By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Pride: President Barack Obama, costumed as an esteemed Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, surrounded by drone planes.
Wrath: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, somehow half morphed into a 7-11 Big Gulp cup, next to a sinful pack of cigarettes.
Lust: Photographer Terry Richardson, nude and holding a pitchfork, in front of vulnerable-looking females.
Some may find such depictions of the seven deadly sins comical or sarcastic. Arlene’s Grocery, a Lower East Side music venue and gallery, however, did not take these images so lightly.
Artist Robert Preston displayed his “Seven Deadly Sins” series of paintings – which also included JP Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon as greed, Walmart heiress Alice Walton as sloth, and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke as gluttony – for only one night.
During the opening reception at Arlene’s Grocery, things seemed to be going well, according to Preston“I got no negative feedback the night that it opened, from anybody,” he tells BTR’s Third Eye Weekly podcast this week. “Including the man who gave me the show in the first place.”
The artist received an especially positive reaction from the gentleman who manned the door. “He was really excited about the show,” says Preston. “He loved it. He kept running away from the door and coming in and talking to me about the different characters in the paintings.”
The following morning, Arlene’s Grocery asked Preston to remove the series, as they felt the paintings were not sophisticated, deeming the series as being too “literal” and “aggressive.” The manager apparently disagreed with them because she thought they insult the viewer.
This order was especially surprising to Preston. Reflecting on it, he states, “I think the owners of Arlene’s Grocery did not like the political content of the work.”
The sinful painting series was based off of a similar one Preston composed in 2005, that had been in tune with the celebrities (but not so much the political figures) of that era: Martha Stewart as greed, Donald Trump as pride, Christie Allie as gluttony, and so on. Preston considered this past project a fun time capsule of the times, and decided to upgrade the concept.
In 2013, when Preston was working on lust, he first thought of using a sex symbol like Beyonce, a figure who is an object of lust, but upon more consideration, decided to focus on a public figure who was more lustful. He decided to investigate photographer Terry Richardson, a character that Preston had less familiarity with. Preston was “astonished to discover” that the average internet user can find “lots of pornographic pictures of him having sex with his models.” These photos are easily accessible, and Richardson must be aware of this plethora of pictures.
Preston considers doing such research to be an educational experience:
“You get a whole new perspective on people that you think you know,” he says. “When you research them, you discover that maybe the official story is not what you might expect.”
Examining how he represents such characters, and his overarching style, both the old and new “Seven Deadly Sins” series can be considered consistent with the rest of Preston’s art projects. There’s a “God Save the Queen” series that depicts England’s royal figure in form of a psychedelic Acid Queen, satanic Devil Queen and skull-and-crossbones Queen of Punk.
There is also a “Cult Icons” portrait series that features Oprah’s head entangled by Medusa snakes, Sun Myung Moon’s head surrounded by sushi, and Jim Jones’ head between a Kool Aid Man and devil. Nevertheless, Preston tells BTR that he has never experienced the kind of controversy or reaction like what happened at Arlene’s Grocery.
“I think that one of the things the management tends to lose sight of is that they [the paintings] were supposed to be funny… they were supposed to see the satirical and humorous aspect of it,” Preston says. “They weren’t terribly serious paintings.”
Nevertheless, this artist does not exactly feel that this misunderstanding or reaction was justified.
“People are selectively outraged by censorship,” he says. “I think that I was censored, and I think that if the subject matter had been different, and they had told me to take it down, there would have been a lot more outrage about it.”
Even with such surprising controversy and unkind words about his work, Preston was not discouraged from going forth with his art. After removing the Seven Deadly Sins series, these paintings got put on display at the Proto Gallery over in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Moving forward, Preston is currently focusing on a series based on the Wizard of Oz and what he makes of the film’s “iconic story.”