Monday, June 05, 2017

Mark Burrell's 'The Trump Show: Let's Make America Great Again'.

In the British artist Mark Burrell’s painting Lets Make America Great Again (2017) the negative emotional and psychological traits of America’s controversial President, Donald Trump are satirized.

Realized in the medium of alkyd resins, Burrell's artistic imagination is clearly alive and well, enhanced as ever through skillful draughtsmanship and a meticulous attention to detail. These talents, in conjunction with the artist’s sensibility, insight and occasional dark humour contribute to create a provocative art-work.  Donald Trump is portrayed as an overgrown baby in the care of a hooded baby-sitting member of the KKK who is pushing a pram on the edge of a cliff. Meanwhile, the American flag is in flames as Trump in his pram stuffed full of dollars and lit by coloured bulbs, sounds off his horn, only to emit bubbles in vain.

With its extensive landscape, rock formation and setting sun background Let's Make America Great Again  alludes to the Romantic 'Wild West' landscapes of the American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), in particular the sweeping landscape of his Emigrants Crossing the Plain (also known as On The Oregon Trail). By utilizing Bierstadt's famous painting as a template for his own art-work, Burrell effectively contrasts and parodies America of the 19th century, a nation built by aspirational, freedom-loving emigrants, to an America of the 21st century and a President who advocates the construction of walls to prevent emigrants entering America.

Albert Bierstadt  Emigrants Crossing the Plain 1869

Finer details of Burrell's Let's Make America Great Again include - the hammer and sickle in the American flag, a letter saying Trump loves Putin, and a meteorite heading towards the White House. Its background features two contrasting scenes, to the right, a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene of hell in which a factory belches thick pollutant smoke, to the left, a heavenly woodland scene in which a copse of trees bathe in the golden light of a setting sun.

The allusions are stark and disturbing. The fate of a nation seems balanced between a heavenly and hellish future in the hands of a man-child. By placing Trump in a pram there's more than a hint of the recently-elected American President's well-documented record of  immaturity and childish temper tantrums.

Like many similar-minded artists, Burrell has exercised his artistic talents to speak out on the behalf of a mostly silent and unrepresented majority of sane-thinking people. In his own words -

'I felt compelled to paint a picture of my concerns of which I think millions of others in the world are also fearful'.

In Let’s Make America Great Again (65 x 75 cm.) Burrell is following in the footsteps of a long established tradition of British art, that of political commentary through satire. Its a tradition which historically spans from the cartoons of James Gillray (1756-1815) and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) to the Victorian humour of the magazine Punch to the latex puppetry of Peter Fluck and Roger Law in the British TV show Spitting Image (1984-96).

One weapon of the artist and cartoonist alike is that of satire, defined as the mocking of characteristics and personality traits, often of politicians and those in power in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intention of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or even society itself into improvement. Satire's greater purpose is constructive social criticism, it uses wit to draw attention to issues affecting the world and society today. [1]

Trump’s fatal combination of psychological traits, perceived by many to be those of arrogance and ignorance, are rich pickings  for comedians, artists and satirists alike. They are also psychological traits which are often attributed to Americans in general, either through prejudice or misunderstanding of cultural norms, but also occasionally correct in assumption, hence the view of the stereotypical American throughout the world. Arrogance and ignorance may be considered charming and excusable attributes in a child or baby perhaps, but hardly ever acceptable in a septuagenarian leader of a world superpower.

The very real anxiety for millions of sane-thinking people today, politics apart, is simply, how could someone with a well-documented unstable personality have become elected as the leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations ? Burrell along with millions of others' concerns are very real, especially when the danger of a thermonuclear war is threatened through the fatal combination of one individual with immense power being psychologically unstable. Never before as much as now has the world urged America to ensure there is a rational mind fully in control of its nuclear arsenal.

Burrell’s artistic desire to to portray ‘the raw emotions behind the mask’ in which an insane-looking Trump appears little more than a monster blighting a beautiful country, succeeds on several levels; Let’s Make America Great Again is simultaneously a satirical portrait and indictment of Donald Trump’s psychological and emotional stability, a near hallucinatory and apocalyptic-impending landscape allusive to the world's future as one of heaven or hell, and not least, a worthy addition to a life-time portfolio of art conjured with steadfast industriousness in tandem with free-ranging imagination.

