SMILE Patrol

“Trump really is my material,” said writer/musician/life coach/mystic Daniel A. Brown. “Donald Trump is the shadow extension of ourselves. Everything that is wrong in America, is now running America. He’s all the things that are bad: from shitty food to provincialism.”

The idea of shadow selves came up in a tangent into Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet, because Brown-through Trump might be his personal prima materia-is of an autobiographical bent, too. Brown churns out memes at an extraordinary rate, ones that primarily superimpose Trump’s face or Brown’s own, onto existing images of male or female figures in scenes filled with a Chaplinesque pathos or a stare-into-the-void-horror; they’re wincingly and horrifyingly funny.

By his most recent calculation, Brown has spent about 136 hours, in two-to-five minute chunks, churning out memes that seem to writhe and roil with the utter inhumanity and humor of existence … and Donald Trump, too. A tasteful exhibit of these unique and uniquely astonishing memes, installed at FSCJ Kent Campus, MAIMS: Anitsocial Media, curated by Rob DePiazza, opens Feb. 27.

Many in resistance to Trump can tick off a laundry list of borderline (at best) legal maneuvers in which he and his toadies engage, and “resistors” scramble to counter. But Brown’s memes tear through the façade of plausible deniability and bean-counter-like fact-checking, straight into the thick gummy stuff of the subconscious, beyond words into animal-brain recognition.

Multiple times a day (just about every day), Trump’s face is morphed onto figures as disparate as a beautiful barefoot woman sitting on a grand staircase, or Brown’s own father.

Author Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) wrote that only “naïve people” would attempt to cite a lack of evidence, or argue in facts against (the Nazis), because what people like (Nazis) do is trade in propaganda that must be true, in order for them to accomplish their goals. It’s not fact-based, because these are the excuses needed to justify the vilest of actions.

So if facts don’t adequately fight the lies and propaganda, what does? Perhaps absurdity, art and Daniel A. Brown’s not-so-naïve face.

The memes themselves grew out of depression and a bootleg copy of Photoshop. Brown said he was “always the kid who drew,” but he ended up dropping out of school just as he hit his teen years: “the bi-polar thing … [started manifesting] when I was 13; I was obsessing over The White Album.” Later, he ended up at FSCJ (when it was still FCCJ) studying art history.

The “bi-polar thing” Brown refers to is his diagnosis of manic depression. He describes himself as “a grateful recovering addict who is finally getting into an acceptance that mental illness is not only OK, but it can be its own weird blessing that I am trying to decipher.”

In 2013, when he was hit with a surprisingly hard return to depression, the meme-making “became this weird therapy thing.” Initially, he said, “I knew how to make cut-out things [in Photoshop].” He found an image of ’70s Brit-pop singer Leo Sayer, “and it became this recurring motif where I’d just slather that on everything, from a Steely Dan record to some nightmare collage.”

Those first efforts were “real clunky and too involved.”

Since then, he’s streamlined his aesthetic-though it still has a very reactionary DIY feel. Of the impetus for the more recent 2016-’18 outpouring Brown says: “Trump.” His described the New York developer’s run for office as “cute” and something “we were all laughing at … and now we’re not laughing as much …”

“He was met by art, he had a big fuck-you outta the gate,” said Brown, recalling the 2017 Women’s March as being part of the catalyst toward his work. He also cites guitarist John Fahey, occultist Austin Osman Spare, Cindy Sherman, Rembrandt, John Olson from Wolf Eyes, and performer Cheyla Scantling among his influences. “Cheyla, I gotta give her much credit, she’s really good and I have a sense that she doesn’t self-edit too much; she’s hilarious and that goes a long way.”

The role of album art inevitably surfaces because many of his memes incorporate album covers. For the bulk of Brown’s professional career, music has been the fulcrum upon which the level of his creativity rests (from his lauded stint in Royal Trux, to the Neil Michael Hagerty Band and One-Eleven Heavy, to his time here as the A&E Editor).

