Eric Fischl is not a caricature artist or cartoonist, but these are strange times.
A less-than-worldly, populist reality TV star and frequent guest on WWE professional wrestling has ascended to the Oval Office and he’s putting up a middle finger to all vestiges of those who came before him—to the press, to the judiciary, to anyone who opposes or defies him. He’s doing things in ways no one who preceded him in the office has ever done. The country is bitterly divided and in turmoil. People are protesting by the millions while others follow the president with a cult-like reverence. The most powerful man in the world is setting the course of American democracy through Twitter rants in the wee hours of the morning. Strange times indeed.
So why can’t one of the world’s most famous and renowned artists paint political cartoons on his iPad Pro and post them exclusively on Facebook and Instagram? He absolutely can, and, to many, the world is just a little brighter for it.
Fischl, a North Haven resident, says he began creating these remarkably rendered pictures of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller and others of their ilk for his own amusement during the campaign. But before long, Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States and Fischl was now painting to take his mind off the fear and apprehension that threatened to overwhelm him.
“There’s a madness that’s gripped the country, and that terrifies me,” the artist says, explaining why he took to making pictures of people he clearly doesn’t trust. “For me they’re a release valve,” Fischl adds, “Drawing takes my mind off the things I’m afraid of because of them.”
Eventually, Fischl took to Facebook and shared the images, which are painted with the ArtRage app on his iPad, and he enjoyed the positive response. As he explains it, the artist finds a certain amount of freedom and joy making something without the “high art” pretense—something quite different than painting his large figurative scenes that speak to deeper human and societal truths. “I don’t think these are higher art,” Fischl says. “They’re in the tradition of caricature.”
As the painter creates more pictures of Trump and his people, he’s begun trying new things, such as adding clown noses and collars or putting Trump in costume as Alex the droog from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Fischl says he’s “joining the social conversation,” and he likes being part of it. “I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s not art,” he explains. “Then it wouldn’t be fun anymore.”
While no one wants to give Fischl a reason to stop having fun, it’s not exactly easy to see fresh work from one of the planet’s most celebrated painters and not call it art, no matter what he uses to make it. But whatever gets him through the day, right? Perhaps he might argue that there’s no bigger truths or thought on a deeper level, but that’s not quite true either.
Fischl opens up about his choice to use clown iconography in the portraits, demonstrating that it’s difficult for an artist of his caliber to do anything without some hidden depths. “Clowns are about anarchy—that’s what scares people,” he says. “That’s what’s going on in the White House—anarchy,” Fischl continues before offering his view of Trump. “He’s not worldly except for the most base level of avarice—it’s embarrassing,” the artist says. “Instead of diplomatic leadership…he’s reduced it to schoolyard bully crap, name calling. It’s scary.”
For now, Fischl is fighting back in the best way he knows how, and it seems like he’ll continue expanding his rogues gallery, which so far includes several versions of Trump, Bannon, Conway and Miller, along with images of Press Secretary Shawn Spicer wearing a colorful child’s beanie cap with propeller, Michael Flynn, and even some group pics with Trump, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan.
One expressive portrait of Bannon includes the handwritten words, “Beware of Idiot Logs.”
Fischl acknowledges his pictures would make great posters or a print portfolio, but he says they were created on the iPad and aren’t made to print in large formats. Still, the artist says he would explore ways to make it happen if the opportunity presented itself.
But this is all new territory for the painter. “I had an ambivalence toward that kind of mechanical tool,” Fischl says of using the iPad and ArtRage app, which he calls “fairly straightforward” compared to similar apps, and he’s now approaching it with “increasing interest and acceptance.”
It’s a good bet art fans around the world would like to see him accept these new works for the brilliant gems they are, and bring them out of the digital world and into a physical, tactile form.
He might even get the President to tweet about it.