The colloquialism “art people” generally refers to the creatives, curators, collectors, and glitterati who populate the never ending global circuit of exhibition openings and fairs. Renowned fashion/celebrity photographer Matthew Rolston is decidedly a denizen of that world. With his latest body of work, “Art People: The Pageant Portraits,” on display through March at Ralph Pucci International’s Los Angeles showroom, Rolston trains his lens on a different branch of the tribe: participants in the Pageant of the Masters, an annual event in Laguna Beach, California, that brings iconic paintings and sculptures to life as tableaux vivants.
A commercial photographer since 1977—his first significant published work was a shot of Steven Spielberg for Andy Warhol’s Interview—the L.A.-based Rolston segued into fine art only about five years ago. This is his third portfolio; the first was a portrait series of ventriloquists’ dummies. “Previously, all my work was commissioned, whereas these projects are self-assigned and self-financed,” he explains. The catalyst for the shift in focus came, he notes, “from the aging process. I wanted to leave behind a legacy of work. I gave myself permission.”
The show also represents a deeper dive into the cultural realm for Ralph Pucci, who has long showcased dance and music performances in his spaces. He set his sights on “an elevated arts program” following his move last March to an up-and-coming gallery-centric area of Hollywood. With its abundant light and expansive volume, his new digs—a 1920s building, once a puppeteer studio, then a dance rehearsal hall— begged for it.
As for how this show came about, chalk it up to kismet and good timing, not to mention the fact that Pucci and Rolston had been circling in one another’s orbits for years—“ever since a project to shoot my mannequins didn’t pan out,” the design impresario recalls. Rolston contacted Pucci one day last spring, having recently shot the pageant portraits, and headed to the showroom with examples. Pucci immediately slotted him in as the fall headliner.
The Pageant of the Masters has been a summer entertainment staple of nearby Laguna Beach for more than 80 years; Rolston had fallen under its spell as a child. The 90-minute show, comprising 40 or so vignettes with Broadway-caliber production values, recreates historical and contemporary works by the likes of Henri Matisse and David Hockney, bringing art to life—and life to art—in a decidedly non-museum setting. Real people are elaborately costumed, made up, and sometimes body painted as facsimiles of their painterly or sculptural counterparts. A professional orchestra, narrator, and vocalists accompany the performance; but cast members, plus makeup and wardrobe artists, are strictly volunteer.
Creating a makeshift backstage studio and working like a speed demon during intermissions and after shows wrapped, Rolston shot 120 subjects over the course of six nights. He also took portraits of the Styrofoam heads the makeup artists use as templates. Then came editing and production. Printed on rag paper, the superhigh-resolution photos are so painterly that distinction between the two mediums is all but blurred. Just peer closely at the silvery man from Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s sculpture The Dancers or the namesake of Canova, Tomb of the Archduchess Maria Christina (#2).
In many cases, shots were combined for display as diptychs or in horizontal or vertical groupings. The showstopper has pride of place at the gallery entrance: a 30-foot-long work juxtaposing characters from Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper with their corresponding makeup templates, displayed in the order actors appear on stage. (Rolston’s personal favorite, by the way: The makeup template portrait of Jesus Christ.)
The exhibition unfolds throughout the gallery’s main level, where another component shares the venue: furniture, natch. Pucci opted to pair the art with recent pieces by Parisian designer Patrick Naggar, whom he’s represented for more than 20 years. The choice was predicated on “the exquisite, timeless nature of the work and the sophistication of its mid-century Italianate spirit,” Pucci explains. The dozen-odd pieces—“adding to the 100 or so I’ve done for Ralph,” Naggar estimates—make a minimalist but forceful statement vis-à-vis the photography. The aerodynamic form of the mirror-top pewter Flow table is “a bit Anish Kapoor,” the designer acknowledges. Likewise the indoor/outdoor fiberglass Positano chairs surrounding the Flight dining table, its carbon-fiber top stabilized by a bronze base. “I like to invent stuff with new materials,” Naggar says, by way of understatement. For his part, Rolston explains that “the ability to exhibit my work in this context is unique. Short of a museum, ultimately my art is intended to live in someone’s home.”
Next up? For Rolston, it’s “Hollywood Royale,” a retrospective of his work from the 1980s at Fahey/Klein Gallery down the street. Future Pucci shows will spotlight Pierre Paulin, artists James Brown and Afi Nayo, and photographer Diego Uchitel. And, of course, the ever-dissolving boundary between fine art and high design.
Article by Edie Cohen | Photographs by Antoine Bootz