National lampoon: Oliphant's artful jabs

Patrick Bruce Pat Oliphant, "Legacies." © Pat Oliphant, courtesy of the Susan Conway Gallery, Santa Fe NM.

In the past few years, political cartoons have themselves become big political news. First an Islamic fatwa came down against a Danish cartoonist who depicted Mohammed as a terrorist. During the recent presidential campaign, uproar erupted over a New Yorker cover showing a turbaned Barack Obama giving a fist jab to a militant Michelle in the White House. And just this past week, a cartoonist who connected the authorship of the stimulus bill with the dead chimp-gone-wild raised questions of racism.

Attempting visual satire is clearly risky business. Yet when accomplished with a sharp wit and deft hand, political caricature can cut to the heart of issues, often with searing gallows humor, as shown in the stellar exhibition “Leadership: Oliphant Cartoons and Sculptures from the Bush Years,” currently on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum.

Australian-born artist Patrick “Pat” Oliphant has spent over 40 years skewering American politics, winning a mantel-full of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. The current show features several walls stacked with whip-sharp editorial cartoons, but what sets the exhibition apart is its display of Oliphant’s bronze sculptures and large charcoal drawings and monoprints.

These rarely seen works showcase Oliphant’s impressive dexterity across media. Occasionally, the artist carries the same concept through several forms. For example, what begins as a sketch on a small piece of notebook paper (on view in a glass case in the Pine Room) leads to both a watercolor and a bronze sculpture depicting a puny George W. Bush in a jester’s cap, helpless and hapless astride a large workhorse being led by a gun-toting Dick Cheney.

The visual metaphor of the U.S. as a horse with the president as its rider is an ongoing motif for Oliphant, who also uses the American myth of the gun-slinging cowboy as an effective skewer. An impressionistic bronze of Reagan reeling on a bucking bronco, reminiscent of Frederic Remington’s sculptures, is beautiful for its energy and technique apart from its content.

Again and again, Oliphant shows his virtuosity at using a quick gestural mark to capture an identifying characteristic of a personality or situation. Consistently acute and wry, his observations are also occasionally poignant. Two cartoons, in particular, highlight the sad atrocities the U.S. has let happen in Darfur, Sudan. And a small sculpture of a boy precariously balanced on one leg while his other limbs end in stubs is entitled “Memorial for a Small War.”

The exhibition, “Leadership: Oliphant Cartoons and Sculptures from the Bush Years,” is on view through March 8 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-6321.