Matthew Rolston Portraits Set the Stage at Ralph Pucci Los Angeles
By Edie Cohen
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.
Matthew Rolston's 'Pageant Portraits' Bring Art to Life
By Jessica Gelt
What is art, and why do humans make it?
The questions sit at the core of a new photographic series by Matthew Rolston, “Art People: The Pageant Portraits,” on view through Feb. 23 at Ralph Pucci L.A.
Rolston, who made a name for himself in the 1980s celebrity magazine scene alongside photographers like Herb Ritts and Annie Leibovitz, worked tirelessly to gain access to the annual Laguna Beach arts festival called Pageant of the Masters, which features volunteer performers in elaborate body paint and makeup re-creating scenes from famous works of art by Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera and more.
Rolston first attended the event at age 6, and he credits it with jump-starting his fascination with the power of imagery. He began photographing the pageant in 2015 for the Wall Street Journal and later took intimate backstage portraits of the performers to better examine the truth within the artifice.
“My intention with all three of the fine art projects that I have created so far is to author an image that will entice the viewer — draw them in — and once I have their attention, to use that platform to raise questions that mean something to me about the nature of humanity and what it means to be human,” Rolston wrote in an email from Berlin.
To further bend the boundaries among painting, photography and performance, Rolston used an extremely high-resolution camera system that helped to make the painted surfaces of the subjects resemble actual paintings.
“It’s as close to painting with a camera as I’ve been able to come,” he said. “This work is entirely personal and feeds my soul in a completely different way than my entertainment portraiture.”
Matthew Rolston Captures Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters in Stunning New Work
The latest photographs are on display at Ralph Pucci's Los Angeles outpost
By Mayer Rus
In his latest body of work, photographer Matthew Rolston continues his investigations into the nature of portraiture and, more generally, the practice of artmaking in contemporary society. His specific subject is the Pageant of the Masters, a wildly popular presentation of tableaux vivants re-creating famous artworks, which unfolds each year during the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach, California. Through his incisive lens, Rolston focuses on the dramatis personae—men and women of diverse social and professional backgrounds—who don extraordinarily elaborate costumes and makeup to bring the pictures to life.
“I have vivid memories of seeing the pageant as a child,” Rolston recalls. “The theatrics and spectacle had a profound influence on me.” That influence should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the photographer’s oeuvre—from his dazzling fashion images to his recent ventriloquist grotesques.
Rolston began documenting the festival on assignment for the Wall Street Journal in 2015. Realizing that the proceedings were ripe for more in-depth exploration, he spent considerable time familiarizing himself with the tight-knit community of performers, makeup artists, and production designers that assembles each year. “It was important that they understood I wasn’t interested in sensationalizing or patronizing the incredible work they do. I wanted to honor the dignity of the players,” he explains. “I think the level of trust we achieved comes through in the intimacy of the photographs.”
Rolston has assembled the pictures in an exhibition entitled "Art People: The Pageant Portraits," currently on view at the Ralph Pucci Los Angeles showroom through February 28, 2018. The visceral quality of the performers’ transformation is amplified by the heroic scale of the photographer’s ravishing prints, some of which measure nine by four feet. “I wanted to evoke the sense of wonder that gripped me when I was a kid,” Rolston explains.
The title of the exhibition, "Art People," also slyly hints at a subject beyond mere documentation. Rolston seems to be posing a provocative question. What makes a person an art person? A fascination with historical classics or a ticket to Art Basel? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. But it’s a question well worth asking, particularly when the inquiry results in artwork as seriously seductive as Rolston’s.
Matthew Rolston Holds Up a Funhouse Mirror to Art History
In a striking new series, the storied magazine photographer revisits a curious popular reconstruction of some painterly and sculptural classics.
by Michael Slenske
When Matthew Rolston was growing up in LA's Hancock Park neighborhood he was a self-described "art school kid" who took painting and drawing classes at the Chouinard Art Institute and Art Center College of Design, where he later studied photography for two years before being discovered by Andy Warhol. His late brother Dean Rolston was the co-owner of the pioneering 56 Bleecker Gallery, and during school breaks Matthew flew to New York, slept on his brother's couch, and picked up the slack of Warhol's Studio 54 entourage. When Interview needed someone to shoot Steven Spielberg, Rolston got the assignment and Warhol became his first client.
