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Matthew Rolston | Laguna Art Museum | Pageant of the Masters

Laguna Art Museum Presents Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits
June 27th - September 19, 2021

The exhibition is the first West Coast solo museum exhibition of the celebrated photographer - Matthew Rolston.

LAGUNA BEACH, CA — Laguna Art Museum will present the first institutional solo exhibition by acclaimed photographer Matthew Rolston on the West Coast, Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits, from June 27 to September 19, 2021, curated by Dr. Malcolm Warner, former executive director of Laguna Art Museum.
The exhibition, which consists of 18 monumental, high-resolution photographic works, some presented as multi-panel installations, takes as its subject the participants of an annual arts event in Laguna Beach, California—the Pageant of the Masters—known for its elaborate tableau vivant presentations. This context connects two of the most beloved cultural institutions of Laguna Beach, a city originally founded as an arts colony in the early 20th century, while celebrating the broader history of art and photography that defines the cultural heritage of California.
“How fortunate for us that a photographer of Matthew’s stature found a perfect subject for his art in Laguna Beach,” said Dr. Warner. “We’re proud to be showcasing his genius and celebrating the fabulous ‘art people’ of the Pageant of the Masters.”
In Rolston’s brilliant, richly hued portraits, the artist offers not only a deeply poignant and personal account of the Pageant of the Masters and its participants, but also underscores the uncanny ways in which these works bring out fundamental aspirations of the human spirit and its underlying impulse towards art creation.
Accompanying the exhibition is a lavishly illustrated museum catalogue with essays by cultural critic and journalist Christina Binkley, the Pageant of the Masters scriptwriter Dan Duling, and respected scholar Nigel Spivey, Senior Lecturer in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, alongside carefully selected images from art history that contextualize the work in the exhibition. The catalogue will be offered in two versions, a luxurious trade edition as well as a deluxe limited collector’s edition featuring a signed print by the artist.

Raised in postwar Los Angeles, Matthew Rolston was exposed to an eclectic merging of classical art and Hollywood imagery from a very young age. His most formative early art-going experiences included seeing historic British portraiture and European sculpture on view at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, as well the numerous occasions upon which he attended the Pageant of the Masters performances in Laguna Beach with family. It was at the Pageant that he saw qualities that would influence his later work as a professional photographer—the theatricality, role-playing, gender reversals and, above all, a highly-attuned sense of glamour that has become a hallmark of his lens.
Following a celebrated career in photography and creative direction, Rolston began creating bodies of fine artwork in 2010, first with the series Talking Heads shown in 2014. From there, he became fascinated with returning to Laguna Beach to photograph the participants of the Pageant of the Masters and was first granted access to document behind-the-scenes of the production while on assignment with journalist Christina Binkley for the Wall Street Journal in 2015. In 2016, he was granted rare access to photograph and produce a body of original artwork based on portraits of the volunteer cast members of the Pageant.
The subjects in these works participate in the Pageant’s famed tableau vivant presentations, which have attracted audiences for more than 80 years. In the Pageant, volunteer cast members reenact pivotal works of art, chosen from the classical period through the present day. Using a wide variety of stagecraft techniques, makeup, and theatrical trickery, the Pageant re-presents living subjects as works of classical sculpture, Old Master painting, or contemporary artwork. Staged tableaux in the show range from artists such as da Vinci, Fragonard, Frishmuth, Matisse, Hockney, among others.
Over a three-week period, Rolston, working from a makeshift studio set up backstage, shot participants, fully costumed and made-up, during final dress rehearsals, intermissions and following each night’s performance. Counter to the illusionistic qualities of the Pageant production, Rolston’s portraits remove each subject from their painted and hand-crafted environments, acknowledging the artifice of their appearance while affirming each subject’s indelibly human qualities.
The tension between illusion and reality is one of the key narratives explored in the Art People photographs, which carry a range of art-historical references specific to Rolston’s own background, as well as the cultural history of Laguna Beach. Deeply influenced by the work of Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, who led the MGM portrait studio in the 1930s and ‘40s, Rolston’s work harkens back to the art colony days of Laguna Beach, from which esteemed photographers, including Hurrell, William Mortensen, and Paul Outerbridge Jr. emerged. The Laguna group of the 1930s continued the then-dominant artistic tradition in photography known as “pictorialism,” which attempted to elevate photography to a form of art by mimicking the appearance of painting and drawing. These photographers were not shy of using stagecraft, theatrical effects, and darkroom manipulation in their work, in direct opposition to a new movement known as “modernist” or “purist” photography that was developing in Northern California at the same time. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and other members of the pioneering Group f/64 preferred more austere aesthetics, relying on the unique mechanical aspects of photography to produce works that could only be created with a camera. Merging both of these traditions, Rolston’s photographs of subjects with painted skin, shimmering dress, and metallic adornments photographed in extremely high resolution offer layered meanings between the commonplace and the elevated, blurring the distinctions between the mythic and the everyday, the theatrical and the pure.
Beyond both the pictorialist and purist references in Rolston’s series, the work also features a strong influence from legendary 20th century American photographer Richard Avedon, whose In the American West series of the 1970s and early ‘80s eschewed glamorous subjects and high-fashion settings for the raw, sparse, and worn faces of individuals living in remote stretches of the Western United States. While retaining his sense of composition, form, and tonality, Avedon moved away from the pursuit of perfection to show something more harsh, raw, and, ultimately, more human. Rolston’s photographs echo this dialogue; human imperfections are clearly visible in the work: exposed skin, caked-on makeup, and the brilliance of naked eyes piercing each subject’s face confront the viewer in a way that cannot be unseen. His dedication to the reality of the figure, and the human portrayed within each photograph, are elements that connect these works to the more “purist” early modernist photographers.
In situating these works between the pictorialist and purist impulses of early modernist photography, Rolston creates his own visual vernacular, commenting on the nature of art as it moves from one representation to the next, and shedding light on the unique human capacity for imitation. The postmodern ethos to quote, cite, and re-stage is on full view in these portraits, where an artwork, once re-staged by a performer in the Pageant, becomes seen anew in Rolston’s lens. It is this layering of images and representations that is, at once, both postmodern as well as primeval, drawing on the human capacity not only to create art, but to use art as a means to perpetuate timeless myths and stories that bridge the past with the present, and merge the real with the fantastic.
About Matthew Rolston
Matthew Russell Rolston is an American artist, photographer, and director known for his signature lighting techniques and detailed approach to art direction and design. Born in Los Angeles, Rolston studied drawing and painting in his hometown at the Chouinard Art Institute and Otis College of Art and Design, as well as in the Bay Area at the San Francisco Art Institute. He also studied illustration, photography, imaging, and film at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, where in 2006, he received an Honorary Doctorate. In 1998, Rolston endowed the “Matthew Rolston Scholarship for Photography and Film,” at ArtCenter. He remains actively involved in this program as a mentor and lecturer on the subjects of modern communication techniques, fashion aesthetics and luxury brand strategies. Rolston’s photographs are in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery (Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at The Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.), among others.
For more information about Matthew Rolston and Art People, please visit