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, artists, 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 more than 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 mankind, 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 inflected with acerbic commentary. Whatever clues I may have left behind in my images, those entertainment portraits deal in fictions, not truths.
The ART PEOPLE series follows in that practice with several significant differences.
First, I’m no longer serving another party, such as an editorial, advertising or entertainment client. Instead, I’m serving solely myself and my own interests. Secondly, I want to continue to use portraiture as an expressive tool of communication, executed in such a way that its seductive physical surface entices the eye, but more than with my commissioned work, once there, the viewer begins to consider the meaning behind 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 true 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 human 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 and Lisette Model, among others – to “astonish me.”
More than anyone, the influence of and learning achieved through my 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 Avedon’s career but to one of his most personal projects, a series of portraits from 1985 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 early 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, towards the end of that tumultuous decade, 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 from it I grasped 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’s work 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 more than 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 Pageant of the Masters’ 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, all within a fascinating conceit that centers around the somewhat mysterious subject of the making and appreciation of art.
Art is human. We are art.