In the Addison Gallery of American Art’s latest exhibit, “George Washington: American Icon,” the Addison pulls together depictions of the first president from a variety of time periods and art styles. The exhibit features works such as Washington Funko Pop and an oil-on-canvas portrait.
According to curator Gordon Wilkins, the exhibit was inspired by modern heroes.
“We were initially thinking about some show about heroes, and then we were pulling things from our collection that dealt with famous people. [At first], it seemed like a total mismash. It made no sense. So I was looking at all the heroes that kept popping up, and George Washington was one of them,” said Wilkins.
Located in the Learning Section of the Addison, the exhibit contains three parts: a glass case with various pop culture items related to Washington, a wall of several drawings and lithographs from the Addison’s collection, and an upper level with contemporary artwork focusing on Washington’s modern image.
“[The exhibition] is all drawn from the collection, with the exception of a few things we bought on eBay. In this show, I [didn’t] want to look at Washington’s history, because we don’t have the work to do a whole biographical show on Washington…so I thought I’d focus instead on the image of Washington and looking at how it’s haunted the American consciousness for two hundred years,” said Wilkins.
According to Wilkins, much of the imagery reveals Washington’s contradictory character in subtle ways. For instance, “Mount Vernon,” a needlework tapestry by Abigail Noyes, depicts Washington’s farmland estate in Virginia on a hill in the distance. As Wilkins points out, the slaves who ran the plantation are somehow absent from the scene.
Wilkins said, “I acknowledged very early on in the wall text that there’s this inherent contradiction that the man who fought for freedom owned hundreds of slaves. [Washington’s] plantation, Mount Vernon, was run on labor produced by African Americans… There’s this kind of erasure of the African American experience at Mount Vernon. It’s by the absence of the explicit references that I get at the inherent contradictions of his legacy.”
The exhibit also looks at other contradictions from Washington’s past, including a more contemporary example in American lore. “Mount Rushmore,” a photograph by Lee Friedlander, depicts several tourists taking pictures of the mountain from behind a window pane. The actual monument is seen reflected from the glass, looming in the distance.
“Mount Rushmore is a sacred indigenous American site that [architect Gutzon Borglum] just carved dead white men into…I love this whole idea of spectatorship and the reflection…This iconic tourist site isn’t being directly photographed, but reflected in this image. It kind of gets at the loss of meaning as people photograph and photograph and photograph, and you see something in ways that are so far removed from the original source,” said Wilkins.
“George Washington: American Icon” is on display until November 15, 2019.