ART PEOPLE: THE PAGEANT PORTRAITS is a body of work by photographer and artist Matthew Rolston. This group of photographs 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 emotionally intimate portraits of participants of “Pageant of the Masters,” a tableaux vivants show that is part of an annual arts festival 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 known for its live presentations of art masterpieces, which Rolston began documenting on editorial assignment for The Wall Street Journal in 2015.
Growing familiar with members of the Pageant, through the courtesy of the Festival of Arts' Board and the Pageant's long-time director, Diane Challis Davy, Rolston 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.
This series is comprised of 23 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, these imposing prints are presented as 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 touching 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.