The title of Mark Burrell's painting (detail, above) originates from a frequently repeated statement made by Donald Trump throughout his election campaign - 'Let's make America great again'. The statement can only be rhetorical. How can America be 'made great again' when it already is ?

Perhaps President Trump means make America great again as one of world's nations with the greatest inequalities of wealth distribution ? America's already great at that. Perhaps he means 'Make America Great Again' in terms of military expenditure ? America is also great at that. Its expenditure in military hardware and defence outstrips the rest of the entire world combined, and at the the present time of writing President Trump has  completing a series of arms deals with Saudi Arabia totaling more than $300 bn. Perhaps President Trump means make America great as a world distributor of pornography ? It already is. Perhaps he means make America great again in the number of people incarcerated in prison ? America's already one of the greatest at that too. Perhaps he means 'Make America Great Again' in terms of America being a world leader in consuming the world's resources ? Again, its already great at that. One strongly suspects Trump's election slogan appeals most to those with a weak identity and suffering from insecurity in the face of a rapidly-changing world.

The indisputable facts remain - the American population which represents only 5% of the world's total population consumes an astounding 26% of the world's energy. America also consumes a staggering 30% of the world's resources and is the world's largest single emitter of carbon dioxide, 'Greenhouse gas' emissions which cause climate change and global warming. Phenomena which are scientifically proven but which worryingly, for all those who care about the world’s future, the current President denies. At the present time of writing Trump has withdrawn from the crucial Paris climate agreement talks, as if one nation could isolate itself from environmental concerns which affect the world.

Accordingly to Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, the authors of Why do people Hate America, it was the acclaimed British dramatist, screenwriter  and Nobel prize winner, Harold Pinter (1930-2008) who stated in 2002 -

The US has ‘exercised sustained, systematic, remorseless and quite clinical manipulation of power world-wide, while masquerading as a power for good’. It is ‘arrogant, indifferent, contemptuous of International Law, both dismissive and manipulative of the United Nations: this is now the most dangerous power the world has ever known - the authentic “rogue state”, but a “rogue state” of colossal military and economic might’.   [ 2]

Along with the commonly-held perception of many Americans appearing as arrogant and ignorant, the briefest of inventories of commonly-held grievances against America and its people includes - resentment at thinking themselves the centre of universe, an unhealthy diet and epidemic obesity, a gargantuan consumption of the world's resources, the export of trash cultures, an obsession with war, diplomatic meddling in other nation's affairs and acting unilaterally on the world-stage of politics. [3]

The tragedy of today is that much of the world has long looked up to and respected America as the upholder of humanitarian and democratic values, only to be bitterly disappointed by American protectionism, unilateralism and rabid nationalism in the policies of its latest President, Donald Trump. 

Mark Burrell’s The Boy who was Happy to be Himself (2017) is a witty response to America's export of 'Trash culture', in particular Hollywood and its machismo superheroes. Quintessentially gothic in its evocation of a mysterious atmosphere, its an artwork which is humorous but with a serious message as well. 

Set at night in a urban street in moonlight with a broad wash of midnight blue, the centre-stage of The Boy who was Happy to be Himself  depicts a floodlit bill-board with three life-sized superheroes. The slogan Coming to you Soon is inscribed above them. With his back against these figures, and seemingly oblivious to them all, a boy is seen engrossed, reading a book. Beside the boy there's a book-stand with the words ‘The Magic of Books’ inscribed upon it. Meanwhile, life goes on in an intimate street setting - a bonfire is attended and chimneys smoke, someone taking an evening walk carries an umbrella which mysteriously provides light. A masked schoolboy standing beside the billboard gazes towards the viewer. A tower-block of flats can also be seen, allusive to a landmark visible from Burrell's studio in his home-town of Lowestoft.

A  hallmark of Burrell’s art is its unique colour tonality, an instance of which occurs in the reflected colours of the paving-stones in the foreground of The Boy who was Happy to be Himself, effectively making the ordinariness of paving-stones appear magical, a superb example of magical realism, no less. Another attribute of Burrell's art is its skillful draughtsmanship, the viewer's eye perusing the scene in this case is tugged between a calm street background and intriguing foreground imagery.

