Oklahoma artist Paul Ruscha sets the table for dubious tribute to Donald Trump - check out the art installation 'Dinner for Donald'
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. To read more about the exhibit "OK/LA," click here.
Oklahoma native Paul Ruscha returns to home state with provocative art installation set for Donald Trump
NORMAN - In a prominent place in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, a vast table seems set for fine dining with a crisp white tablecloth, sparkling glasses and fancy floral arrangement.
Instead of chairs, though, a ring of toilets - topped with rolls of toilet paper - surround "Dinner for Donald," the latest installation of its kind by artist Paul Ruscha.
The Oklahoma City native premiered the provocative new piece - dedicated to former President Donald Trump - in autumn as the centerpiece of the museum's major exhibition "OK/LA," which features works by six artists who came of age in OKC in the 1950s and '60s and moved as young men to Los Angeles, where they achieved national and even international acclaim.
On view through March 7, "OK/LA" features an eclectic array of paintings, photographs, books and more by Mason Williams, Patrick Blackwell, Joe Goode, Jerry McMillan, Paul Ruscha and his older brother, Ed Ruscha.
"This is the first time that these six artists have been exhibited together - ever. And it's happening here in Norman, Oklahoma, and I think it's important that people take the opportunity to come see it," said "OK/LA" curator Mark White. "They spent their formational years in Oklahoma. ... There's a lot of dry wit in the show, which I would think of as being something very Oklahoman."
Featuring place settings for political rivals like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, Hillary Clinton and Trump, "Dinner for Donald" is the third work of its kind that the younger Ruscha has devised over the course of his long artistic career.
The first iteration, titled “Dinner for Doris" - a reference to legendary actress and singer Doris Day - was first exhibited in 1970 at Ruscha’s studio in the Contemporary Arts Foundation in downtown Oklahoma City.
"I was the host of a restaurant in Oklahoma City called Christopher's, which was a great place. I was so used to these tables, and I just thought at the time being that I wanted to do something that utilized what I was dealing with every day but in a gallery setting. So, I thought that it would be a perfect way, to have toilets surrounding the table, where you could just sit down, eat and then just keep flushing. It's the circle of life," he said with a chuckle.
"When people would come frequently (to Christopher's), I started making a box of 'reserved for' cards, and that's how my calligraphy career came to be. People liked it and kept asking where their cards were, so I figured, 'Well, I'd better keep doing it.' When I left for California, they had a box of about a hundred different names of frequent guests."
With "Dinner for Doris," he established the basic setup for what has become a signature work for Ruscha: Well-known people who were caught in some kind of conflict would be paired up and their place cards set across from each other at the table.
"It was about Doris Day, who was at odds with Charles Manson because he had (tried) to kill her son when he sent all those people to commit those horrible murders," Ruscha recalled. "They were of people that were having a problem with one another in the news."
Other names given a place at the table in the original work included radical feminist and author Valerie Solanas and artist Andy Warhol, who she shot in 1968; former first lady Jackie Kennedy and opera star Maria Callas, because of their rivalry over Aristotle Onassis; and Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver and segregationist politician Lester Maddox, for their obvious differences over the Civil Rights Movement.
Ruscha, who relocated permanently to California in 1973, updated the concept in 2005. Renamed “Dinner for Dubya," in dubious honor of then-President George W. Bush, it was exhibited at Bert Green Fine Art in downtown L.A.
- Related to this story
- Video: Artists' work back together in home state
He didn't hesitate to get political again with the third version, "Dinner for Donald."
"I guess it's just my own take on it. I'm a Democrat, and I will continue to be a Democrat as long as they hold to the party ethic. But I've been so pissed off at the Republicans," Ruscha said in an interview about a month before the election at the Norman museum.
He noted that the installation has a personal aspect: One of the red-inked place cards is for Eve Babitz, his longtime friend, former girlfriend and one-time Hollywood "it" girl who inspired The Doors' song "L.A. Woman." An author whose work has lately experienced a revival, Babitz in a recent biography said she now passes her time listening to conservative talk radio.
"She was wonderful, but suddenly, last year, she began to get really rabid about her ardor for Donald Trump, and I just couldn't believe it. So, we really haven't spoken in about a year," Ruscha said.
Having grown up in OKC, Ruscha said he is aware that his home state is staunchly conservative and Republican. He wasn't sure how "Dinner for Donald" would be received.
"I don't really care. All I care about is that it's what I have felt about the whole thing," he said.
A museum representative said that the staff had received at least one complaint about "Dinner for Donald" by the time the exhibit opened last fall, less than two months before the presidential election.
"I was thrilled to have this one come about," Ruscha said. "It is owned by the Fred Jones now, so they can do with it as they please.
"If they need toilets anywhere, they'll know where to go," he quipped with a grin.
When: Through March 7.
Where: Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 555 Elm Ave., Norman.
Features Writer Brandy "BAM" McDonnell covers Oklahoma's arts, entertainment and cultural sectors for The Oklahoman and Oklahoman.com. Reach her at email@example.com, www.facebook.com/brandybammcdonnell and twitter.com/BAMOK. Please support work by her and her colleagues by subscribing at oklahoman.com/subscribe.