American Idols is well timed: The exhibit consists of 43 glass busts, each depicting a different U.S. president. This is election season, and the theme should suffice. But Idols is provocative on many levels. The figures stand in the Hodge Gallery of the Pittsburgh Glass Center, like an offbeat Portrait Gallery, but John Moran's sculptures are more than bland likenesses. Moran comments on and criticizes each president by dressing them in different outfits, meddling with their expressions, and calling them by various nicknames and pejoratives. It is, in short, one of the most intelligent solo shows I have ever seen in Pittsburgh.
At first glance, the show is funny. Moran's "Tricky Dick" shows a scowling Nixon in striped jailhouse pajamas. Andrew Jackson is "King Andrew," dressed in a regal uniform and epaulettes. Moran peppers his exhibit with oddball quotes, spoken by and about presidents, plus strange factoids. (Executive arcana: Most 19th-century presidents were multilingual, yet neither 21st-century prez can speak even a second tongue fluently.)
But that's just civics. The series also expresses discontent, even anger, and the gallery's deep room becomes both a brilliant political satire and a peek into Moran's private grievances. He groups his presidents by category, one of which is "Klan Members." (If you grew up in Vermont, you may be disheartened to learn that "Silent Cal" Coolidge was among the Klansmen.) Moran depicts "Dubya" as a bland-looking guy in a baseball jersey. The jersey's emblem reads, "Jesus Day: 152 Executions."
What makes American Idols so outstanding is its constant surprises. The showcase is accessible, but all the more enjoyable if you know your U.S. history. The trivia embellishes the experience, portraying presidents as strange characters from a twisted tall tale. Moran's presidents are both human and caricature, and you start to wonder, as you gaze at those warped glass facsimiles of ultra-powerful men, what the difference is.
The biggest surprise is Bill Clinton, here known as "Slick Willie." Clinton wears a turquoise-green jumpsuit, unzipped to the bellybutton. But unexpectedly, his chest bears the "S" of a Superman logo. His torso is painted to imply hard pectorals and washboard abs. What does this say about Moran's impression of Clinton? Like all great satire, Moran doesn't burden us with a thesis. Instead, he burdens us with a question.