In the ensuing years, Rolston went on to shoot Michael Jackson's first cover for Interview magazine, and was soon enlisted by Jann Wenner to shoot U2's first Rolling Stone cover—eventually racking up more than a hundred of them over three decades. With a knack for theatrical lighting and teasing out unique color harmonies, Rolston became one of the most in-demand magazine photographers and music video directors (working with Madonna, Beyoncé, Lenny Kravitz, and Marilyn Manson) of the 1980s and ‘90s.
"I'm not a theory person, I'm not an intellectual, I'm a visual artist, and after years of being at my clients' beck and call I'm going to take all the money I earned in the first half of my career and spend it in the second half doing exactly what I want to do," says Rolston, who has done just that over the past six years. After reading a 2009 story in The New York Times about the Vent Haven Museum's collection of 700-plus ventriloquist dolls, Rolston was drawn to the projections we place on these simulacra, and embarked on a journey to Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. He shot more than 250 epic color portraits of the dummies, which were later catalogued in his book Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits. His next project, Vanitas, took him to Palermo, Italy, to take portraits of mummies in the catacombs of the Capuchin monastery.
Last fall, Rolston met up with his old friend Ralph Pucci, who was looking to show more art in his new gallery in Hollywood. The design dealer was struck by a glowing image of a middle-aged grocery clerk coated from the waist up in silver body paint invoking one of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth's bronze sculptures. Rolston hadn't made any prints from his latest series—in fact, he was busy printing old glamor shots from his new photo tome Hollywood Royale, getting ready for the book's debut and a concurrent exhibition at Camera Work Photogalerie in Berlin. But once the two got to talking, Rolston could see the value in showing these painterly pictures amid Pucci's design gems. As such, Rolston has spent the summer printing 65 images, a total of 22 works—some as large as 90 x 45 inches—for Art People: The Pageant Portraits, which is on view now at Pucci's showroom.
For Art People—the title is a reference to the glamorous gallery-going cognoscenti—Rolston revisited his gateway drug into the art world: the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts' Pageant of the Masters. He first visited this volunteer-run, Broadway-level production of art-historical tableaux vivants with his parents when he was six or seven. (In July, the pageant will celebrate its 85th season.) The show's "living pictures" are comprised of ordinary people dressed up as the subjects of famous artworks, which are animated via elaborate sets, makeup, lighting, narration, and orchestral music. "They once did an all-gold Cellini salt cellar that revolved on a dais," recalls Rolston, who returned to the pageant six years ago with some friends and a pair of field binoculars that allowed him to observe the grotesquery behind the players' extravagant makeup. "I realized it was an incredible portrait subject."
That said, it took him four years to get permission from the board of directors. "They're very protective of the image of the pageant and I think they are wary of being regarded suspiciously by the official art world as some campy, kitsch thing. But I told Jeffrey Deitch about it and he thought it was the most fantastic thing he'd ever heard of. I think it depends on the person," says Rolston. "The main thing is protecting the privacy of the volunteers who work for free and give up an entire summer of their lives for this.”
Despite an initial rejection, Rolston refused to give up. Two years ago he pitched his friend Christina Brinkley, then a style columnist and news editor at The Wall Street Journal, about assigning him a story on the pageant. "I'm not a documentary photographer, I barely know what I'm doing with a 35mm, I make very meditated, mediated images," explains Rolston, who got the assignment and took the opportunity to make a small documentary with the cast and crew. "I knew I wasn't going to get anything out of that story that I could use, but I knew I could go backstage and meet all the people and then I started to develop a working relationship with [director/producer] Diane Challis Davy.”
