With liberty and irony for all
Feeling patriotic? A portrait of Colin Powell might help
I used to peruse the basement of the Reno Hilton with reasonable frequency, either on my way to or from a film showing at the Keystone Theater. I haven’t been there since the theater closed—in the basement, that is. I must admit I have enjoyed the greasy fried food stuffs and Vanilla Coke appeal of Johnny Rockets, but that’s on the casino-level floor. So, walking through the lower level doors, along the lush and leafy carpeted hall, brings back memories of nibbling Bit O’ Honeys purchased at The Candy Barrel while cuddling with a beau on the Keystone’s snug sofas and watching movies like Lolita, the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and the Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation.
In the area in front of what used to be the theater box office, I see a gallery. It’s freestanding, just a set-up of paintings in the open space of the hallway. It’s called Min’s Art Gallery. As I approach, I expect to see landscape prints or those creepy Red Skelton-style paintings. But I am faced with something eerily different.
A 3-by-4 foot painting of George W. Bush rests on a shelf so that George’s head is a few feet above my own. He grins contentedly as his gaze focuses on something beyond the frame; perhaps he sees a bound and gagged Saddam Hussein. Eagles fly below George’s head. That’s right, tried and true American Bald Eagles. On the left side of the painting, the Statue of Liberty stands radiant with her torch, and on the right stand the Twin Towers in a size sadly disproportionate to Bush’s head. Smoke rises from one, while a plane drifts toward the other. Incredulous, I stare.
People behind me survey this and other patriotic (if you can even call them that) paintings. “That’s amazing,” they say, or, “Isn’t that beautiful?” I wonder if they are amazed in the same way that I am—amazed by the combination of possibly offensive elements. Since when do George W. Bush, the statue of liberty, eagles and a blatant act of terrorism pay homage to a common ideal?
This, and every other life-like painting in the gallery, was painted by Min H. Rhee, a 56-year-old, self-taught portraitist of Asian decent. Rhee is on hand at the gallery. He speaks little English and wears a tawny apron. He often paints here, amid his portraits of celebrities, from Barbra Streisand to Bob Hope. The majority of his portraits on display are of political figures. One includes images from the Persian Gulf War, others represent life-size images of Winston Churchill and George Bush Sr., and there’s a 4-by-5 foot of Jesus. How ironic. How timely.
“Who loves George Bush so much that they want a huge painting of him on their wall?” my boyfriend asks. “If I were to get any president, it’d have to be Ronald Reagan. At least he was also a famous actor.”
When we talk to Rhee, he says he paints politicians because people have an interest in them. Thank-you letters from Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Colin Powell and others sit next his works. Being a portraitist, he has a natural desire to paint faces with character. He has little emotional attachment to his pieces and simply paints because he can. Most of his portraits are often picture-perfect, but frankly I don’t understand the appeal. No politician’s face is pretty enough to hang on my wall.