At eye level, artist Chris Santa Maria’s six-foot-high collage “PRESIDENT TRUMP” (2016-2020), currently on view at Jim Kempner Fine Art in Manhattan, depicts a gargantuan figure hovering above a densely populated landscape. However, a closer look reveals thousands of individual photographs — some as small as three-eighths of an inch — meticulously cut out from newspapers, magazines and internet print-outs in the last four years.
Patches of orange-tinted skin, tiny puckering mouths, and eyes evocative of genitalia crystallize into the immediately recognizable head of the giant. He floats in a galaxy of emojis, jungle animals, reclining nudes from famous paintings, and tabloid shots of pop culture figures, from Barack Obama to Kanye West. Every element in the cacophonous scene, a hybrid of a Where’s Waldo puzzle and Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” has been culled from the unsettlingly familiar visual torrent of Trump’s presidency.
Santa Maria has been building up the work since 2016. Though he had always maintained a collage practice, he shifted away from his usual formal concerns in the wake of the last election.
After Trump won, “it felt incredibly vapid to fuss over the arrangement of different yellows and blues and greens,” he told Hyperallergic.
Instead, Santa Maria began amassing an archive of clips and cutouts related not only to the presidency, but to the disquieting nature of the media era it helped usher: a raucous, content-ridden world where last month’s news seems prehistoric; where protest images and targeted ads sit side by side in an endless scroll.
“I remember reading an interview with Steve Bannon just after the election about how he managed his propagandistic disinformation campaign, and his strategy was to flood the zone with shit,” Santa Maria said. “I realized then and there that that would be the aesthetic underpinning of my work.”
For inspiration, Santa Maria turned to art history. The composition of the looming goliath, for instance, recalls “The Colossus” (ca. 1818-1825), a work traditionally attributed to Francisco de Goya that is thought to allegorize the Spanish War of Independence.
“You’ve got a figure in Trump where he’s a pathological narcissist, and he’s got to be in the media constantly,” said Santa Maria. “For him to be articulated as an all-devouring colossus that’s grabbing and smashing everything in his path, that leaves nothing good or true or beautiful, that’s part of what the image I wanted to make.”
He also looked at Philip Guston’s painting “San Clemente” (1975), one of the artist’s many satirical portraits of Richard Nixon. Guston illustrates the fallen president self-exiling to his beach villa in California after resigning in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
“In my work, Trump is surrounded by the pastoral landscape of his golf courses,” says Santa Maria. The collage splices photos of the president’s country clubs in Mar-a-Lago, Florida and Bedminster, New Jersey, with snippets of masterpieces by Bosch and Pieter Bruegel to create a vast swath of green. This verdant expanse is peppered by all sorts of dystopian symbols, from Confederate flags to fighter jets to jars of prescription pill vials.
At the top right corner of the canvas, a field of orange evocative of Dante’s “Inferno” is scattered throughout with references to disastrous events — the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid crisis. “It’s what has been left behind by his figure as he moves over the landscape,” Santa Maria says.
In much of the work, Santa Maria cites highly specific moments from the recent history of the United States.
There is a photo of comedian Michelle Wolf, for example, whose speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2018 lambasted the media on both sides of the aisle for their compulsive coverage of the Trump administration. Elsewhere, a seemingly inane stock image of a half-avocado is a cheeky nod to the sinister viral stereotype that millenials’ financial troubles result from their overspending on luxurious food items. There are visuals that have now become symbolic, like football players kneeling in protest of racist police violence and placards held up during the 2017 Woman’s March.
“A lot of these images seem disparate and disconnected — there’s an image of Jessica Rabbit standing next to a cake that has a swastika on top of it,” adds Santa Maria. “But they collide and they collude in a way that I find is not too dissimilar from the way the real world works, or at least the way it looks on your social media feed.”