Matthew Rolston is an artist who works in photography and video; his practice centers on portraiture, most notably subjects drawn from celebrity culture. One of a handful of photographers to emerge from Andy Warhol’s celebrity focused Interview
magazine, Rolston is a well-established icon of Hollywood photography. Alongside such luminaries as Herb Ritts and Greg Gorman, Rolston was a member of an influential group of photographers (among them, Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz, and Steven Meisel) who came from the 1980s magazine scene. Rolston helped define the era’s take on celebrity image making, ‘gender bending,’ and much more. Rolston’s photographs have been published in Interview
, Harper’s Bazaar
, Vanity Fair
, The New York Times
and over 100 covers of Rolling Stone
, among many others. Rolston’s work has been shown internationally at galleries and institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Camera Work Contemporary, Berlin; and Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles. His work is included in the collections of LACMA, Los Angeles and the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington, D.C. The exhibition Art People: The Pageant Portraits
at RALPH PUCCI LA is Rolston’s third major fine art project in the past decade. Matthew Rolston joined RALPH PUCCI in 2017.
Art People: The Pageant Portraits | Description
Art People: The Pageant Portraits
is an exhibition of new works by acclaimed photographer Matthew Rolston. The exhibition is based around a groundbreaking series that furthers Rolston’s investigations into the nature of portraiture and the methods in which society and the human condition are mediated through artwork and art creation. Comprised of intimate portraits of participants of “Pageant of the Masters”, an annual arts festival held in Laguna Beach, California, Rolston’s photographic subjects reenact pivotal historical figures and works from art history, from antiquity through 20th century modernism. In these photographs, Rolston uses his distinct grasp of photography to trace a densely referential lineage of protagonists, connecting aspects of his own portraiture to the fragile boundaries between reality, artifice, the animate and inanimate.
Donning elaborately designed and painted costumes and body paint made to either flatten or enhance their dimensionality, participants of the long running “Pageant of the Masters” stem from all walks of life and social backgrounds. Operating within a space of theatrical performance, the Pageant is best known for its famed tableau vivant
presentations of art masterpieces, which Rolston began documenting on editorial assignment for The Wall Street Journal
Growing familiar with members of the Pageant, he gained privileged access to the performers, spending several weeks photographing them in a makeshift studio set up backstage during the run of the show. In their Pageant costumes and makeup, dressed as figures taken from works by Da Vinci, Fragonard, Frishmuth, Matisse, Rivera, Hockney and many more, these performers posed for their portraits away from the painted sets and stage lighting of the Pageant, drawing attention to their unique human characteristics. Each photograph is activated through a deep sense of intimacy with its subject, utilizing painterly lighting and featuring Rolston’s mastery of color harmonies – all hallmarks of his practice, one that interrogates the nature of the subject and the space of photography to propagate overlapping narratives of both truth and fantasy.
On view in the gallery are more than 20 high-resolution photographic works printed on a monumental scale that blur the lines between painting and photography. Rendered in archival pigments on cotton rag paper and available in small, limited editions, these imposing, exquisite prints include individual portraits, diptychs, and elaborate groupings of participants juxtaposed against images of the Pageant’s makeup templates – which are used to model the performers’ final appearance. Throughout the series each subject willingly yields their own subjectivity to the artifice of the image and the photographic qualities of light, hue and contrast that register the works with a distinct emotional poignancy.
Similar to Cindy Sherman’s dramatic self-portraits, Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads or Richard Avedon’s candid In the American West
series, Rolston resists the impulse to elevate the everyday, instead locating human qualities in subjects whose living presence is masked in layers of caked-on makeup, body paint and metallic powder. It is this uncanny valley between the individual and the icon where Rolston identifies the human need for recognition through art in order to connect with the beyond, using photography to examine the boundary between reality and illusion. To quote Ernest Becker, “Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” In Rolston’s lens, the impulse demarcating ephemerality and eternity could not be more present.
Artist's Essay | Art People, By Matthew Rolston
“Art People” is a moniker often applied to members of the contemporary art world, a loosely organized international community – an elite, glamorous and global crowd – of art fair-attending collectors, creators, curators, press and party people, scene-makers (and scene stealers), hangers-on, and of course, the all-important gallerists.
Art People: The Pageant Portraits
is something very different. These
Art People are not those
“art people.” This project is a record, through photographic portraiture, of the many volunteers who allow themselves to be painted and costumed as living works of art in order to appear in an elaborate series of tableaux vivants
that comprises an entertainment event known as Pageant of the Masters, an annual celebration of art that has taken place every summer for the last 80 years in Laguna Beach, California.