After explaining how he wanted to shoot the players with a visual language similar to his hero Richard Avedon's In The American West series, Davy cottoned to Rolston's concept but was concerned about such detailed photography of a stage illusion—via heavy make up and papier-mâché costumes—that is meant to be seen from at least fifty feet away. "It's not meant to be seen with all the imperfections, but I told her the imperfection was the poetry of it," explains Rolston, showing me an image of the "golden acne" on the face of a young woman playing Angelica from Antoine-Louis Barye's Roger and Angelica Mounted on the Hippogriff in the entryway across from the silver Frishmuth diptych. "I'm a portraitist, I'm interested in the humanity of the people in those costumes."
After a few rounds of negotiations the board acquiesced to Rolston's vision and allowed him, for several weeks last summer, to install a makeshift studio in the company's carpentry workshop, with a massive lighting rig to tease out all the painterly qualities in each costume. There he shot two groups of ten people each night as they came off the theater stage.
"I didn't select anyone in particular, I photographed everyone they would give me," says Rolston. The selection of images at Pucci ranges from a nine-foot tall, elongated version of Eve from Brueghel and Rubens's The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man and a bronze version of Sancho Panza from Lorenzo Coullaut Valera's monument to Cervantes in Madrid, to the patinaed Neptune from Jacques Ignace Hittorff's Fontaines de la Concorde in Paris and David Hockney's 1968 portrait of legendary Angeleno art patron Marcia Weisman from American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman). "Talk about art about art about art—this is art chasing its tail.”
Many of these portraits, including the images of Weisman, Frishmuth, and the players in Da Vinci's The Last Supper—Rolston's pièce de résistance from the pageant's final tableaux—are being shown as diptychs and multiple groupings against his uncanny images of corresponding dummy templates the makeup artists use to create their magic. As a bonus, he's showing a short film he made of the process behind Davy's gift to him: a cameo as a permed St. Matthew in The Last Supper finale.
"I didn't know what my art was, I just started making it and it taught me," says Rolston. "This is a piece about art-making.”
Matthew Rolston opened at Ralph Pucci International, Los Angeles, on October 27. Also on view are new works by Patrick Naggar and Olivier Gagnère.
Photographer Matthew Rolston Takes a Closer Look at One of L.A.'s Weirdest Traditions
By Gwynedd Stuart
Every summer, dozens of Southern Californians volunteer to be turned into living, breathing works of art. In 2016, a man was painted from head to toe in metallic silver paint to become one half of the frolicsome duo in Harriet Whitney Frishmuth's sculpture The Dancers. A woman in a pastel pink robe and makeup meticulously done to mimic brushstrokes became a character in David Hockney's painting American Collectors.
For nearly 85 years, Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters has brought to life notable works of art but last year, world-renowned portrait photographer Matthew Rolston was there to document the transformations. The Pageant's tableaux vivant are intended to be viewed from a distance of at least 50 feet. But in the series of photos he calls "Art People: The Pageant Portraits," which goes on display at Ralph Pucci gallery beginning Friday, Oct. 27, Rolston takes a closer look at the people who comprise the beating heart of the event.
"I call the project 'Art People,' and it’s a little bit of a joke," Rolston explains. "That’s what people in the art world are called — curators, collectors. These are not those art people, these are people who are portraying works of art. I don’t think that official art people are aware of the Pageant.”
Rolston, who grew up in L.A.'s Hancock Park neighborhood and was later discovered by Andy Warhol and tapped to take photos for Interview magazine, attended the Pageant a handful of times with his family as a child. "Going to see that at age 6 or 7 was one of the formative experiences of my life," he recalls. "I was taken with the beauty of it.”
Rolston returned to the Pageant as an adult with his partner and another couple, and rather than viewing it from a distance, he was compelled to take a closer look. "I took not just my opera glasses but my Nikon field glasses — I wanted to look up close at those faces," he says. "When you look at it really closely, the imperfection of it and the realness was so moving to me.”
Thanks to an incredibly successful career in portraiture, Rolston has recently had the opportunity to expand his repertoire to include what he calls "dedicated fine art projects." In the first project, Rolston shot detailed, sympathetic photos of ventriloquist dummies to examine the way we project our own humanity onto simulacra. The second project was a series of portraits of mummies in a Capuchin monastery, an effort to explore the human curse of death awareness; we create religious mythologies to cope with our own death awareness, and those mythologies become so important that certain of us are willing to die for them. ("Religious wars still happen every day," Rolston reminds.)
