American Idols

Eighty-six beady, unblinking glass eyes stare out of forty-three truncated torsos propped up on pedestals. Now on view at the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s Hodge Gallery, John Moran’s glass caricatures of each United States president to date utilize mixed media to emphasize the point of intersection of the private and public lives of the presidents. Comically eerie, their figures crowd around a red carpet with the show title, American Idol, taking center stage behind the figures.

Places like the Pittsburgh Glass Center, or PGC, that focus on the teaching, creating, and promotion of contemporary glass art are few and far between. Their efforts to make the craft accessible to all ages range from workshops in hot glass blowing to flame working and bead making that cater to your average amateur. However, it is the quality of their reputation and facilities that maintain standards of practice that draw world-renowned glass artists to teach and work there. Given Pittsburgh’s extensive history with glass that goes back even further than steel production, PGC helps to keep the craft of glassmaking alive in this post-industrial city.

The Hodge Gallery often features the work of artists who have taught in the studios at the PGC, as is the case with John Moran, who was beginning this body of work at the time when he was teaching an intensive at the center, and was invited to show. Moran’s exhibit dealing with American preoccupation with the image and character of the president is timely, given the imminent elections. A copy of the American Idols occupies a central focal point of the exhibit, and there is even has a ballot box where you can cast your vote for favorite president.

Unlike traditional presidential portraiture that is intended to flatter, these varnished torsos are chopped at an awkward height, branded with nicknames, and are riddled with imagery and text in the folds of their contemporary costumes. For example, the glossy red shirt of Our Father  (a lustrous portrait of George Washington) bares the letters MULE. What might seem to be a trivial detail of the piece is actually a hint at his little-known background as a mule breeder. Similarly, Calvin Coolidge’s bust sports a maroon shirt with “you lose” scrawled in gold over it. The reference comes from a popular story about a woman challenging him on his quiet demeanor, betting that she could get him to say more than two words. While complete decoding of the details of each bust would take more than just a history book, if you ask for a tour of the gallery, your docent will clue you in on some of Moran’s research into the not-so-private lives of our presidential idols. Details that might at first seem arbitrary are in fact conscious decisions made by the artist to help bring these characters to life. Quirky and humorous, this exhibit showcases craft objects that reflect our own efforts to craft the public image of our presidential idol.

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