Students who enter Occidental’s Weingart gallery encounter the unexpected combination of former First Lady Nancy Reagan in watercolor to their right and black-and-white photographs of bread-dough sculptures to their left. Even more startling on the white-walled exhibit is a painting of Reagan planting a kiss on ’80s television star Mr. T’s cheek.
Los Angeles-based artist Robert Fontenot’s installation “I Think We’re Alone Now” is on display in Weingart Gallery until Oct. 18. Fontenot’s works transport viewers into a time-warped world of self-analysis and ideological consideration.
“There’s a dark sense of humor which makes you uncomfortable, but it makes you think,” Will Pottenger (junior) said of the exhibit.
Fontenot’s combination of political satire and dark humor sparks conversation and widely different interpretations among those who attend the gallery.
The title of the exhibit “I Think We’re Alone Now,” refers to the late 1980s song made popular by singer Tiffany.
“It’s a song that became very emblematic of 80s mall culture, which focused on youth, consumerism, and a willful ignorance of the outside world,” Fontenot said via email. “At the same time, the song hints at something darker, conjuring strong emotions and a longing for real connection.”
The song is an insightful parallel to the exhibit’s focus on the Reagan family. For example, the wall piece “Womyn for Reagan” is a recreation of a fictional teenage girl’s bedroom with dozens of magazine clippings of the former president pasted on the wall. The viewpoint of the Reagan-obsessed teenager further enhances the intimacy viewers feel between the song and the artwork. In the accompanying watercolor portraits of Nancy Reagan, Fontenot sets the former First Lady in unconventional settings that border on uncomfortable.
“One cannot look at Ronald Reagan without being distracted by the bizarre, often surreal life of Nancy Reagan,” Fontenot said. “She had worked very hard to get her husband into the white house and once there, she was determined to live the biggest, most garish, most star-studded life she could.”
Oxy Arts Director Aandrea Stang has followed Fonenot’s work for over 10 years. Her interest in photography sparked her fascination with the portraits of bread-dough figures featured in the exhibit.
“He anthropomorphizes these non-existent figures and does so in a way that produces these very serious portraits of them,” Stang said.
In the piece “Losers,” Fonentot paints miniature portraits of every presidential candidate that lost an election, beginning with the losing candidates of the 1789 election and ending with the 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“That idea of playing out the whole story of what could have happened…it’s not just ‘Oh, what happened to that guy?’ It’s what happened to all fifty-something of those guys,” Stang said.
Fontenot forces his viewers to question how history could have been different. He challenges the government’s influence on the public and how it could have been altered had those individuals been in power. The “Chain of Command” painting also questions positions of power by placing only fourteen steps between President Obama and the artist himself. In between, the piece features site-specific subjects from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to Occidental President Jonathan Veitch.
“Each time I show [“Chain of Command”], I have to paint a new set of portraits specific to the location. For this version, I was only able to reuse the portraits of the president and myself,” Fontenot said. “Everyone else is specific to the gallery, from the politicians who represent it to the school administrators who oversee it. The piece ends with me because, I suppose, so does the responsibility.”