Move over boring political portraits, your term is up. It’s time for SEAL Team 1776.
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 5, 2019.)
Packed full of figures from United States history and set against the backdrop of the U.S. Constitution, the January 2019 painting by artist and history buff Jason Heuser, shows a stoic George Washington flanked by his fellow presidents: Teddy Roosevelt with a Desert Eagle in the top left, and an M4-rocking Jimmy Carter in the left-hand corner.
“I was trying to think: ‘Who would be a really random guy to put in there,'” Heuser told Task & Purpose. So, he settled on Carter, who despite having served seven years in the U.S. Navy was, “Not particularly known to be all that aggressive, and that’s a big reason I thought that would be funny.”
Rounding out the cast on the right is Benjamin Franklin, the founding father that Americans love mistaking for a U.S. president.
“He wasn’t a president, but everyone thinks he was,” Heuser said. “I hadn’t seen the old presidents in modern military gear, so I thought it’d be interesting to see, and thought it’d be kind of funny to see George Washington kitted out in military garb, with modern gear.”
“Most of my ideas are just oh hey, this’ll be funny. Then I try to bring actual information in there, but each idea starts with ‘this’ll be funny, or this’ll be random,'” Heuser said.
His work is a who’s who of historical figures with a heavy dash of “rah rah” ‘Mericana thrown in. It’s also largely satirical, which is something that has to be explicitly stated this decade.
After the FBI arrested Cesar Sayoc, who was suspected of mailing bombs to critics of President Donald Trump, Heuser’s art made the news when an illustration he made of Donald Trump riding a tank, was found on Sayoc’s van, according to an October 2018 interview with Heuser and The Verge.
Then, in March 2019, another one of Heuser’s pieces landed in the national spotlight after Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) unveiled a print showing President Ronald Reagan riding a velociraptor and firing a submachine gun, during a Senate vote on the Green New Deal.
“This is of course a picture of former president Ronald Reagan, naturally firing a machine gun while riding on the back of a dinosaur,” Lee said during the Senate vote. “You’ll notice a couple of important features here: first of all, the rocket launcher strapped to President Reagan’s back, and then the stirring, unmistakable patriotism of the velociraptor holding up a tattered American flag, a symbol of all it means to be an American.”
If you spend just a few minutes browsing the rest of Heuser’s work on Deviant Art — which contains both Democratic and Republican figures, like Cybernie 2020, a light-saber wielding Obama on a lion, an FDR battle mech, and Abe Lincoln riding a grizzly bear — it can be hard to imagine how any of his paintings could be taken as anything other than playful humor, least of all a full-throated endorsement of whoever or whatever happens to be depicted in those glorious prints.
But not everyone gets the joke.
“Especially the past few years as politics have heated up and things have gotten a little more divisive, people have become more blind to the humor and the satirical side of the art, and they start treating the art more like propaganda,” Heuser told Task & Purpose.
“That’s been a little weird for me as an artist,” he continued. “I do this stuff to be funny and the original idea with all of this is I love history, and I see a lot of people don’t like history and aren’t really concerned about it, so this is my way to interject humor with art to try to get people somewhat interested in these people that we know: presidents and historical figures.”
Given the current political climate and the take-everything-at-face-value mentality that’s so pervasive in the 24-hour news and Twitter cycle, maybe Heuser’s idea for SEAL Team 1776 will one day be discussed in complete seriousness in Washington or on cable news, much like Reagan on a velociraptor.
After all, art is in the eye of the beholder, and maybe it wouldn’t be so bad: A top secret special mission unit assembled from the ranks of Congress and the White House might be one way to ensure politicians have skin in the game the next time they get all hot and bothered for a new war.