Matthew Rolston at Laguna Art Museum

Matthew Rolston, Barye, Roger and Angelica (Roger), 2016 (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits

Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach

through September 19, 2021

Written by Liz Goldner 

If art is a metaphor for life, this photographic display is an exploration of humanity’s creative energy, along with the search for meaning and identity. Or as Nigel Spivey, a classical scholar, explains in this exhibition’s catalog, “’Art People’ advances a statement about our identity as human beings: how we define ourselves as creatures who are creative, and as individuals whose individuality is part of that creative power.”

Inspired by this truism, “Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits” takes a multi-faceted approach to photography—with its portraits of people, made-up and dressed to look like figures in paintings and sculptures; they are actually characters for Laguna Beach’s theatrical event, Pageant of the Masters, which features the centuries old art form known as “living pictures.”

The outdoor Pageant, dating back to 1932, presented for eight weeks every summer, showcases volunteer cast members wearing detailed makeup and costumes, posing in elaborate painted sets with creative lighting. The resulting tableaux vivants or “living pictures” depict artworks over the centuries, from those by old masters to contemporary artists.

While the living pictures are appropriated from actual art pieces, some of that art is based on photos, as with the David Hockney painting, “American Collectors,” or based on created scenes, populated by real people who pose as historical figures. An example of a painting reportedly constructed from a posed scene is Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” This historic painting has been the Pageant’s final living picture for many decades.

“Art People” was created by Rolston, a visionary artist, photographer, and director, who has admired the Pageant of the Masters since his childhood. Drawing on his decades of fascination for the event, he set out five years ago to shoot individual portraits of pageant cast members, while they were not posing for the actual living pictures. Malcolm Warner, formerly Executive Director, Laguna Art Museum, explains this process in the catalog: “By isolating his subjects, and presenting them in such high definition that the painted-on brushwork and patinas reveal themselves as the makeup that they are, Rolston brings out the strange, melancholy poetry of real people impersonating painted and sculpted ones.”

The resulting photographic portraits explore the humanity within us, along with the deeper vicissitudes of artworks, including the “hall of mirrors” aspects of artmaking. Some of Rolston’s photos then are based on figures from Pageant living pictures, which are themselves based on paintings and sculptures, which are in turn derived from photos or staged scenes.

His “Da Vinci, The Last Supper (Saint Philip The Curious),” depicting the character St. Philip from Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” is a portrait of a Pageant cast member, heavily made-up, coifed and dressed to mimic a person from the time of Christ. Portraying a man wearing a somber expression, it eclipses the present, bringing the viewer to a solemn scene from millennia ago.

Rolston’s “Barye, Roger and Angelica,” gracing the cover of the catalog, and serving as a hallmark of the show, is of a young woman painted entirely in gold, including her draped gown and hair, with only her piercing blue eyes revealing her living identity. She is a human being, segueing to become a sculptural work—thereby inverting the Pygmalion myth.

Most other portraits in this exhibition are of figures from classic historic paintings and sculptures. Yet Rolston’s “Hockney, American Collectors (Marcia Weisman)” is a contemporary portrait of a Pageant cast member posing as the deceased art collector, Marcia Weisman. The original 1968 Hockney painting, “American Collectors,” in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, was created from a photo of Weisman and her husband Frederick Weisman posing beside their home. The Pageant model in this photo brings Weisman to a more humanistic level than is displayed in Hockney’s original painting.

Marcia Simon Weisman (1918-1991) and her husband were major art collectors in Los Angeles. Their spectacular modern and contemporary art collection, which formed the basis of The Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, is open to the public, by reservation only.

Rolston wrote for the “Art People” catalog, “Art is human. We are art.” Indeed, this astonishing exhibition, elevating portrait photography to a profound and humanistic level, explores the nexus where people transcend their limitations to create great art.

Laguna Art Museum

307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

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