News outlets’ descriptions of the world’s first Melania Trump monument, located five miles from her hometown in Slovenia and strategically unveiled over the July 4th weekend, were careful to describe the work as “rustic,” letting quotes from locals call it “a disgrace” and “Smurfette.” The subtext is obvious: the crooked face and flipper-like arms should amuse audiences in the same way the “Monkey Christ” tickled us seven years ago. But unlike the Borja spectacle, all this internet mirth surrounding one shitty statue in the middle of nowhere was by design—the design of a “prankster” artist who now gets to take all the credit for manufacturing the spectacle while shouldering exactly none of the ridicule.
American artist Brad Downey went out of his way to commission a local amateur, who had never before worked on a piece of this scale, to carve the nine-foot Melania monument out of a tree with a chainsaw. Doing so earned national headlines for Downey along with attention for his gallery show, while all criticism of the statue was left to rest with the self-taught hobbyist who created it, rather than the Pratt- and Slade-trained artist who paid for it.
The statue was physically carved by Slovenian-born Ales Zupervc, who goes by Maxi. But it’s part of a bigger project by Downey, who describes his style of art as “Slapstick Formalism.” And though Downey was educated at two of the world’s best art schools, he told the New York Times that for this project, “he wanted a local person who followed the folk tradition in his or her work and was not an academic artist.” The subtext is that Downey went out of his way to find someone like “Monkey Christ” restorer Cecilia Giménez, who made national headlines for not being very good at painting Jesus—someone who news outlets would be forced to call “folksy” (and all the accompanying race and class connotations of the expression) when they actually meant “bad.”
The formula Downey used for headlines is a brilliant piece of Twitter-era cynicism: Combine a reviled public figure with a crudely rendered piece of art, and voila, the SEO boosts itself. It’s a masterpiece in the bro-tradition of irreverent art—practical jokes with a smattering of social significance hiding behind a “Dude, I’m totally serious,” sensibility selling the joke as high art.
“Max wasn’t making a joke,” the Times quotes Downey saying of Maxi’s work. “It’s not a joke for him.”
According to Downey’s artist statement, the serious purpose of this project was to create a documentary about Maxi, and by proxy, Slovenia, as a criticism of the Trump administration’s immigration policies:
“The result is a personal portrait of Maxi and his thoughts about Slovenia, the USA, Europe, immigration and class division. Through these interviews the film attempts to capture the spirit of Slovenia, which seems to be mirrored in Maxi’s interactions with his family, environment and his feelings about art, God, love, and country. By focusing on one working class man’s portrayal of a public and internationally known personality, the film offers insights on local and global problems and policies illuminated by the USA and Europe and beyond.”
And on its own, the documentary provides a moving, empathetic portrait of Maxi, who was born at the same hospital in the same month as Melania Trump but whose life took, as Downey points out, “a different trajectory.” As he worked to carve the statue of Melania in the powder blue Ralph Lauren suit she wore on inauguration day, Maxi spoke about the brutal labor he does as a pipe layer and his dreams of having a weekend off.
“Let’s face it, she owns half of America,” he said of Melania, “while I have nothing.”
But the news cycle is hung up on the statue itself, just like Downey must have predicted it would be, the badly carved Melania by way of the Wicker Man and the public’s gleeful reaction to a piece of shitty art. The story only works because the statue is ugly, and if this is a joke, then the joke’s on Maxi, not Downey, who’s getting exactly what he wanted—a bunch of free press and a solidified reputation as an artistic prankster. And while the statue is an interesting metaphor for our First Lady, whose pretty exterior is like lovely icing on the shit-flavored cake that is the Trump administration, Melania’s inner ugliness isn’t ultimately the center of this story; the shoddy likeness Maxi created is. Even if Melania doesn’t deserve any better than our utmost contempt, Maxi does.
In 2012, the “Monkey Christ” made Borja, Spain a tourist destination. Seven years later, the childishly painted face stares out from mugs and t-shirts in a city where visitors come, and pay, to see a bad painting.
Perhaps the Wicker Melania will one day draw visitors to the banks of a river five miles outside Sevnica, and maybe it will earn Maxi his weekend off. But right now, the statue is an internet joke, just the way the originating artist intended it.