The Assassin, Disarmed

At a Phoenix gallery, artist Paul Wilson imagines a different life for Lee Harvey Oswald

The man at the stand-up microphone, actually a mannequin, wears a blue Don Draper blazer and looks dapper, right down to his Hello Kitty underpants. The face is sort of cute, but the chin is weak, the forehead’s too high and the part in his hair way is too far to the left.

We’ve seen this face before, usually in one of two iconic black-and-white images: a blotchy mug shot and a news photo where the face is contorted—eyes scrunched, mouth open—because the guy’s being shot to death on live TV two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. If the Nov. 22, 1963, killing of the president was America’s loss of innocence, then the abrupt murder of the heavily guarded accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald completed the demolition of our 1950s confidence. It introduced a new existential question that hasn’t yet faded: “What the …?”

So, why is Oswald in Hello Kitty underpants? The mannequin is part of My Life With Lee Harvey Oswald at Willo North Gallery in Phoenix. The installation by artist Paul Wilson features well-executed paintings, photomontages, video and collages that depict Oswald as “something other than the notorious alleged assassin of President Kennedy,” says Robrt Pela, the gallery’s curator.

By “something other” he meant showing Oswald as a hot recording artist, teen heartthrob, porn star, fashion doll and even a passenger aboard the doomed S.S. Poseidon from the 1972 disaster epic, The Poseidon Adventure. But why the underpants?

“Paul likes the tension between the assassin and this ridiculous pop icon from the ’80s,” Pela says.

The show opened June 1 to crowds that spilled into the street. Oswald’s image could use some sweetening, but you may be excused for repeating that quintessential postmodern question:

“What the …?”

The easiest answer is that it’s pure kitsch, the universal pop phenomenon based on bad taste. What could be in poorer taste than framing Oswald as a pop star? But kitsch doesn’t completely explain these dreamlike images. The artist has invented alternative worlds for Oswald, asking not “What the …?” but “What if?” What if the president hadn’t been shot and Oswald, a moody 24-year-old with apparent borderline personality disorder, had developed other interests? What if the culture hadn’t lost its innocence? Could Oswald have created some other road to fame?

Wilson references art classics—the “Mona Lisa,” “American Gothic” and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”—in portraits of his subject. He’s designed fan magazines and LPs with perky Lee Harvey on the cover and fashioned G.I.-Joe-size Lees busy at such mundane middle-class activities as mowing the lawn. The artist also traipses Oswald through his own previous obsessional years-long projects.

Wilson, a scene painter for a children’s theater company, is renowned in Phoenix for a series of short films and photo montages depicting the fictional 1950 Kimble family—whose matriarch, Dottie, occasionally shows up in public when Wilson dons her artful costume and makeup. His film spoofs of The Poseidon Adventure, in which he plays all the roles, are well regarded. (In a 5-foot-wide 3-D scale model, the new installation places “Lee” in the ocean-liner’s ballroom at the same table as Shelley Winters.)

The 7-year Oswald project recently earned Wilson an Emerging Artist award from the Phoenix Art Museum and a spot on the People’s Biennial, an exhibition of the Independent Curators International that examines work by non-mainstream artists. At least according to the art world, this is not kitsch.

Wilson’s absorption in Oswald began when a suburban Phoenix theater put on Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Assassins (a 2004 Broadway production starred Neil Patrick Harris as Oswald).

“I wouldn’t have taken it seriously, except that it was a Sondheim show. I did some research on the Internet and discovered that I kind of liked Lee Harvey Oswald,” says Wilson, who was born two days before Kennedy died. Wilson likes the Kennedys, and he read a lot about them in his childhood—that’s when he first saw the Oswald mug shot.

Researching Assassins, he saw personal photos of the young man looking peaceful, “kind of Joe College.” He immersed himself in the short bibliography that exists on Oswald and got a different idea about the guy. Oswald didn’t seem particularly bright, and his life didn’t have much direction. Wilson pondered the “American ideal of innocent until proven guilty” and Oswald’s being shot before he could be tried, and he developed a sympathy that didn’t jibe with popular notions of Oswald as the slayer of American innocence.

“Initially it was about cleaning him up, taking him away from the mug shot and making him a polar opposite, a gentle nerd: hopeful, clumsy, absentminded and not into spies, the KGB or Russia, even though he went there,” Wilson says. “He had been made fun of in the Marines. They called him Ozzie Rabbit, after a comic character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.” The Marines saw the vulnerability, and so did Wilson, who decided to take the character somewhere else—an admittedly weird world where Wilson is in love with Oswald.

First he designed a cover for a fake book titled Lee Harvey Oswald Was Cute. Then he began making 17-inch dolls that he calls “Wee Lee” and taking them to dinner. “Lee” is a Daniel Craig doll that is no longer made and increasingly expensive to get. He’s made dozens of videos on You Tube (Google “CrashingCrockery & Lee Harvey Oswald”), which often include a Wilson doll that hangs out with Lee. In one, they host a cocktail party; in another Lee gives a nutso sex-ed class.

“I love Lee. He’s such a part of my life. I’ve made him the Lee that I want,” Wilson says. “The real Lee may have been a tragic figure; perhaps he was what people say. This isn’t about his Marxian politics.”

Some readers may be comforted to know that a piece in the new show also depicts Lee as a pet in a cage, with a dog collar. The piece poses a question: What if Lee Harvey Oswald were a 17-inch pet that lived in a box in Paul Wilson’s house? According to Wilson, that means, whatever Oswald is, “He’s controllable. I’m gonna catch him.”