“He said something like, ‘if we are to change our world view, images must change. The artist now has a very important job to do.’ ” David Gleeson states, trying to remember Vaclav Havel’s quote on the artistic response to Communism, as we wrap up our conversation on Gleeson’s recent exhibition at Crane Arts: T.Rump – America on the Rag. In the hour we spoke inside the exhibition, Gleeson and I discussed a myriad of topics: artists who inspire him, the edifice of economics, even tampons—which is, among other feminine products, a thematic medium in his work. But mostly, we talked about the central focus of his exhibition: the ever-sensational, presumptuous—I mean, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Gleeson, an artist in many regards: author, entrepreneur, and self-named installation artist T.Rutt (to which he credits Marcel Duchamp’s moniker R.Mutt), is about to leave for a road trip. In partnership with the artist Mary Mihelic, T.Rump – America on the Rag exists both on the gallery-floor as well as on the road, in the form of a bus—an actual Trump campaign bus—the team had purchased in Iowa, via Craigslist. With over a million miles on the behemoth vehicle (and on its third engine) the two artists are on their way to Grand Rapids, Michigan to see their response at a Trump Rally. From there they will go to New Mexico then California at the maximum speed of sixty-miles-per-hour. The two weary, traveling artists have taken the bus to many primary states, political rallies, and art fairs such as Art Basel, Conception, and Volta. The bus has even caught the attention of Rachel Maddow, receiving a shout-out on her show. With a momentum of press rising behind them, the T.Rump team’s goal is not just to push buttons (although the bus certainly has provoked many, resulting in the two co-writing a book documenting their journey, titled From the Finger to the Fist Pump). The goal at hand is to evoke social awareness.
Upon entering the bus on a rainy Tuesday, the first piece I notice is an American flag with neon-colored embroidery on the middle white stripe. In electric-lime thread, the words read: Birthed in the U.S.A., referencing President Obama’s birth certificate controversy back in 2010.
“We embroidered Trump quotes onto American flags as commentary to nothing being sacred anymore…and the things that come out of his mouth are just so outrageously quotable,” Mihelic explains to me as the bus’s age-old window wiper squeaks in the background, “if it weren’t raining out, we would have the window open with a few of our flags hanging…we want to do all his crazy quotes, but it takes a while.”
At first glance, one would assume it as a fully fledged Trump vehicle. But when taking a closer look (something both Gleeson and Mihelic will say Americans don’t do enough of) you will notice the notoriously maudlin slogan “Make America Great Again” replaced with “Make Fruit Punch Great Again”—hence, why America is on “the rag” and is quite the icebreaker for their audience. When the bus is parked, people are given the opportunity to throw fruit punch (in a very Pollock manner) directly at the words. The letters of the T.Rump facade are lined with muslin and replaced each time they visit a new city. In case you haven’t figured it out, the drippy, bright-red punch is in reference to Trump’s remarks towards Megyn Kelly’s “blood coming out of her wherever,” during the Republican Debates.
The bus is equipped with everything one would imagine Trump’s crew would have: wood-trimmed interior, a superfluous amount of space—oh, and don’t forget the stripper pole. While on the road Gleeson and Mihelic do a back-and-forth ping-pong routine of what installations they should add next. So far the current installations speak on levels ranging from comedy to gut-punching frankness. The bus’s restroom is lined with wallpaper the two designed: a wall-to-wall textile pattern of diplomas from the now-defunct Trump University (all addressed to an anonymous Muhammad). On the stripper pole, a pink vintage suitcase gracefully hangs with a pair of domestic rubber gloves as if the two were in mid dance-routine. Behind the stripper pole hangs a line of mannequins dressed in what appears to be a timeline of Trump’s marriages, juxtaposed to a row of road-found Trump signs wrapped in burkas. “We set them up near the bus in a row,” says Mihelic. And when cleaning the bus, they demonstrate waterboarding–on the bus, not people. Talk about a critical approach.
Upon leaving the bus, they show me the most powerful installation. Open Carry: a giant paint brush appropriated to resemble a Remington 700 rifle, “it comments on the need for art to make a powerful statement,” Gleeson tells me. Mihelic adds “and that art is a weapon.”
Consequently, it will be a while until we meet again on the East Coast. And like most artists who take their craft to the dusty roads, they eventually come home to their respective jobs and families in Philadelphia and New York.
As we part ways, and the two prepare to fill up their tank with over a hundred-dollars worth of gasoline, they express their concern on finding a venue safe enough to park the bus once out in the Midwest and Southwest. They will be following voting-days in both Michigan and New Mexico. They tell me about the changing reactions to the bus since the time of its purchase–and they’ve received everything from middle-fingers to fist-pumps (which, as mentioned before, is the working title of their soon-to-be-published photography book). As the progressive American, who resides among the many comforts East Coast city-dwellers tend to live in perfect denial with, I couldn’t help but worry for the two. But as I step off the bus, back into the rain–realizing their integrity to be far greater than Trump himself–I begin to smile.