Why would anyone spend their time – volunteering an entire summer of their lives – to become the living embodiment of paintings, sculptures, and other forms of graphic art? This is a question not easily answered, and one that poses yet another question – why do humans make art in the first place?
The creation of art is a deeply human practice. It speaks to not only the intellectual and spiritual side of man, but also to more inchoate primitive drives. No other species on the planet (at least, that we know of) practices such an activity. It is a defining human behavior.
Naturally, my practice as an artist cannot be separated from the human continuum. I, too, respond to primitive drives. Photographic portraiture has always been my medium, usually of pop culture figures, entertainers, and celebrities. My aim has been to use portraiture to entice the eye of the viewer by manipulating the content and style of my portraits through the use of designed lighting, costume, and other theatrical effects in order to make a topical comment on the nature of that subject, sometimes ironic, sometimes filled with acerbic commentary. Whatever clues I may have left behind in my images, those entertainment portraits deal in fictions, not truths. But what truth is there in a photograph, anyway?
The Art People
series follows in that practice with several significant differences.
First, I’m no longer serving another party, such as a magazine editor or a movie studio. Instead, I’m serving myself and my own interests above all. Secondly, I want to continue to use portraiture as an expressive tool of commentary, executed in such a way that its seductive physical surface entices the eye, and once there, the eye begins to consider the content; the mind opens. That’s the point.
My portraits of ventriloquism dummies, the first of my personal fine art projects – the Talking Heads
series – are not really about dummies. Yes, obviously they are elaborately detailed portraits of a rare collection of ventriloquial figures. But their real subject is the notion of our unconscious emotional projection into imagery of human simulacra. Another deeply defining human behavior.
These notions – the making of art, the projection into simulacra – are why I’ve chosen to use portraiture as a medium for that expression in my practice as a fine artist.
There’s always a certain theatricality to my approach. A desire to live by the dictum of the groundbreaking creative director at Harper’s Bazaar
in mid-century, Alexey Brodovitch, who famously challenged his charges – no less than the photographers Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, and many others – to “astonish me.”
More than anyone, the influence of and learning achieved through the observation of Richard Avedon’s lifelong body of work has had the greatest effect. And in particular, Art People
owes a debt to not only the progression of his career but to one of his most personal projects, a series of portraits entitled “In the American West.”
Avedon’s first incarnation was as a fashion photographer whose tenderly-lit images for Harper’s Bazaar
evoked a highly-romanticized world of post-War Europe – in particular, the so-called magic of Paris in the 1950s. By the 1960s, based in New York, he’d moved on to a much more modern and minimal style using the very latest in photographic strobe lighting, set against stark sweeps of white and grey. Later, beginning in the 1970s, Avedon started to look more unsparingly at his subjects, producing portraits that were somewhat frightening for their candor and intense emotional insight, and that some viewers found to be disturbing, even cruel, and Avedon’s American West
perfectly encapsulated this later development.
I was fascinated with this progression, because I understood that there are two sides to every story, and that beauty (whatever that
is) cannot be separated from that which is grotesque. There is no concept of beauty without its opposite, and Avedon taught me that.
Art People: The Pageant Portraits
considers a subject that I’ve long admired. And when I say “long,” I mean since I was six or seven years old. I first began attending the Festival of Arts’ Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, California, with my family as a young child, and being exposed to the theatricality and magic of that stage was one of the formative experiences of my life, and helped create the ambitions that have fueled my career.
I’ve returned to see the Pageant many times over the years, always carefully observing the effect of the entertainment on the young children there with their families, and wondering how many of them would be as affected as I was.
The Pageant is a popular entertainment. It exists outside of the “art world,” and no “Art People,” as they are popularly known, are involved in its creation, although its subject is most assuredly art and its appreciation. That said, some members of the official art world might think it was kitsch, or even slightly ridiculous. For me, it is far from that. It is with my own deep appreciation for the dedicated professionals and hundreds of volunteers that have made this show a Southern California tradition for 80 years, and the deeply-felt affect it has had on my own life, that I approach this subject.
More than a record of the costumes, makeup designs, and intricate staging motifs, Art People
is a series of portraits of human beings. It attempts to portray their personal dignity, their inner life and conflicts, within a fascinating conceit that centers around the somewhat mysterious subject of the making and appreciation of art.
Art is human. We are art.