The Pageant portraits represent the third of these personal projects. In this one, he "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," show literature explains.
Ultimately, no matter how it's expressed, this project and his others (as well as his magazine work) are all part of a single obsession. "I’m fascinated by faces and humans," Rolston says. "They're the greatest subject in the entire world of art and have been for centuries."
Hollywood Photographer Matthew Rolston Aims His Lens At the Public With His Latest Exhibit At the Ralph Pucci LA Showroom
By Michael Ventre
Breathtaking photography is nothing new to Matthew Rolston. You could blindfold the man, hand him an old-school Instamatic, point him at the blandest of subjects, and he could still shoot something that would make you weep with joy over the promise of mankind.
But the latest exhibit by the world-renowned artist extends the awe factor to a new dimension. In Art People: The Pageant Portraits, which is open to the public’s gaze through Feb. 23 at the Ralph Pucci LA showroom, Rolston applies his uber keen instincts in a meta purpose: the subjects were all participants in this summer’s Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, where they reenacted great works of art through history with living, breathing humans in astonishing makeup, and then Rolston photographed them.
From work of art (painting) to work of art (living poses at the pageant) to work of art (photography), Rolston was captivated by why ordinary individuals— supermarket checkers, teachers, local business owners— would want to participate in the pageant. Heck, Rolston himself appeared in the event’s touchstone presentation, “The Last Supper,” so he must know.
“It raises the question, ‘Why do people make art?’” he explains. “The creation of art is a deeply human practice. It speaks to not only the intellectual and spiritual side of men, 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 dening human behavior.”
Rolston’s work has appeared in W, Vogue, GQ, Esquire and just about every publication that puts a premium on beauty and glamour, and he has also directed scads of videos and commercials. But rarely has his eye loomed larger than it does from the massive frames currently hanging in the Pucci showroom. What becomes a legend most? Don’t miss it.
Ralph Pucci L.A. exhibits “Art People: The Pageant Portraits,” a new fine-art series by Matthew Rolston
By Stockland Martel Editorial
Each year in Laguna Beach, California, participants in the “Pageant of the Masters” arts festival are costumed to look like key figures from famous works of art and take the stage to enact those masterpieces. It’s a slightly surreal event that draws crowds from around the world, as well as Southern California locals who make the much-cherished fest a family tradition. Matthew Rolston is among the Californians who grew up attending the “Pageant of the Masters,” and it not only made a powerful impression on him in his childhood—it also inspired his latest fine-art photo series, “Art People: The Pageant Portraits.” And last night, the project made its public debut in a private event at the Los Angeles showroom of Ralph Pucci International, a company that is legendary for its luxury furniture, lighting, and avant-garde mannequins.
“The Pageant is best known for its famed tableaux vivants presentations of art masterpieces, which Rolston began documenting on editorial assignment for The Wall Street Journal in 2015. Rolston gained privileged access to the pageant’s performers, spending several weeks photographing them in a makeshift studio set up backstage during the run of the show,” explains the press release. “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 theatrical lighting of the Pageant, drawing attention to their unique human characteristics.
Each photograph is activated through a deep sense of intimacy with the 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.”
Monumental in scale, the works in the exhibition 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,” notes the press release, “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.”
“‘Art People’ considers a subject that I’ve long admired,” says Rolston. “And when I say ‘long,’ I mean since I was 6 or 7 years old. I began attending the Festival of Arts’ Pageant of the Masters 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.”
“Art People: The Pageant Portraits” will be the subject of a documentary film, and Rolston has expressed interest in a monograph should the right publisher come along.
Art People: The Pageant Portraits
By W Magazine Editorial
This short-form behind-the-scenes film documents Matthew Rolston's personal journey through the creation of the series "Art People: The Pageant Portraits" during Pageant of the Masters, a tableau vivant show of living pictures that has taken place in Laguna Beach, California, for more than 80 years.