Review: Celeb photographer Matthew Rolston’s fabulously weird Pageant of the Masters portraits
The painted bodies of Laguna Beach’s popular summer festival find new life in Matthew Rolston’s pictures, on view in their own show.
By CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT
Aug. 16, 2021 | 4:03 PM
LAGUNA BEACH — When supervillain Auric Goldfinger ordered glamorous card-shark Jill Masterson to be painted head to toe in his favorite gilded hue then deposited in James Bond’s rumpled bed in 1964’s superlative 007 movie, murder and intimidation were the aim. The paint was claimed, fictionally, to have caused the beauty’s death by skin asphyxiation.
Painted bodies don’t have the same nefarious result at the Pageant of the Masters. Maybe that’s because makeup rather than polyurethane acrylic does the annual job at the famous Laguna Beach summer festival of tableaux vivant. For the 2016 edition, however, a gilded lady was again the victim of barbarians — this time from the epic Ludovico Ariosto poem “Orlando Furioso,” fan-favorite during the Italian Renaissance
The lovely Angelica — stripped naked, chained to a rock for the dining delight of a giant sea monster and daringly rescued by Roger, a valiant knight — was also a popular subject in 19 century France. During a floundering epoch of post-revolutionary destabilization, the French were mad for organizing guidelines drawn from history and myth.
The Pageant chose Angelica’s florid representation from an 1840s bronze by sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye. She escapes across the sea in Roger’s protective arms, riding on the back of a galloping winged-horse held aloft by a coiling dolphin.
Celebrity photographer Matthew Rolston, known for lush portraits of actors and musicians, took a different approach in “Art People,” his exhibition of 2016 Pageant photographs currently at the Laguna Art Museum. Cinematic melodrama and sculptural romanticism are nowhere to be seen in his picture of Barye’s maiden.
Instead, “Art People” turns the same demanding techniques of studio work applied to publicity shots of Nicki Minaj and Zac Efron and for the pages of Rolling Stone and Vogue to anonymous Laguna locals who portray characters from paintings and sculptures. The results are agreeably weird.
Rolston’s gilded Angelica faces forward, body turned to three-quarter view and cropped just above the knee. Every inch of exposed skin is shiny gold, except for the rims of her eyelids. So is her draped tunic and the hard, coifed cap that substitutes for soft hair, like an ice-cream cone dipped in chocolate. The blue eyes and white front teeth on a sober, unsmiling face are of course unpainted, the lone suggestions of a living, breathing human being trapped inside.
The portrait could not be more formal. What’s oddly compelling is that the photograph undercuts any expectation of personal exposure, which is what we normally expect a portrait to accomplish. Rolston posed the model, one arm hidden behind her, with her right arm slightly bent and her hand turned to an open palm — a gesture of candidness that quietly resounds against her actual concealment.
Here I am. Who am I?
This is a person, identity unknown, portraying an object for a tableau presented in a theater. The show is the thing. The individual woman you’re looking at remains a cryptic cipher, encased inside layers of artistic and cultural distancing. Who she is really doesn’t matter.
When you look at Antoine-Louis Barye’s bronze sculpture in an art museum, rarely does the mind turn to the question of who the model was working in the artist’s studio posing for Angelica in the wax or plaster form that would later be cast in enduring metal. Her life was lived, and that was that. The sculpture, which is not a portrait, lives on.
“Art People” is a strange inversion of celebrity photography, in which we casually assume we are seeing behind the public mask of a famous performer. Rolston’s exquisitely crafted pageant pictures are all mask. Some are spectacular — especially the crowned and bearded figure of Neptune, Roman god of the sea.
Plucked from the base of a ponderous fountain in Paris’ Place de la Concorde, he’s a cast-iron spectacle with an odd cap of gilded foam. A windswept blue beard is clamped against his face, his muscled, purplish torso streaked with brush marks. The model is buff but nowhere near as bulky as the actual laborious statue designed by German-born French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff. He’s hardly a household name today, but Rolston’s photographic fountain god elicits double-takes.
Others seem disconcertingly tatty — none more than the 13 characters in Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” annually the pageant’s grand finale. Christ and his disciples, robed and bewigged, are here a rather creepy and forbidding bunch, the makeup so pronounced that it’s sometimes hard to tell the costumed sitter’s gender.
Their beards are like scrubbing brushes, their stiff, paint-daubed tunics like housepainters’ drop cloths. Absent context, hand gestures perform a supercilious pantomime.
The inspiring and the prosaic collide, the sacred indistinguishable from the profane. Leonardo’s actual fresco recedes into the conceptual distance. Rolston’s photographs assume a life of their own.
One coincidentally revealing example is the 1966 portrait of the late Los Angeles art dealer Nicholas Wilder, painted shoulder-deep in his home’s oval swimming pool by David Hockney. Rolston presents him in two adjacent photographs — one the painted plaster bust that pageant designers use to guide the nightly ritual of preparing the cast member for the show, the other the performer ready to go.
I knew Wilder, who ran one of Los Angeles’ most important art galleries for 14 formative years in the city’s contemporary cultural life. Looking at the technically refined, high-resolution photographs of both mannequin and model, I was surprised at how little either one resembled him. Like the Hittorff Neptune and Leonardo’s Jesus, being in the artistic ballpark is close enough for the pageant.
After all, close scrutiny of a painting or a sculpture is not the aim of a tableau vivant. I’ve long thought of the Pageant of the Masters as being somewhat akin to a sporting event, where extensive training, precision workouts and repetitive practice lead to the starting-gun moment when the curtain opens and, in a reversal of many sporting norms, the “art athletes” must remain perfectly still for the duration of the exposure.
If that sounds like the way photographs were made during the camera’s 19 century infancy — well, it’s not coincidental that the tableau vivant was birthed and flourished around the same time. It isn’t exactly a democratizing impulse for art, but taking pictures and making them were entering a new historical phase. Rolston’s peculiar pageant pictures begin to bring the world-altering saga into unexpected focus.
'Matthew Rolston: Art People'
Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach
When: Through Sept. 19; closed Wednesdays
Admission: $5-$7; kids 17 and younger are free
Info: (949) 494-8971, www.lagunaartmuseum.org