They say democracy is fragile. In the case of the photography project and instantly classic new book by artist Kathleen Y. Clark, it literally is. The White House China has been years in the making — specifically the years beginning with the ominous presidential election results of 2016. Prompted by the ensuing breakdown of civic discourse, Clark felt drawn to exploring the dichotomies between the pretty language of convention and the uglier realities behind the veneer of history.
Her research led her to the discovery of the official White House china sets commemorating the most admirable accomplishments of each president. It was then that she had the idea to reimagine these fanciest of place settings, in the name of correcting the record lest their greatest failures and misdeeds be forgotten.
The result is a series of painstakingly produced images, each depicting an updated version of the administrations’ official designs. With the same flourishes of detail, regal palettes of blue, crimson, sepia and gold, precious display and stateliness as the originals, Clark’s new place-settings foreground facts rather than museum-minded spin.
Some of the newly accurate artifacts refer to actual atrocities, immoral laws and policies, or egregious failures to act, while others make reference to rank hypocrisies or the turbulence of scandal. For example, Ronald Reagan’s features the pink triangle from the AIDS crisis movement, while George H.W. Bush gets a Stealth Bomber, and Bill Clinton, a blue dress. For George W. Bush, it’s the emblematic prisoner from Abu Ghraib.
And the Founding Fathers are not spared, with both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson specified as slave owners (Washington alone kept 317 people in captive servitude). Franklin Pierce had the ignominious and lethal Fugitive Slave Act, while Chester A. Arthur’s Chinese Exclusion Act laid the groundwork for the racism, xenophobia and even in a way the latter day practice of redlining that we see today.
By the spring of 2016, Clark was turned off by the direction Trump was taking the political discourse and decided to visit Washington, D.C. to essentially search for the iconography of America in architecture, sculpture, and public works. “I wanted to find a project having to do with national history and the origins of the eloquent philosophies that were so in contradiction with the way things often played out,” she tells the Weekly. “At the White House and the Smithsonian National Museum I looked as closely as I could at the china collection. I was fascinated by the decor and the way it was utilized as public relations.”
Initially interested in the contradictions of the slave holding and anti-Indian presidents, Clark quickly realized it was important to extend the project to include the entire presidential lineage. “I researched as best I could each president and where they stood on a variety of issues,” she says. “I utilized a range of archives and site visits to help trigger ideas and I brainstormed endlessly. Some ideas came to me in my dreams as all these images and concepts swirled in my mind.”
As her interest grew in the wide distance between the lofty goals articulated by our nation’s founders and the harsh realities of slavery, slaughter and greed, Clark pondered the divide between conventions of public intellectualism that gloss over the seething underbelly. It is precisely the dissonance between the classic, mimetic craftsmanship and the violence of its depictions that gives the work its charm and power. Too finely made to be pure satire, the series is instead a poignant and enthralling demonstration of hypocrisy and insidious would-be white-washing.
When it comes to the current occupant of the White House, “President No. 45” has earned an entire service for 12, because he’s done so much crime it’s impossible to choose just one. Emblazoned with The Mar-A-Lago Club, aka the “Southern White House,” the service commemorates just some of his earliest sins, like pussy-grabbing, redacted transcripts, and kids in cages.
Some of the most striking parts of the book also come at the end, the part where history is still being written right now. Barack Obama’s plate is turned away from the viewer, in a reference to Trump’s single-minded focus on erasing his predecessor’s legacy. Hillary Clinton gets an honorary mention, in the form of a smashed plate on the floor, in an emotional metaphor for broken dreams and anger.
Asked if she has a personal favorite among her inventive, topical collection, Clark says that it has changed over time. She appreciates how the Zachary Taylor butter dish depicts not only enslaved field workers, but also how the recreated porcelains convey the aging and sad and tired quality of the ideas it represents. “I do feel guilty pleasure from the recreation of Richard Nixon’s Resignation Lunch,” she says. “It’s so bland and somehow so apt in furthering the idea of his criminality.”
For more information on the artist and the project, visit: kathleenclarkphoto.com.