Short of an end to the pandemic — an amorphous milestone that may arrive next month or in, like, the year 2022 — we don’t have much to look forward to in our day-to-day lives. Sure, they put Cobra Kai on Netflix, but the episodes are only about 30 minutes, and when you get through them by Tuesday you’ll have to wait until 2021 for Season Three. In the meantime, we may face a new-content desert on TV.
On Instagram, there was Danny DeVito as He-Man, and Danny DeVito’s head in a ham. We saw Danny DeVito cradling celery stalks, and Danny DeVito holding up a slice of toast. Danny DeVito rode atop a raven, as well as a skateboard, and Danny DeVito popped out of an egg, appearing perplexed.
The daily portrait series came compliments of the artist Illma Gore, who’s most famous for her nude painting of Donald Trump sporting a small penis. After going viral in 2016, that portrait compelled Trump to threaten Gore with a lawsuit. It also inspired one of his supporters to, as Gore claims, punch her in the face.
Since then, Gore has unveiled 26 additional portraits of noted male figures — like Kim Jong-un, Brett Kavanaugh, Pope Benedict XVI and Superman — showing off micropenises of their own. She’s also updated The Birth of the Flag, a famous work of art by Henry Mosler that depicts Betsy Ross and her assistants sewing our nation’s first-ever Stars and Stripes. Gore’s version of the piece, painted entirely in human blood obtained through donations, sees a cross section of Americans — black and white, Native Americans and immigrants — pitching in to craft a new flag. And when Trump announced his border wall, Gore erected a white picket fence between Arizona and Mexico with a sign reading “FOR SALE: AMERICAN DREAM.”
Yet after all that high-concept art, fueled by fiery political and socially conscious messaging, executed through very elaborate planning, now we’re getting Danny DeVito as Mr. Potato Head.
What gives, Illma Gore?
“It doesn’t matter,” she tells me, cryptically at first, about the series. When Gore finishes a work of art, generally, she says, “My piece either has all the meaning — like really deep meaning to me — or absolutely nothing.”
Photographing a white guy modeling a red Ku Klux Klan hood with “Make America Great Again” written across it had a lot of meaning for Gore. Danny DeVito smiling as a shrimp? Not so much. But it’s just that freedom of purpose behind the DeVito paintings, which she started working on in late July, that made their completion worth pursuing.
Like everyone else in the world, to varying degrees, the pandemic and recent social unrest has worn on Gore. “Every day, people are dying,” she notes. The Danny DeVito paintings serve as an escape, for her and any of her Instagram followers who enjoy them. In a time of so much uncertainty, such a project also gives her and her fans something to look forward to every day. “We want desperately to know what’s going to happen next, and for me to get up and make anything for no reason, it gives me that sense of security,” Gore says. “It’s going to happen some point between those 24 hours.”
The exercise, thus, is something of a call back to Gore’s younger days, when at age 20 she committed herself to painting every day to aid in her quest for sobriety, finding focus and comfort in the craft. And this isn’t the first time she’s shared a series of paintings depicting a single pop-culture icon to serve as a distraction: As that fateful 2016 presidential campaign season wound down, beginning on November 1 that year she offered Instagram a new Steve Buscemi piece every day.
Gore admits the DeVito series is “weird as hell,” and says that each of the individual works, on 12-inch by 18-inch canvases, are her own “brain sneeze.” She defines them less as “art” and more like “creations,” never planning what DeVito will be up to in them ahead of time. She just allows her muse — which she repeatedly described to me as “the ghost of aluminum foil in the form of Lady Gaga” — to prod her in the moment.
Despite the lack of true meaning or depth in the image series, Gore also observes that, with the presence of DeVito throughout, “It’s an experiment in familiarity and object permanence.” The 28-year-old doesn’t have a particularly robust relationship with the film and TV star, or his work, saying passively, “Maybe I saw Twins when I was a kid.” (This could come as a disappointment to the Instagram commenters who’ve wrongfully deduced that some of her DeVito paintings were references to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — she’s never watched an episode.)
But she knows many have a unique, positive association with him and what he brings to the universe. Leveraging this DeVito energy doesn’t hurt in the middle of a pandemic. “How can you not like Danny DeVito?” she asks rhetorically.
Furthermore, the act of painting anything, even Danny DeVito as The Thinker, is still an exercise, helping to keep her skills sharp and creative juices flowing. But its simplicity also allows her to free up mental space for more “serious” art, as well as her advocacy work, which include phone calls to various government officials and other efforts in seeking expanded passage of the Phoenix Act. Signed into law by California Governor Gavin Newsom last year, the Phoenix Act lengthens the statute of limitations on domestic violence cases, allowing victims to heal further before seeking justice. Gore’s friend, the actress and survivor Evan Rachel Wood, has been one of the most prominent figures in backing the legislation.
Gore reveals that she is generating at least one new, more “meaningful” work of art for public consumption: a wall of cease-and-desist orders that have been filed against her the past few years, collectively comprising some statement about “freedom of speech, freedom of information, how scared we are,” she says.
But like the rest of us, along with the continued, inexplicably friction-laden push for social justice, the upcoming election and other ills of the world, Gore still has the pandemic to deal with. She put a bow atop her Danny DeVito series on August 26th, arguably subverting the whole “this is meaningless” tinge of the set — or not — by depicting DeVito as the Mona Lisa. Then, to the delight of her brain, she began a new series of daily portraits on September 1st, featuring yet another pop-culture icon who enjoyed their heyday before Gore was conscious, and sure to bring their own energy to the pieces: Grace Jones.
In a world marked by uncertainty, at least we have one daily handhold to cling to.