18 May 2008

Dressing The President by Colleen Asper

Colleen Asper is a Brooklyn-based painter whose works has shown internationally. She received a MFA from Yale University in 2004. For six months she painted herself as the President. Her complete biography follows this article.

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I have run for President in my mind, and since Commander in Chief is a job description unrivaled in the popular imagination -- even by that of astronaut -- likely you have too.

Even humble Norman Mailer has imagined himself in this light, beginning Advertisements for Myself: "Like many another vain, empty, and bulling body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I began."

Of course, Mailer knew that he was not running for the Presidency in the privacy of his mind, but rather in the very public space of the page. A writer's job is to turn the interiority of thought into the visibility of text. Mailer's real private thoughts are anyone's guess.

As an artist, my job is similar, just substitute the public space of the page with the very public space any object inhabits. Artists are given even less credit than writers for being self-possessed enough to understand the implications of our own creations, so perhaps it won't surprise you if I admit that I spent six months painting myself as President of the United States America, staring out at my constituency from behind my desk in the Oval Office, without even once imagining what the view from my seat of power would look like.

Failing to visualize what the eyes one has taken great pains to represent might actually be seeing could just as easily serve testament to painting's inherent two-dimensionality as my own lack of imagination. Either way, when one day I saw a photo taken during the Clinton years of the familiar Oval Office from a view familiar to only its most privileged occupant - the one sitting behind that famous desk - my mouth literally formed an O of pure wonder.

This photo took the what if premise of my painting and made it egalitarian. Rather than presenting the improbable "I" as President, it presented the impossible "we." If only all our dreams were so generous.

If we take sleep's vision to be a reflection of our innermost selves, narcissism follows as a matter of course. Jung says, "A dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic." If we see all the figures in a dream as a personification of some aspect of the dreamer's personality, dreaming of a candidate is in some sense imagining oneself President.


In my own theatre, the decision to make myself President was easy; the agony came in deciding what to wear. This is not mere vanity; female politicians have hard choices to make when they approach their wardrobe. It is not revelatory to point out that modern Western clothing is designed to present men as authority figures and women as sex objects. Gender transgression works for pop stars, not politicians, thus female leaders have to tow a slippery line between adopting the button-up authority of their male counterparts, while being careful not to overly gender themselves masculine. How, then, did our dreamers choose to costume their candidates?

Hillary is clearly the fashion victim in this somnambulant race, with outfits more ostentatious then any I dared consider in her position. One dream pictures a magazine article unveiling Hillary's taste for billion dollar garments, featuring her in a dress made from the fleece of an endangered penguin. Another dreamer imagines her wearing a gold and silver lamé Elizabethan gown made up of "a tight bodice with bubble-like bustles completely surrounding her waist like petals on a flower, and voluminous sleeves." Ball gowns are a favorite; she is also dreamed in an over-the-top red one with spiky heels.

Outfits can be brazen for what they expose, as well as their absurd ornamentation, and Hillary reveals much in our dreams. In one, she strolls down the steps of a bed and breakfast in a red bathing suit. A considerate dreamer fusses over Hillary for pairing his wife's pink cashmere sweater with a black bra that shows through the fabric. Matters only get worse when she lays into some French toast, risking drawing attention to the show-through by soiling her sweater. Hillary also headlines for Stars On Ice and though no specific costume choices are described, the possibilities for flamboyance are endless.

Barack plays it safe in our sleep. His shirts are crisp; one dreamer respectfully carries his coat. White tops with dark slacks are a standard that make a couple appearances, his usual dark suit another. He takes fashion cues from George W. Bush at one point (always a bad idea) and dons a cowboy hat, but here the real joke seems on Dubya. Barack's one moment of true showiness comes in a Valentine's Day dream where he appears in an all pink suit with a dozen roses, but this makes him seem like a suave dandy next to Hillary's Renaissance Faire gone awry numbers.

It makes sense that it would be more fun to play dress-up with a female politician, but something else is going on with the wardrobe choices the candidates are making in our sleep. Hillary is the candidate that we know best; we have seen her through the good and the bad. Like an old friend, she appears in her pajamas in one dream. Barack has the advantage of being an abstraction; it is easy to always seem composed when you haven't lived with the whole country as a roommate for eight years.

I also think that for all the historic significance that either Democratic candidate could bring to the White House, it is still harder to imagine a woman as President than it is a black man. The act of visualization just requires more work. Thus, our dreamer's collective subconscious is reacting to the labor of imagining the First Lady turned Commander in Chief by conjuring up visions of red lipstick and bad perfume.


