"The Daley Show"
In 1988, student David K. Nelson Jr. created an uproar when he displayed Mirth & Girth, an unflattering portrait of Mayor Harold Washington in women’s lingerie—painted shortly after Washington’s death—at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
While many portraits in “The Daley Show” portray Mayor Richard M. Daley as an oafish clown, scheming politician or brutal dictator, they’re unlikely to create the kind of controversy that Nelson’s painting spawned. Except for Delfino Ledezma’s Daley Punch-Out, which invites viewers to take a swing at Daley’s mug shot, printed on a Chicago flag–clad punching bag, any outrage the works express is more subdued than I expected. Some artists in this exhibition, which the Chicago Urban Art Society cocurated with Johalla Projects, even seem sad to see Daley go.
The mayor’s historic 22-year administration, which began just 12 years after his father Richard J. Daley’s 21-year tenure, calls to mind Europe’s monarchical dynasties. Predictably, a favored theme is Daley as king. Artists Don’t Fret and Paul John Higgins adopt the style of Rococo royal portraiture in Our Beloved King, Daley II and Portrait of Richard Daley II of Chicago, King of the Chicagoans, respectively. More impressive is Jason Hawk and Jess Stone’s installation King of Chicago: A nickel-plated, spiked steel crown, scepter and brass knuckles embellished with the Chicago skyline rest on a red-velvet pillow. They’re a better fit for Daley’s often nasty role in Chicago politics than the pantaloons in the one-note paintings.
Nearly all the artists in the show posit Daley as a mascot for the city. In Jourdon Gullet’s collage and ink drawing on wood Dayor Maley (pictured), Daley, with familiar paunch and comb-over, looms above the peaked roofs of Bridgeport bungalows, crowded alleys, corner diners, the steel supports of the El tracks and a gritty downtown skyline. This piece best represents how the mayor’s life and character are wrapped up in what it means to be a Chicagoan and in the city’s transformation during the last 20 years. Gullet’s jocular demigod probably is what most people will remember of Daley, not the visibly tired and aging man in Jennifer Greenburg’s recent photographs: two brief glimpses of the mayor’s humanity amid dozens of caricatures.
The campaign imagery that pervades the exhibition reminds us that though the mayor sustained a barrage of criticism, particularly during the last few years, Chicago’s citizens re-elected him five times. As one of the gallery’s satirical campaign posters (pictured above) says, WE VOTE DALEY (OR WE DON’T VOTE AT ALL). The thought-provoking “Daley Show” prompts both supporters and detractors to wonder what Chicago will be like without him.