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The Drawing Power of Presidential Image

Perhaps never in American history has a politician inspired so many artists as President-elect Barack Obama. His face, seen in magazines, in murals and in posters on buildings and bedroom walls alike all over the world, helped to propel a once unlikely campaign into the fundraising and publicity stratosphere.

One image in particular became an icon and was embraced by the Obama campaign. Shepard Fairey’s “Barack Obama” is in a style reminiscent of political screen-print posters of the 1960s, bringing to mind the simple graphic power of the iconic images (if not the policies) of JFK, Che and Mao.

'Barack Obama' by Sherard Fairey

Fairey, a Los Angeles-based artist known for album covers and his Andre the Giant ‘Obey’ campaign, began as an Obama supporter and started making and selling posters to contribute to the campaign. Fairey was recently commissioned to design the official inauguration poster, while the original “Barack Obama” collage was recently donated to the National Portrait Gallery, where it will go on display Saturday, just in time for Tuesday’s big event.

But Shepard Fairey is only one of many graphic artists to make a contribution to the Obama oeuvre. At a recent event at Washington’s Dissident Display Gallery, Ashley Etienne, former Virginia press secretary for the Obama campaign, and exhibit curator and professor Adrian Loving discussed the power and influence of artistic interpretations of political icons. From the campaign’s perspective, Etienne said, the onslaught of positive, unsolicited street and poster art was seen as a blessing—essentially a free opportunity to promulgate their message. But political art is not only a vehicle for advertising, but also for artistic and aspirational expression. Indeed, many of the images on display at Dissident are glowing, hopeful representations (two show Mr. Obama with halos), and many contain a revolutionary bent with words like “United” and “Forward.” With “Abraham Obama,” artist Ron English offers what he calls a “mash-up [of] aesthetics at the intersection of art, technology and politics.”

'Blue Abraham Obama' by Ron English

For artists who haven’t yet expressed their Obama feelings, one New York toymaker has created it a “do-it-yourself” opportunity: an unpainted six-inch action figure that can be adorned anyway its owner chooses. While the company offers more traditional suit-and-tie Obama action figures, as well as a special edition golden Obama for the inauguration, the blank doll is meant to “encourage others to explore their own connection with the President-elect,” says Jailbreak media director Todd Fraser.

'DIY Obama' by Jailbreak Toys.

Since so many graphic artists seem to imbue their Obamas with explicitly personal meanings, some of the simple photographic portraits on display in Washington may provide an important, less propagandistic contrast. Two of them, both by very prominent photographers, were taken in 2004 before Mr. Obama was truly a household name. At the National Portrait Gallery’s “Feature Photography” exhibit, Martin Schoeller, a frequent New Yorker contributor, presents famous faces up close, including the future president.

'Barack Obama' by Martin Schoeller 

Over at “Portraits of Power,” the Richard Avedon retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the subjects are not limited to world leaders, but also include influential journalists, strategists, civil rights workers and society mavens. Mr. Obama’s portrait is the last one in the exhibit.

Though Mr. Obama’s expressions are subtlety different in each, both images are simple close-ups against a stark-white background. But as Loving pointed out, even seemingly straight-forward photographs offer a complexity of interpretations. They are likely to reveal different things to different people: Some people will look at him and see Kenya, some will see Kansas, and others urban Chicago.

With many holding such high hopes for the next four years, it will be interesting to see how art — specifically Obama-centric art — evolves once he actually becomes the president. His presidency, as Etienne said, “is a blank slate”; for artists, it’s a blank canvas.

To see other creative takes on President-elect Obama, check out the Obama Art Report, a blog dedicated to the art of, for and inspired by Obama.