Once I had my own outfit all picked out for my first day in the Oval Office, I turned to props. Whether the Arma Christi or a wealthy patron's possessions, objects have always given us clues to decode portraiture.

My own display of personal presidential property was limited to what I could fit on my desk and the convention for desk décor in the White House is all family photos. The Oval Office is designed to present the generality of a public person; these photos allow for a hint of the specificity of their domestic circumstances.

The vision each politician presents is as tailored to flatter as their suit, but rather than the glimpse of the President's family that these photos offer, most dreamers imagine the candidates transported into their own private lives. What totems do the democratic hopefuls bring with them on their journey?

Hillary, it would seem, is very hungry. In our dreams she can be found eating a burger, ravenous over French toast, and positively binging on Girl Scout cookies. She finds a delicious Dole Pineapple Whip in the bathroom stall and warms up leftover risotto. When not eating food Hillary is foraging, asking one dreamer where she can get ribs and ordering baked potatoes, bouillabaisse, and "English tea squares" from another. Perhaps she just has the munchies after being smoked up by a Barack supporter in Seattle.

Hillary can be generous too, handing out blue placemats and condiments on the campaign trail. A health-conscious dreamer returns the favor and makes her a salad, which is good news because another dream expresses doubt about how often she is making it to the gym.

Compared to all this, baking a pie for Barack's Thanksgiving dinner, or watching him cook breakfast pancakes is not adding much to his caloric intake. The only thing Barack is actually pictured eating is Hillary's votes.

In fact, a rough list of the objects both candidates carry with them into our dreams shows Hillary with three times as many possessions as Barack. She even has more spouses, with a former husband (cuter than Bill) and an additional husband who plays Division One basketball and is still in college. Predictably, Barack and Hillary both have trysts with the dreamers and Barack is caught with a Playboy, but Michelle is Barack's only wife in sleeping and waking.

Once again, it is easier to attach things to Hillary. Barack is unencumbered. We imagine him emitting a golden light, rather than shopping for Tupperware.


Aura or no, appearance is incomplete without gesture. Symmetry denotes power, it provides a composition that does not appeal to anything outside of the picture plane and invokes a sense of grand order. For this reason, I chose to make my body language as President about as expressive as a Pharaoh's. In the retelling, dreams often read as a series of still images, but they allow for the possibility of motion that painting obviously does not. How do the candidates move in the midst of our slumber?

Barack is described as a whirlwind. Like any good candidate he shakes a lot of hands, gives high fives, and gestures with his arms. He also chases and runs, sings and dances. Both he and Hillary appear as chaffers, but the driver is an easy metaphor of leadership to decipher.

Less obvious is why Hillary's gestures lack the autonomy of Barack's. She walks with an arm about her waist or with her arm around another's shoulders. One dreamer rests a head on her thigh and a second holds her while she naps. Not always docile, Hillary also chuckles cruelly or rolls her eyes, but she is within the space of the dreamer more than Barack, who tends to be pictured from afar. That Hillary's gestures are often imagined in relationship to the movement of someone else is tempting to read through her gender, but is that the only explanation?

When Jung speaks of the dream's inhabitants as aspects of the dreamer, he offers interpretation on the subjective level. He also speaks of an objective significance, one in which we take into account the attributes a given figure has in order to understand what they are representing in the dream.

Clearly, Hillary and Barack both have great objective significance, but our familiarity with Hillary makes her subjective significance greater still. It is easy to see Hillary as a component of the dreamer's self, offering a comforting hand or a chastising laugh. Even when she yells at a dreamer to lose some weight it reads as self-reproach. Barack is kind and otherwise in much the same proportion as Hillary, but his comfort is offered at a distance and his criticality is all cool-kid remove. In our dreams, Barack is a symbol, Hillary is us. Which makes for a more compelling vote?

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Colleen Asper received a MFA from Yale University in 2004 and attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the summer of 2006. Her work has been shown internationally, including at Deitch Projects in New York, Steven Wolf Fine Arts in San Francisco, and with P.P.O.W. in London. In addition to being reviewed in such publications as the New York Times and The New Yorker, Colleen is a regular contributor to Beautiful/Decay magazine and The Brooklyn Rail. She is also the cofounder, along with Jennifer Dudley, of a roving series of panel discussions and lectures on a wide range of topics in the arts, called Ad Hox Vox. Colleen lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the daughter of Beth Asper, whose MA in Counseling Psychology and belief in psychic dreams perhaps lend qualifications to her daughter. She can be reached at colleenasper@gmail.com

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