Given the hurricane-force storm of media attention swirling around the case of Jeffrey Epstein, the news that he owned a particularly strange work of art perhaps doesn’t seem like the biggest of deals. After all, the aggressively unsettling decor of Epstein’s homes, which includes displays of prosthetic eyeballs, a female mannequin hanging from a chandelier, and a chessboard whose pieces featured the likenesses of his staff clad only in underwear, was already well established.
This particular work of art, however, features an image of former president Bill Clinton clad in a blue dress and high heels, gesturing to the viewer. Given that Bill Clinton’s name has been prominently connected to Epstein, word of the painting sent the internet conspiracy machine wild.
The original source of the gossip is the not-exactly-reliable Daily Mail, which quotes an unnamed source who snapped a photo of the unsettling Clinton painting through a doorway at Epstein’s $56 million home in 2012. (The Mail claimed it had seen metadata verifying the location and date of the photo.) The New York Post, picking up the story, quoted another anonymous source saying of the painting, “It was hanging up there prominently—as soon as you walked in—in a room to the right. Everybody who saw it laughed and smirked.”
The painting has been identified as Parsing Bill by New York-based Australian artist Petrina Ryan-Kleid. (A print version is available on Saatchi Art starting at $40.) The more feverish corners of the internet immediately began to decode the imagery for clues—but the truth is that it was part of a body of student work produced quite independently of Epstein.
The Clinton painting comes from a pair of works by Ryan-Kleid that lightly satirized political figures. Its companion, a painting of George W. Bush called War Games, features the former president sitting on the floor of the White House playing with paper airplanes, referencing his handling of the Iraq War, the defining scandal of Bush’s White House tenure. As for Parsing Bill, the blue dress seems a likely reference to the blue dress that served as evidence in the former president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the scandal that marked Clinton’s time in office.
Parsing Bill and War Games were shown at the 2012 Tribeca Ball, a fundraiser for Ryan-Kleid’s alma mater, the New York Academy of Art. Photos from A Guest of a Guest, a party blog, show the artist posing in front of the two works at the star-studded event.
Earlier today, Ryan-Klein said in a statement to artnet News that she had no idea where the painting had ended up until she saw it light up the news yestereday:
In 2012, as a grad student at the New York Academy of Art, I painted pictures of Presidents Bill Clinton and Bush as part of my Master’s thesis. When the school put on a fundraiser at the Tribeca Ball that year, they sold my painting to one of the attendees. I had no idea who the buyer was at the time. As with most of my paintings, I had completely lost track of this piece when it was sold seven years ago. So it was a complete surprise to me to learn yesterday that it wound up in Epstein’s home.
After graduating from the New York Academy of Art, Ryan-Klein worked as a studio assistant for Jeff Koons in 2015 and 2016 and now does social media marketing for artists in New York.
Aside from general titillation, it is unclear how, exactly, the Clinton painting might fit into the many conspiracy theories swirling around the apparent suicide by the 66-year-old convicted pedophile, which have included president Donald Trump retweeting a theory that the Clintons had Epstein killed. Bill Clinton is documented to have flown on Epstein’s plane in 2002 and 2003, and says that he visited Epstein’s home in 2002, but issued a statement noting that he was accompanied by staff and his security detail at all times.
(Donald Trump, for his part, is also known to have spent time with Epstein, and infamously remarked to New York magazine that the financier was “terrific” and “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”)
It is certainly possible to read the painting as a reminder by Epstein to himself and to guests that he had dirt on powerful people. But then again, the common denominator of all of Epstein’s known decor, so far, is simply that he had a taste for the cartoonishly sadistic.
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