The God Above God is God is based on the seminal 1973 debut album of the New York Dolls. Here the band’s heads are replaced with a cut of meat, and instead of features, each has a singular googly eye, “this is kind of joke, but the ‘God Above God’ thing and meat, it goes back to Francis Bacon and Hermann Nitsch.” He then explained that the God Above God is a gnostic idea that touches on the idea of a deity that is the ground upon which all beings exist. He also noted that the “Above” God is called Pleroma, Greek for “fullness,” which delineates that it’s not Yahweh/YWHW of the Bible. He also said that the album cover itself is as important to him as say, Max Ernst’s, Une Semaine de Bonté.

A self-identified “old liberal dude,” Brown explained that his politics are based on spirituality maxims [like] “don’t be an asshole,” because in many ways he thinks that as a nation, “we’re like these Plymouth Brethren trembling in a new land.”

Our conversation wound up around the idea of conditional faith, love and the absurdity of religion. “Strip all that away, and I am really into the mystics.”

That mysticism, when viewed through the lens of these memes, also might be described as a kind of quest; in which case, Brown is a King Pellinore or perhaps a Don Quixote. And Trump is the “damned Questing Beast” while self/higher knowledge is the windmill (after all, we do see through a glass, but darkly).

When asked about the editing/curation process for the show, DePiazza said, “I simply asked ‘Dan, WTF were you thinking when you created this?’ I’m smart enough to recognize considered and not random art, but dumb enough to not get the arcane references. Once explained, I still did not understand but at least came away from the process with words like Prasthanatrayi, Vedanta and sigils.”

These mentions of texts, Hindu philosophy and demonic symbols are the signposts upon which the viewer might hang meaning. They gesture in the direction that Brown himself is pointing in, but too allow for a kind of ideological “slippage” or space for the viewer to inject/find their own meaning. Verdigris Vomit, a piece of which Brown is particularly proud because he was able to incorporate the album cover for the Sparks’ Kimono My House, depicts “Trump on one [figure] and Rush Limbaugh on the other, because, obviously Trump and Rush.” It is particularly successful compositionally, as well as in light of the album’s suggested sexual content, and the “girls with foul tongues” line from the song, “Hasta Mañana Monsieur.”

Reflecting on his use of Trump’s face, beyond the political motivations, Brown said, “He’s weirdly photogenic in that he has a strong facial expression and it’s memorable, maybe he’s anti-photogenic, he’s such an exaggerated human that he has exaggerated expressions; he’s naturally this buffoon.” The reception Brown has gotten has been mixed: The volume of memes that he engenders gets him removed from some friends’ feeds, while others post an all-caps STOP, while still others privately reach out asking if he’s OK (he reported back that he currently is).

The meme as a phenomenon that has moved beyond the imaginary borders of the digital world is understood by some culture-watchers to be a democratization of the art world. “… memes paradoxically belong to everybody and to nobody at the same time,” noted Sylvia N. Mosiany in a 2015 article for Odyssey Online. And because of their immediacy—and the ease with which they can be produced—there is a perception of simplicity, yet the process of making and threading an image with meaning is similar to a pilgrimage, a meditation or any other form of art. Admittedly, though, these are made faster and consumed faster than most “fine art” works. There’s the immediate pass that gets a snicker or a recoil, but a longer consideration suggests that the rage, vulnerability and humor expressed in these frenetic bursts is a catalogue of touchstones for Brown.

He addresses what he calls the “poly-insanity” of America in a piece with the phrase “Infinite Gesticulation” in a sans-serif font across the bottom while the central figure, David Foster Wallace with Trump’s face, wears a bandana with the words “nut up” “shut up,” with check-mark-box next to each (there’s an ‘x’ next to “nut up”); “he predicted this;” said Brown when asked about the choice. But, too, Wallace could be construed as a kind of stand-in for Brown himself and, indeed, in other pieces, he (Brown) has placed his face over that of the president’s, “This is a famous picture of him, so I’m putting a not-so-famous picture of me on it … and he’s a complete buffoon … it’s like he’s not immune to a shift in the weather because he’s such an asshole. It’s also me kinda like ‘I’m owning the show,’” he said with a chuckle. He did then offer a caveat: “On some level, it’s all kind of memoirish; I think it’s my karma to unfurl through this.”

As Brown deals in volume and speed producing works that honor or blaspheme or mock their central subject, so, too, will the show itself; Brown explained that the idea is to present an installation of about 150 pieces that in some way mirrors the life of a meme.

At the time of this writing, Brown has made 43 more memes. God above all knows how many more have found an audience.