Burrell's art encourages the viewer to look and look again, and in doing so discover new layers of allusion, meaning and detail. A closer inspection of its superheroes reveals Batman to be obese and thus barely capable of acrobatically swooping across the night-sky while Superman's youthful vigour has long past, his receding hairline suggestive of an ageing Dad-with-Slippers adventurousness, while the Norse god Thor has a glazed and manic expression, suggestive of a Viking berserker barely capable of intrepid North Sea navigation. Uninterested and unimpressed by any of these three superheroes, a  boy with his back turned against them reads a book. The contrast between the ability to think for oneself and not allow the Hollywood film industry to shape one's view of the world, is stark.

Burrell’s humourous painting is not without a serious message. Hollywood’s film industry with its pervasive influence upon the human imagination cannot be over-estimated. There are few in the world today whose imagination has not been manipulated by its relentless agenda of advertising American values. Hollywood's influence  is often far greater than consciously realised, contributing towards what may quite rightly be termed as none other than American cultural imperialism. Hollywood's domestic market consumption in turn may well contribute towards an acclimatising and hardening of American youth towards war, conflict and economic competition against the world at large, rather than relate and understand cultures and people beyond the American border.

The superheroes Batman and Superman originated from 1930's America, an era of economic depression and rampant crime, and as such are the product of American wish-fulfillment to eradicate social problems without any realistic understanding of the dominant cause of most social problems then as now, namely, grossly unfair wealth distribution. Hollywood itself is a multi-billion dollar industry which is little sympathetic to  its impact upon the environment or its consumption of the world’s quite finite resources.  Its hard to comprehend the facts. Warner Bros. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) has a supposed $410 million price tag. Superman Returns (2006) cost $246 million to make, Man of Steel (2013) cost $228 million and grossed $668 million worldwide, The amazing Spider-Man (2012) cost over $238 million, grossing $752 million, Superman Returns (2006)  cost $246.4 million and returned $391 million for its financial investors, Spider-Man 2 (2004) cost $250 million and made $783.8 million.

But are any of these badly misinterpreted Nietzschean Ubermensch worthwhile emulating in any way ? The predictable and formulaic plots of many Hollywood films are inevitably the product of scripts written with investors in mind and who simply want a large financial return on their investment without any concern of artistic integrity. One questions with Burrell, whether Hollywood's consumption of the world’s quite finite resources, purely for entertainment purposes, often of quite a childish nature, can ever be truly justified.

Recent  political propaganda which satirizes the British Prime Minister Theresa May and her election slogan (Strong and Stable). 

The inclusion of the Norse god Thor in The Boy who was Happy to be Himself produces a startling cognitive dissonance when juxtaposed to all-American superheroes. Burrell's Thor has a manic look about him, reminiscent of the stentorian British actor Brian Blessed (b. 1936) or wild-man  Oliver Reed (1938-1999). Its a look suggestive of one whose brain may be burnt-out from drinking vast quantities of mead or from ingesting too many fly agaric mushrooms as the Viking Berserkers were inclined to do.

Thor's joining the ranks of American superheroes is a good example of cultural appropriation. The Norse god was a sacred figure who existed thousands of years before Hollywood, yet has been used by American filmmakers as an example of a super-hero and as such is an example of what is termed as 'cultural appropriation'. Examples of cultural appropriation, that is, the 'borrowing’ of symbols associated with a specific cultures include amongst numerous examples, Mohawk hair-styles, Tartan kilts and Rastafari dreadlocks, all of which are worn by those not part of the culture from which they originated, but appropriated as badges of identity. Cultural appropriation and its widespread abuse by Western culture is discussed in depth in the Palestinian historian Edward Said in his ground-breaking work Orientalism (1978).

Incidentally, understanding of the Viking era was considerably enhanced when in 1938 at Woodbridge in Suffolk, just 40 miles south of Burrell's home-town of Lowestoft, the site of two 6th and early 7th-century cemeteries was discovered by archaeologists. One cemetery contained an undisturbed ship burial, including a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding art-historical and archaeological significance. The Sutton Hoo Viking burial site remains one of the most important of all archaeological discoveries of  the Viking era (500-1100 CE).

