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In Anita Kunz's airy studio in downtown Toronto, high in the leafy treetops of Cabbagetown, a pencil sketch of George W. Bush sits on the easel. His cheeks are plump and silky with self-satisfaction, and his eyes are shut in introverted reverie -- a fitting depiction, some would argue, of the current leader of the free world. The drawing is a work in progress, the first stage of the creative process that will result in one of her trademark jewel-toned colour illustrations, destined for the pages of an American magazine in the coming month.

It's a good moment for the accomplished Canadian illustrator, one of a number of Canadian artists dominating the North American market these days -- among them Barry Blitt, Bruce McCall, Blair Drawson and Marcel Dzama. Starting this week, Kunz will be honoured with an exhibition of her work at the Library of Congress in Washington; she is the first Canadian to make the cut. A veteran of the U.S. magazine industry (the principal market for her work), she regularly publishes her work in such venues as The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and Time, earning commissions of up to $5,000 (U.S.).

American graphic-design luminary Milton Glaser (inventor of the I Love New York logo), describes Kunz as possessing "extraordinary skill. She's almost Flemish in her sense of detail and finish. She also has a certain Flemish sense of the grotesque" -- high praise from one of the most discerning taste arbiters in the business.

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Yet, here in her Toronto studio, Kunz has some worries on her mind.

She is bothered by the increasingly common practice of copyright infringement, and by the growing tendency of the large media conglomerates to negotiate for all rights to her images. Conferences on the art of illustration, she says, are becoming "more commercial and less focused on ideas."

But her biggest concern centres on the artist's imperilled freedom of expression. The climate for illustration, she says, has shifted since 911. "When that happened," she recalls, "I thought 'Well, here we are going to see a rebirth of political commentary in America.' " In fact, she says, the reverse turned out to be the case. "My first call after 911 was to do Britney Spears.

"The second was to do the cast of Sex in the City."

On the day we met, she was still tinkering with her treatment of Bush. Earlier, more satirical treatments of her subject had been rejected, she said: Bush as cowboy mounted on a charging horse, with blinkers on; Bush as the "see no evil" monkey, sandwiched between two apes.

Was the magazine's final choice in fact better suited to the story, or is it just softer around the edges? "It's very, very subtle how this works," said Kunz. "But it's like there's been a decree: You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists. . . . I'm aware now, when I submit ideas, that the ones that are somewhat charged -- they don't get picked."

Sound paranoid? Perhaps, she thought, until she found that the U.S. military had been visiting her Web site, following the publication of her illustration of George Bush as an oil sheik, rigged up in a fez. The portrait ran with the caption, "Quicksand: Iraq is Just the Beginning" on this April's cover of The American Prospect. In her depiction, Bush's eyes are squinted with puzzlement, like a spaniel hearing a high noise, his mock sincerity seeming to conceal a vast and empty expanse within.

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Or at least, that's how I saw it. Others might read it as Bush looking ridiculously out of his natural element (that is to say, over his head), while still others could interpret it as highlighting Bush's personal stake in the U.S. oil industry. The image is, in fact, fiendishly slippery. It means all of these things and more.

Alarmed by the response, Kunz started keeping her ear to the ground and found that other illustrators were feeling the same chill. In February, Art Spiegelman (the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the Maus comic strip about the Holocaust) had made headlines with his decision not to renew his contract at The New Yorker, where his wife, Françoise Mouly, is the art editor of 10 years' standing. Responding to questions at the time of his resignation, Spiegelman said his working situation had become impossible, chastising "the widespread conformism of the mass media in the Bush era." The New Yorker, he claimed, didn't have the guts to challenge the administration.

"For the Thanksgiving cover with turkeys dropped in the place of bombs," he recalled, "I chose the title 'Operation Enduring Turkey' to mimic 'Operation Enduring Freedom' then begun by America in Afghanistan.

"But David Remnick [the New Yorker's editor]forced me to change the title."

Then, this July, cartoonist Michael Ramirez at the Los Angeles Times received a visit from the secret service in response to a particularly stinging newspaper cartoon featuring Bush. Intimidation was coming now not solely from the publisher's office. (Ramirez, ironically, is considered a conservative cartoonist).

Currently, Kunz is weighing how best to use her opportunity to speak at the upcoming Washington promotional event for her show on Sept. 16. As it turns out, the exhibition will present a somewhat softened portrait of the artist, focusing on her sensitivity to social issues and her uncanny gift for celebrity portraiture.

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(The Library of Congress, she says, was most concerned in its selections to achieve demographic diversity, seeking to include representations that were balanced in terms of race and gender.)

Even her most unforgettable image -- depicting a maniacal monster baby dangling its desperate parent by marionette strings -- is omitted from the Washington show.

Kunz is also pondering some of the illustrations that she has created that may never see the light of day -- like her image of Bush as an overgrown baby playing with his guns and warplanes ("I had Saddam Hussein as Mr. Potato Head," she recalls with a smile), an image she feels would have been run without hesitation in more open times.

At the New Yorker, Mouly says that the element of humour in illustration has historically enabled illustrators to go farther than many print journalists would dare, and predicts that that day will come again, and soon, with the journalistic community appearing to be growing bolder over the past few months. With this, we may again have the chance to revel in that particular brand of subversion that is the illustrator's special gift. Mouly recalls Kunz's series of outrageous and dazzling portraits of Newt Gingrich as a reptile that she did for the New Yorker (also not in the Washington show), which she cites as classic examples of the artist's gift for blending politics and art.

"There has always been a sheer luxury of detail in Anita's work that I love," says Mouly, describing the rich texture and colour of Kunz's surfaces that, she says, enable her to get away with the most withering critiques. "She is an exceptionally rare bird. She can be biting, mordant, but she is also luscious. It's quite a combination."

Canadian Counterpoint: Illustrations by Anita Kunz opens Thursday and continues at the Swann Gallery for Caricature and Cartoon at the Library of Congress in Washington until Jan. 3, 2004.

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