The art of the gesture on the campaign trail

Special to The Times

Writer Will Blythe asked artist Rachel Mason to accompany him and draw the candidates as he covered the John Edwards campaign last year.

It's an electronic world these days, jittery with what passes for communication, especially on the campaign trail.

Case in point: the Citadel, Charleston, S.C., July 2007. Here we are in yet another spin room after yet another presidential debate, this one for the Democrats, sponsored by CNN and YouTube. And everyone -- the journalists, the bloggers, the campaign staffers, even the maniacally polite college students serving as ushers -- is tapping away on their BlackBerrys, fingering their iPhones, muttering portentously into their cells.

All of us are communicating with Someplace Else. And with CNN monitors broadcasting all around us, it's hard to say which takes precedence: the events in the room, or the same events played on monitors. The point is, none of us is fully present at the spectacle of which we are a part.

With one conspicuous exception: Rachel Mason, she of the pink straw hat, the sketch pad and drawing pens. The Los Angeles native wanders around the room like a guest at a wax museum, peering at one curiosity after another (Have you seen Ron Paul?). To stare so intently cloaks her in silence. A meditative intensity radiates off Mason.

And then she begins to sketch.

She doesn't look down much at the drawing as she works. A few quick strokes and it's over. She's rendered the peculiar inhabitants of this strange diorama of power.

In her flip book of political posturing, there's Barack Obama, raising his hand in salute. There's John Edwards raising his hand in salute. There's Hillary Clinton raising her hand in salute. And so on and so on. It's a little spooky, all of this whirring uniformity.

Mason doesn't draw and quarter, tempting though the metaphor may be. She's no Ralph Steadman splattering bile onto the page. She's more of a classifier. She captures the way the candidates turn their bodies into rhetoric, jerky puppets pulling their own strings. In the process, an iconography of political gesture emerges from her work.

There's the "extended thumbs up." The "hearty salute to the citizens that borders on a Sieg Heil." The "pointing to an ally in the crowd who may not actually exist." The "hustling of the candidate from podium to the exit as if the candidate had urgent business to attend to."

What ultimately arises from such portraiture is stillness and pathos. These are pictures of ghosts, doomed to repeat themselves for all eternity. As the campaign wears on, Mason's drawings become increasingly abstract, her pen strokes slashingly calligraphic. She explores that miraculous juncture where the specific gives rise to the general. With their choreographing of every gesture and word, the candidates become simultaneously actors and critics of their own theatricality. They seem to ask: Is this line working? How about the way I pump my fist?

Mason shows us men and women becoming masks, disappearing into the roles to which their lust for power has assigned them.

Her work is on display at the Circus Gallery,, through Saturday.

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