With self-deprecating humour Burrell confesses to 'getting tired of American propaganda', such as produced by Hollywood, whilst admitting to indulging in a little propaganda of his own. He also suggests it may be the Buddhist-orientated spiritual self-help guide, the international best-seller The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle which is being read by the young lad in his painting.

Holding no illusions about the reception of his new painting, Burrell states -

'Some will pick up subliminally my message, others will think it just another funny pic'.

Burrell also reflects on how certain motifs in his paintings featuring candles, tea cups, fun-fairs and flags and which are often set during evening or night, have altered little over the past 40 years.

The 'message' of The Boy who was Happy to be Himself seems to be - the easiest way to emancipate one's mind is simply to read, preferably in printed book form (still arguably the most efficient way to absorb information) to find out for oneself in order to think for oneself, independent from influences such as the near world-wide dominance of American culture.

Mark Burrell's The Watchers (36" x 30") is a sharp indictment of the City bankers, debt-collectors, government bully-boys and jobsworths in general in Britain today who are busy devastating the lives of the disabled, vulnerable and unemployed without a thought or care of the damage they cause, whilst 'only doing their job'.

Painted in 2009, the year in which the harsh realities of the world Recession began to be assimilated by millions of people with a noticeable decline in living standards, Burrell's The Watchers features a combination of two of the artist's strongest attributes, namely, skillful portraiture and a social conscience. Not unlike the German artists George Grosz (1893-1959) or Otto Dix (1891-1969), both of whom documented the social injustices and inequalities of Germany's Weimar Republic (1919-33), Burrell  is also well-capable of utilizing his artistic talents in order to produce hard-hitting social commentary. In the artist's own words -

'People are being constantly abused by the state and the unemployed are being used as scapegoats. People need to look a bit harder. Its a heavy unfair system full of legal forms of corruption'.

Much of the Western world's current economic and social woes can be traced back to the era of Thatcher and Reagan and their adoption of the economic model advocated by the so-called Chicago school of economics as represented by Milton Friedman and the Austro-British economist Friedrich Hayek. Basically, Neo-liberalism (which is neither new or liberal) is an ideological knee-jerk reaction against socialism which rejects the responsibilities of the Nation-State towards its citizens. Indeed, when the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925 - 2013) first came to power she allegedly slapped a copy of Hayek's book, 'New Economics' onto a table, saying, 'this is what we believe in'.

Since the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008 resulting in a debt being passed onto the rest of the world and paid for by those who were not responsible for the banking failure, the economic policies of Neoliberalism have been found wanting, in particular in a fair distribution of wealth, resulting in a certain amount of on-going brutalization in sectors of Western society, as depicted in Burrell's The Watchers. One certainly wouldn't want to bump into any of these characters down a deserted street !

Through their familiarity in exploring the little understood world of the imagination, the British artists Mark Burrell (b. 1957) and Peter Rodulfo (b. 1958) the co-founders of the North Sea Magical Realism art-movement are equally adept at adjusting the focus of their artistic imagination. Its thus relatively easy for them to venture into new territory such as the arena of political commentary.

The artist Peter Rodulfo has also been known to make a satirical statement in his art concerning politics in England today. In his A Barrel of Laughs painted in 2013, some 4 years before the British Referendum upon continuing membership to the European Union, Rodulfo astutely identifies the prime culprit who instigated the fiasco and farce which continues to embroil British politics. Surrounded by pigs, suggestive of the phrases 'Pig-headed' and 'Pig-ignorant' the Far-right politician Nigel Farage (b. 1964) is seen in a barrel, perhaps an allusion to his tub-thumping, jingoistic and rabble-rousing tendencies, certainly not because he is in any way whatsoever A Barrel of Laughs, as the colloquial British phrase puts it.

Of particular note is the great care taken in A Barrel of Laughs in its draughtsmanship and depth of perspective, resulting in an extensive landscape with a finely wrought cloudscape.

Humour and playfulness in general are frequently encountered in much of Rodulfo's art. Although satire is most often associated with literary forms, it also occurs in the visual arts. Because satire often combines both anger and humor, as well as the fact that it draws attention to controversial topics, it can be profoundly disturbing, not unlike the thinly-veiled racism of the central character featured in Rodulfo's A Barrel of Laughs.

