A little more than a week before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a slate of people line the hallway outside a Los Angeles apartment, rented for the day on Airbnb. They’ve sacrificed their afternoon to donate blood that won’t go to victims of car accidents or natural disasters, but as paint for Illma Gore. A 24-year-old artist from Brisbane, Australia, Gore is best known for crafting a nude portrait of Trump complete with a penis as small as his ego is fragile.
“I’m sure Airbnb would be absolutely mortified that people are holding underground blood drives on their properties,” Gore says through giggles.
One by one the donors sit timidly on an upholstered couch while a tattooed, certified phlebotomist ties them off and searches for a friendly vein. Their blood travels through clear tubing and into a vial. After the sixty or so donors – Gore included – have each been tapped, the blood is transferred into IV bags and emptied into tiny compartments on Gore’s palette.
The final bloody product, unveiled the Sunday prior to Inauguration Day at the Samuel Freeman Gallery in L.A., is titled Rise Up Thy Young Blood. It is a ten-by-fifteen-foot reimagining of Henry Mosler’s 1911 painting, Birth of the Flag, which depicts Betsy Ross with three young female seamstresses at work on the first rendition of the stars and stripes. But Gore’s piece shows seven people of various ethnic backgrounds and social classes contributing to the making of a modern-day American flag. Gore says the artwork and the process behind crafting it represent “the solidarity of the people,” and the idea that everyone, no matter their race, gender or class, has a part in making the country what it is, “whether we agree with each other or not.”
Even though the overall-clad character in the middle of the painting wears a “Make America Great Again!” cap, Gore, who’s six feet tall with punk-rock hair and tattoos all over her body, including her face, insists Rise Up Thy Young Blood should not be perceived as anti-Trump art.
“Of course I don’t like Trump, he’s an idiot,” she says. “But [the piece] couldn’t just say ‘Fuck Trump!’ It’s … grotesque to be hateful. So I wanted to think of a way to send a message of inclusion.”
“She was driven,” says Lincoln Savage, a friend and fellow artist who filmed the piece. “All of her work had depth and substance. She was always looking to challenge herself.”
Gore tried her hand at performance art because she thought such a stunt would be a decisive way to have her voice heard during a time when many members of the Australian electorate felt they’d been silenced.
Two years later, she was living in Los Angeles, and soon felt a similar need to comment on American politics. Her first attempt was the portrait that would make her famous, a grotesque image of a Presidential candidate whom she refused to take seriously, because he was such a “racist bigot.”
Although the element of the painting that captured the public interest was the shrunken penis that Gore imagined for the candidate, her intention was not to mock Trump’s body. Instead, she meant for the painting to “show the prejudices we have towards masculinity.” The body was based on that of a close friend, “this totally masculine, macho guy … who just happens to have a small penis.” She added Trump’s head because she thought it was funny.
“I think gender is really a state of mind,” says Gore. “If we were born into a world where we weren’t taught, ‘Well, you have male genitals so that makes you a man and masculine’ … maybe we’d all be more comfortable in our bodies.”
After Gore posted the picture on social media, it went viral, and the original print was soon valued at $1.5 million. Most saw the piece as a political protest, including the Trump camp, which Gore says called her on two occasions with a promise to sue her. A few months later, she says a man riding in a vehicle with a group of friends jumped out, walked up to her as she approached her neighborhood art supply store, punched her in the face, and laughingly yelled, “Trump 2016!” Gore isn’t certain if the men in the car recognized her as the creator of the Trump portrait, though she says she did hear one of them say something to the effect of “look at that feminist bitch.”
Gore promised her Instagram followers she would not to be deterred by the assault, and, true to her word, in late June she erected a white picket fence at the Mexican border in Arizona, with a for-sale sign advertising “The American Dream.” Then came her Instagrammed image of a giant vagina knocking Trump out in a boxing ring, posted after the release of the recording in which Trump claims that women will welcome men of a certain stature to “grab them by the pussy.”
And then, she started painting with blood.
On the first day that Rise Up Thy Young Blood was on display in the Los Angeles gallery, the donors came to see what their blood had made. Based on when the donations had been procured, Gore was able to estimate where their blood ended up in the piece. Some were honored to know their blood likely ended up as part of the American flag. She also jokingly told one donor, pointing, “I put you in that guy’s ass.”
“It felt like it was their painting and I was watching them look at their own work,” Gore says.
As the Trump era trudges on, Gore has dug in, delivering timely, politically conscious fine art. But even if Trump had lost in November and perhaps retreated to his palatial, gold- and marble-finished apartment in in Manhattan, Illma Gore would still be doing what she loves, with or without the attention she’s received in her young career.
“Political art, especially, is temporary,” she says. “It’s not going to stand for much forever. I just want to keep making art that I think is good.”