Michael Caines' current work situates American political figures, both past and present, in altered 18th century paintings and Christian religious kitsch, referencing scenes from Alice in Wonderland, Bambi, and the Wizard of Oz. Drawing on the lineage of political cartooning in these pictures, Caines treats Richard Nixon, JFK, and Carl Rove, among others, with surprising tenderness and humor.
Influenced by Rick Perlstein's 2008 book, Nixonland: The Rise Of A President And The Fracturing Of America, Caines considers the fate of now obsolete political figures, and those who will someday, in turn, fall into the shadow of history. Their images, so vivid, are given an afterlife in electronic media, and they are, in a sense, both entombed there and in limbo. Caines' new work reveals the peculiar beauty that history lends to these iconic physiognomies, and his work is as much a response to their physicality as it is to the politics they are, or were, embroiled in. Thus baby-headed Carl Rove is cuddled by Ronald Reagan as dowager duchess, while a younger, glowingly handsome Jesus-Reagan cradles a little Glenn Beck lamb.
Caines rifles through the past, masterfully reworking elements of historical pictures to provide landscapes for these figures to inhabit. By conflating painting and political history, his work evokes nostalgia for the idealism that comes with belief, whether in political or artistic greatness. Caines references Sir John Tenniel's beautiful illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, utilizing the spirit of absurdity in the drawings and text as a form of critique. Rather than passively absorbing history and media images, Caines asserts his right to creative action. He thereby extends to us, his viewers, a kind of tentative idealism, one in which he in turn asserts our right to act on – rather than be acted upon – the images of our shared histories.