Growing up Evangelical Baptist in Tennessee, the artist Peyton Freiman was constantly unsure. “There’s no regime once you’re baptized,” he explains. “They tell you to find Christ, and get baptized, and then once you’ve done that, they tell you to find Christ and get baptized. Everyone I know has been baptized at least twice. Nobody trusts anything.”
Although Freiman has since moved away from Evangelicalism and Tennessee, the 2016 election reignited his childhood uncertainty. How, he wondered, could 80% of Evangelicals—god-fearing, family values people like his parents—vote for a greedy, womanizing vulgarian like Donald Trump? Rather than talk to a psychiatrist (“Most artists can’t afford therapy,” he tells me), Freiman worked out his confusion in his art.
“Heal Thyself!” on view at Shin Gallery through Sunday, shows an artist making sense of political catastrophe. While the name “Trump” never appears, the billionaire developer President casts a long shadow over every piece on display.
His presence is hardly needed, anyway; there are enough parodies of the President out there, and Freiman is focused on bigger things. Trump, he says is only the latest incarnation of the intolerant and violent attitudes that have plagued the American spirit since the nation’s founding. “Heal Thyself” is an interrogation of those attitudes—where they came from, how they affect us today and where they’re going.
Of the 28 works on display, the strongest and most evocative are the drawings Freiman does with marker. "It's kind of weird," he admits, "but I couldn't get the level of detail I wanted with a paintbrush, and I liked its watercolorish aesthetic." While the exhibition does make a strong case for the marker’s artistic merit, Freiman uses it for more than that, exploiting the contradiction between the childishness of his instrument and the weightiness of his subject matter.
Baptism is a good example. A drawing of Freiman against a black sky and dark blue water, it reads: “I have been baptized four different times. I was always so afraid. And it never took.” Through the childlike simplicity of his drawing, Freiman illustrates all the pain, discomfort and uncertainty of a fundamentalist childhood. The Power Team: Real Men Love Jesus And Lift Weights Also is a more lighthearted exploration of the same theme. Showing the six muscle-bound members of “The Power Team,” the caption reads, “These guys came to my church. They bodybuild & do feats of strength. For Jesus.” By undercutting the overly-reverent depiction of the team with an absurd of the title and caption, Freiman sends up the idiocy of fundamentalist entertainment.
The American Conservationist 2017 applies the same approach to American history as a whole. A drawing of the conservationist and eugenicist Madison Grant, the text reads: “As an American conservationaist, Madison Grant helped save the Redwoods. As an American author, his book ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ inspired Adolf Hitler when he wrote ‘Mein Kampf.’ American history is a complicated bitch, isn’t it?” It’s flippant, but captures American history in all its uncertainty. How could the man who saved the redwoods inspire the Holocaust? How could the writer of the Declaration of Independence also rape his slave? How do you approach our country’s schizoid history, and support the good without legitimizing the bad? Freiman’s right: it’s a complicated bitch.
Freiman’s satire is at its zaniest in his visions of the future. In Post-Apocalyptic L.L. Bean Catalog and Honey I Forgot my Keys; They’re By the Pills and All the Bullets, he imagines LL Bean and J. Crew catalogs from the future, with happy families toting rifles and wearing gas masks, watching mushroom clouds explode from the safety of their station wagons. Like the work of cartoonist Bruce McCall, they imagine the culture of a warped, ridiculous society only a little bit different from ours. They also convey an important truth—even in the face of civil war and nuclear holocaust, people will still buy stuff they don't need.
The triptych Remember That Time Chad Went Soul-Searching After Rehab And Became A Missionary In The Pacific Northwest, And Then Built A Church, Which Turned Into A Fort After He Fell Off The Wagon. Then He Tried To Buy The Mineral Rights Out From Underneath The Native Americans, Start A Sovereign State And Mint His Own Currency, And Started A Fight With The Fed When They Tried To Build That Pipeline is the fullest expression of Freiman’s talents and themes, and the centerpiece of the exhibition. Echoing the long-winded title, it depicts rising tensions between groups of Eskimos, militiamen and federal agents in the arctic wilderness as they eventually spill out into war. It mixes the Bundy standoff, the Standing Rock protests and the growing divide between the American people with irrelevant garbage—red solo cups, plastic delivery bags, selfies. It pits America's mistreatment of its indigenous peoples against its relentless need for distractions. It also makes the case for Freiman as more than just a witty cartoonist. In it, I see reflections of Grant Wood’s tongue-in-cheek use of stereotypes and patriotic mythologizing, of Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringgold’s expressionist depictions of racial violence, even of the “Triumph of Death” theme mastered by Northern Renaissance painters like Bosch and Bruegel the Elder, but with marauding skeletons replaced by armed Federales on horseback. It’s an uncanny, evocative, slightly ridiculous masterpiece—the first great artwork of the Trump era.
Heal Thyself is on view through Sunday. All photos courtesy of the artist and Shin Gallery.