By Angela Basile
Ever fantasize about a baby-headed Karl Rove cuddling a duchess Ronald Reagan or perhaps a handsome Jesus-Reagan cradling a little Glenn Beck lamb? Greenpoint artist, Michael Caines, 46, has dedicated the past year to doing just that. In his new series of paintings, Caines has brought these characters to life, accompanied by a small throng of others. They can be seen in his New York debut, a solo show titled, Perfect Happiness, which opens this Thursday at the Mulherin Pollard Projects in Chelsea.
In some rare down time this past weekend, Michael (pictured below with the taxidermy bear) and I tucked into the Berkshires to talk about art, politics and big heads.
Brooklyn The Borough: Your work is very much about imagined worlds. When you are working you seem to be in your own world and you always wear headphones. What do you listen to?
Michael Caines: Fresh Air, Dan Savage, 60 Minutes, endless mystery, thriller, sci-fi….I just listened to 50 hours of the Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich. CBC Podcasts, Writers and Company, CBC nightly news…I try to keep my little toe in Canada.
BTB: You are from Nova Scotia and moved to Brooklyn several years ago. Do you consider yourself a Brooklyn Artist? American? Canadian?
MC: Brooklyn feels likes home, which was a bit of a surprise. I love Brooklyn; it’s like being up close with history. I can pick up ArtForum and say I saw that show. It’s thrilling to feel that up close. In that way, anything’s possible. Culture really matters here. I live in Brooklyn because I can afford to. I don’t think I could stand to live in Manhattan.
BTB: Has living in Brooklyn impacted your work?
MC: My early work reflected internal reflections. As an adult, I went through a life shift– I became more interested in looking out at the world. Understanding my identity is not separate from the history or the moment I live in or the place I am living in. I want to have some type of relationship to that. Earlier in my career I may have been more attracted to gender and male identity. But now my practice is in an adult realm that bridges the internal with the external. It’s a more comprehensive approach to art-making.
BTB: How would you describe your style?
MC: A friend at work called it, “Magic Literalism.” I like that.
BTB: What is your point of view on American politics?
MC: I am not very sophisticated in my politics. I also don’t like the Canadian point view of Anti-Americanism; it’s a knee jerk. As a Canadian and as a citizen of the world, we’re all affected by American politics. All of us absorb so much media that we tend to feel impotent in big politics. I want to feel like I have some space and power to act upon stuff. I want to have some agency. Canada is the mouse next to the elephant. America is self-mythologizing but it has also been mythologized by the rest of world. I am genuinely fascinated and entertained by American politics. Perfect Happiness came out of my wanting to have a better understanding of American history. Prior to moving to the States, my image of US political figures was always very vivid.
BTB: Why not draw from Canadian politics?
MC: It’s just not as important …it’s not been the Canadian century in the world, it’s been the American century in the world. And the ‘other’ is always more compelling. I live in America, so who cares about Canadian politics? Well, I do because I am Canadian. For the past 100 years, all of the world has been living ‘in’ America – I get the feeling this may be about to change.
BTB: Your new work in Perfect Happiness pairs various cultural classics like Alice In Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz with ‘political’ characters like Nixon, Kennedy, Rove, Jessie Helms, Dr. Laura, and MLK, Jr. How did you go about pairing them?
MC: I find ‘truthiness’ filtered through political art to be tedious – when it pushes a position. I am more interested in what can be played with. I don’t need to take a position. Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical realities were filtered through a kind of ‘truthiness’. It’s the nonsense that tells a kind of truth. While they are unbelievable, they are convincing.
The style I use threads back to political cartooning in the early twentieth century (and in my belief that big heads are funny). I also believe that our physical beings reflect something of our character—that piques my interest. My work is not as much about the politics of the figures, as it is about them as characters. Definitely within this work are those that have fallen into the chasm of history and those that are about to fall.
For example, Nixon is the first political figure I had an awareness of. He was a nerdy outsider who didn’t go to Harvard because his parents couldn’t afford the train fare. [His story] got me thinking that these figures are so powerful in their moments. I find something very poignant about the figures after their ‘moment’ because we all go through a similar trajectory.
BTB: Do you think this work risks being seen as disrespectful, like Martin Luther King, dressed up in Afterlife
MC: I can see where Martin Luther King dressed up as a prince may cause that reaction. But it’s more about my imagining some sort of peace in an afterlife. The background of this painting is a visual construction of African American identity extracted from Huck Finn. Race and identity are the most compelling American issues.
BTB: Would you say putting the characters in imagined settings, humanizes them?
MC: Yes because we make politicians into monsters. There’s a critique in my work, yes, but there’s also a tenderness for these figures.
Perfect Happiness will be on view from December 1 – 31, 2010 at MULHERIN POLLARD PROJECTS 317 10th Avenue, between 28 & 29 Streets in Manhattan. The opening reception with the artist is Thursday, December 9, 6-8PM.