Abraham Lincoln gave two inaugural addresses: the first was given just before the American Civil War; the second was given days before it ended. Three months after the second speech, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, who was incensed by Lincoln’s public support of voting rights for African-Americans. The pressure of the bullet shot at close range into Lincoln’s head was so powerful that his eyes violently projected out of his sockets. In Brian Tolle’s second show at CRG Gallery, he uses a porcelain white bust of the sixteenth president which rests on a faux-granite log. The words of Lincoln’s two inaugural orations are written on red, white and blue silk ribbons and explode outwards from the bust’s eyes. Tolle fuses Lincoln’s presidential prose with a grim biological fact to highlight the aspects of his presidency that he is most remembered for: his penchant for moving language (and its subsequent effect on abolishing slavery) and his assassination. This gesture is a play on our historical memory and points to the fact that what is relevant about each president can be distilled, over time, to just a few singular events or attributes.
Each work in Tolle’s show focuses on one president and is numerically titled according to his place in the line of presidents: George Washington is “No. 1” (2012), Barack Obama is “No. 44” (2012). The sculptures usually feature the head of the president, cast from an appropriated presidential bust. In employing these heads, Tolle highlights the importance of each man’s thinking and political doctrine, and how these legacies are the continued responsibility of their successors. Each also includes ephemera associated with that particular presidency: Ronald Reagan’s clear acrylic head is filled with the Jelly Belly candies which could always be found on his desk, John F. Kennedy’s gleaming silver head is supported by Sputnik-like legs as a nod to his “space race” with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower’s bust is split in half and supports a first edition compilation of his speeches and writings, which notably include his “Bookend Speeches.”
A number of the sculptural components are culled from the internet and are vestiges of Americana craft practices, many of which have now been discontinued. Barack Obama’s “coif” is comprised of a collector’s set of all of the presidential figures preceding him, which was purchased by the artist on eBay. The jewel tone ornaments adorning “Spirit of ‘76” (2012), a rotating aluminum Christmas tree, are miniature whiskey bottles, each with a molded portrait of Presidents Washington through Nixon. How these cultural relics are integrated into popular memory and, in turn, our consumer market, is central to the artist’s interest.
One of only two pieces in the show that is not focused on a single president is “Winners and Losers” (2012). It is a diptych on two circular canvases, each covered in the Democratic, Republican, and third party candidates’ presidential campaign buttons since the patenting of the pin-back button in 1893. The “Winners” canvas is comprised of twenty pins in total, the “Losers” brandishes hundreds. As much as this disparity calls attention to the many voices and agendas that have been unrecognized in America’s democratic process, it equally emphasizes marketing trends and the extent to which politicians fabricate a public persona and how they appeal so explicitly to subsets of the American population. Through Tolle’s historical eye, we are asked to question how we recall our national history, and more importantly how popular culture and political rhetoric inform and simplify our opinions.
Brian Tolle received his BA in Political Science from SUNY at Albany, NY, a BFA from Parsons the New School for Design, New York, NY, and an MFA from Yale University, New Haven, CT. Tolle has major public works in the United States and Europe, including “Irish Hunger Memorial” in Battery Park City, New York, NY, and “Simnai Dirdro (Twisted Chimney)” in Caerphilly, Wales, UK. He is currently working on several important public projects in Brooklyn, NY, Columbus, OH, Houston, TX and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The artist lives and works in New York.