and the positive power of sports, but the stirring story is emotionally mixed, as not everyone achieves their goals. It also seemed like a more pointed acknowledgement of Obama’s African-American identity than other material in circulation.
When I next saw this poster, it was plastered on various walls of the city, next to a more typical portrait of Obama in the same style. I realized the message was direct support. I wonder-ed how the campaign could allow such playful imagery with room for other interpretations.
I soon discovered it was an “officially unofficial” postering effort which had been in process since Obama was a potential candidate. Noland had spread his work around Chicago and beyond, through sheer determination which eventually drew help from other postering enthusiasts.
The action had a strong echo of Frank Shepard Fairey’s legendary street art project, Andre The Giant Has Posse. This is acknowledged by Shepard’s contribution to Noland’s February gallery installation in the Phantom Gallery festival, Go Tell Momma I’m for Obama, which celebrates his projects progress so far.
The design of Noland’s posters is more polished, a bit like Shepard’s later Giant works, but it is firmly within the boundaries of the larger stencil/poster movement. The success of the posters employs the same subversive play as other projects. Unlike the aggressively anti-marketing absurdity of Shepard, however, Noland has a specific, sincere and comparatively mainstream agenda, involving a serious candidate in the presidential election.
This also contrasts with the usual outsider activist politics of typical or, one might argue, “authentic” street art. Yet it does not resemble the brandalism or adverfitti disparaged in Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Unmarketable (New Press 2007). This was not Noland’s day job, but a labor of love, begun when Obama was considered a long shot.
In fact, the Obama campaign has been hesitant to openly endorse the posters, although they have commissioned him to do some rally advertisements. Noland might be considered the most professional participant (he’s a commercial artist) in a fleeting subgenre of outsider art one can call Obamaism—an outpouring of creative energy the campaign welcomes but finds disconcerting, largely due to campaign finance rules.
This was one of many contrasting forces in evidence at the Go Tell Mama opening night. The crowd ranged from hip hop kids to South Side matriarchs to white middle class folk from some fundraising group to crunchy union types to stereotypical hipsters, all rushing to get one of Noland’s posters. It was a consumerist rush for an amazingly eye-pleasing object, but also a reflection of the genuine hope and local pride surrounding the black presidential hopeful.
When I reflected on the tensions between earnest and calculated, grass roots and professional, political and pop art, fundraising and cashing in, authentic and poseur and so on, I felt for a moment that the show was the locus of a Venn Diagram of contemporary art issues.
This extends to the venue for Go Tell Mama. Phantom Gallery Chicago is an ongoing showcase providing artists with temporary space in vacant store-fronts, billing itself as “an opportunity for artists to exhibit their artwork while fostering economic development.” This can be interpreted as responding to or enabling gentrification.
I expected something similar-looking to Chicago’s other guerilla and apartment art shows, but when I arrived at the space on West Madison Street, it was an unsettling row of condos, in an area undergoing visible transformation from lower income to upscale. If the Olympics come to Chicago, this area is targeted for even more rapid displacement and an entire housing project nearby has been wiped out to make way for what could be an arts center or retail.
Later, I discovered the show was located in a cluster of buildings set aside for Section 8 housing. Though it blended in with the surrounding upscale construction, it was an attempt to preserve economic parity.
It’s a bit difficult to dig into a show which is rooted in an act of exuberant propaganda. One can feel like one is dissecting a hopeful, friendly puppy. Yet part of the point of street art is simplicity, in service of causes which provide the depth. Beyond the poster sale, the installation immersed the viewer with a combination of posters, documentation of the street work, murals, video display and more traditional painting using stencils and airbrush. The tone ranged from direct exhortation to more abstract ideas about America and transformation.
The contemporary references to hip hop and DJ minimalism mixed with touches of the angular populist geometry of New Deal modernism. Also evoked was the Harlem Renaissance. The hopeful gatherings in the pictures recalled the tableaus of Aaron Douglas. Meanwhile, overlapping bullhorns and slogans seemed to exhort in the style of early Russian Futurist posters. It is somewhat audacious to imply Marxism anywhere near Obama, who is attempting to represent major change without scariness of revolution.
Besides Shepard’s Obama portrait, Noland included a few other artists, either out of camaraderie or as a counterpoint (Cody Hudson, Lashun F. Tines & John Song). They were largely overwhelmed by the immersive sensation of the Go Tell Mama work, except for Michael Genovese’s piece, a bilingual diptych presenting the slogan JUST BECAUSE IT’S LEGAL DOESN’T MAKE IT RIGHT in layered poster fragments which looked like they’d been ripped off some abandoned Zapatista grocery store and placed in a frame. This openly confrontational statement, which might be read as a reference to the questionable vote counts of the previous two elections, indicated the angry protest against the current leader, as well as privilege in general, which is just beneath the surface.
One of Noland’s images, an Obama figure shaking hands with a man who had an outline of America for a head, appeared in several paintings, as well as a larger form directly on the wall. Again, the immediate impression was optimism, but there was a reminder of the more satirical stencil work of Banksy, plus Kara Walker’s surrealistic silhouettes, which are a more intentionally disturbing commentary on racism in America.
This also points to the more direct address of racial issues, distinguishing Noland’s work from the generalized media, which is optimistic but hesitant to deal with it. Among the animations screened on monitors was a vignette of various disinterested, disenfranchised people, boldly daring to vote as if it mattered. To Chicagoans aware of their history, this harkens back to the tensions over Harold Washington’s election, when a majority of the whites were stunned when he took power with a mostly black mandate.
Overall, there was a sense of jaded detachment and coolness being consciously set aside to reach out and take power. Again, this contrasted with the DJ and club atmosphere, which implied Obama may also be seen as just a really great party amongst the partisans. Much like a spraycan artist dressed to sneak onto a construction site, the fashionable guise was in service of a serious will to power. The work contains small allusions to national divisions, while using symmetry and repetition in the design to indicate a bridge of them.
The immediate meaning of an Obama exhibition is transitory. By the time this review is published, it could already be a nostalgia item. Even if he becomes the next president, the functionality of the work will be in the past. The resonance of the tensions in the artwork, however, will have a longer lifespan, for it captures an moment of civic release, permitting oneself to be enthusiastic about the system despite, or perhaps because of, knowing its persistent flaws and pitfalls.
By Greg Gillam