Nigel Farage’s hobbies includes predictable pre-occupations of the Far-Right, an unhealthy obsession with World War II in which, contrary to his rhetoric, he took no part whatsoever, the historical event occurring long before he was born. He also likes to tour battlefields in preparation for a history book  which he plans to write for schoolchildren.

Underlying much of Farage's and fellow Brexiteer's ideology is the delusional belief that English exceptionalism can take on and beat all Europe. In essence, the founding myth of the Britain which exists in Farage and his followers minds is simply a way of justifying their xenophobia. For Farage and his followers, the Second World War was not about fighting against the Nazis, but purely and simply about fighting against foreigners. They may say "Nazis" but in reality they simply mean "Germans". The supreme irony being which is lost on Farage and  followers of the Far-right who incessantly harp on about a war in which they did not participate as they were not even alive, is that the second world War War had as its imperative the objective of the elimination and defeat of the Far-Right in power in Europe at the time.
Unlike Nigel Farage, Peter Rodulfo is well-read enough to be described as erudite. Indeed, in 2016 Rodulfo proposed the seventeenth century literary figure Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) to be an ancestral member of the North Sea Magical Realism art-movement. Browne's elective affinity to the art-movement is founded upon several factors. Firstly, geographically, as Browne is recorded as botanizing upon Great Yarmouth's sand-dunes and throughout Norfolk's extensive coastline. Secondly, as an artist possessing unique imaginative gifts in concept, imagery and symbolism, and finally and not least, as one whose contribution to the visual arts is far greater than is commonly known. For example, one of several techniques employed by political cartoonists includes that of caricature, a word which derives from the Italian of caricare—to charge or load, thus caricature essentially means a "loaded portrait". According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word 'Caricature' was introduced into the English language by Sir Thomas Browne. Its one of hundreds of words which the seventeenth century polymath and literary artist is credited as the first to employ. Browne's definition of caricature being, 'When Men's faces are drawn with resemblance to some other Animals, the Italians call it, to be drawn in Caricatura', while also advising his eldest son Edward Browne - 'Expose not thy self by four-footed manners unto monstrous draughts, and Caricatura representations'. [4] 

However, in Rodulfo's painting it is as much the word-play of the plural of pigs, the word 'swine,' which means 'a contemptible or unpleasant person' in the English language which may be applicable to Farage than the specific art of caricature itself.

Rodulfo's satirical painting A Barrel of Laughs voices the concern of all sane and politically literate people in England today, namely, how far previously unacceptably right-wing views have permeated into British politics. Indeed there remains little for Nigel Farage's single - cause political party UKIP to campaign for, now that their goal has theoretically been achieved, namely the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Project.

The British philosopher A.C.Grayling speaks on behalf of many, including doubtlessly Rodulfo, when stating of Nigel Farage -

"I think he’s a bounder. He’s a cad. He’s an embarrassment. I cringe at the thought of how he behaved like a football hooligan and a lager lout in the European Parliament. What an advertisement for the best of the English character. I have no time for him at all. I think he is an embarrassment and a waste of space".

When distinguished academics such as A.C. Grayling raise the concern that Brexit is beginning to look like a right-wing coup its surely time to heed the early warning signs of a nation sleep-walking into fascism, chanting in their sleep, 'It couldn't happen here'. It could, and is happening.

The North Sea Magical Realism artists Mark Burrell and Peter Rodulfo are united in their concern over recent political elections in the USA and GB. Their art goes some way towards highlighting and combating the exploitation of the politically illiterate, indoctrinated through a right-wing media and those whose misanthropic politics of greed and hatred are alarmingly vociferous in America and Great Britain today.

Recommended Reading

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle pub. Yellow Kite 2001
Meaning in the Visual Arts by Erwin Panofsky pub. University of Chicago 1955
Why do people hate America ? Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies pub. Icon Books 2002
Orientalism - Edward Said 1978

*High quality prints of Mark Burrell's 'Let's Make America Great Again' are available from the artist.

Contact  Mark Burrell Art   to purchase.

*All three paintings discussed here are exhibited at Burrell's Open Studio's week-ends  
June 10th / 11th, 17th / 18th and 24th / 25th.


[1] Wikipedia
[2]  Granta Spring 2002
[3] 'Why do people hate America ?' by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies pub. Icon Books 2002.
[4] Christian Morals pub. post. 1716