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Matthew Rolston Turns His Eye to Pageant of The Masters

By Jane Greenstein | |
PUBLISHED: June 14, 2021 at 8:29 a.m. | UPDATED: June 16, 2021 at 11:54 a.m.

“Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits” is the renowned fine art photographer’s latest attempt to pull back the layers of humanity through portraiture. This time Rolston is making art about people who recreate fine art, taking on as his subject the volunteers who are costumed as part of the annual Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach.

“Art People” is scheduled to open at the Laguna Art Museum on Sunday, June 27 — a week and a half before the tableaux vivant Pageant begins on July 7. “Art People” now takes on extra meaning for Rolston as the pageant — and his exhibit — was postponed last year for the first time in its nearly 100-year existence.

A model is made up to look like Neptune to appear in a tableau vivant of Jacques Ignace Hittorff’s “La Fontaine des Mers” in an image from “Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits.” (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

““Art People” as a project is intrinsically connected to the community of Laguna Beach,” he wrote in an email. “The Pageant has been a beloved tradition in Laguna for over eighty years, and very much by and for the community. Let’s remember that the town began as an artist’s colony and that the inception of the Festival and Pageant and the museum itself are historically connected.

“The arts community of Laguna (like everywhere) has been nearly shut down for a year, so this event can be seen to mark a kind of rebirth or renaissance for arts in the town of Laguna. I am really proud that my piece knits together the threads of Laguna’s art, history and community and is therefore newly resonant at this particular time.”


From popular to fine art

Rolston’s foray into fine art is the latest chapter in a storied career. He’s photographed everyone from Michael Jackson and Prince to Madonna and Beyoncé for publications including Interview, Rolling Stone, Vogue and Vanity Fair, and co-directed Christina Aguilera‘s award-winning “Candyman” video, among many others. Rolston also photographed iconic campaigns for L’Oreal, Revlon, and Estée Lauder as well as helped with branding of hotels operated by SBE Entertainment and Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotels.

Over the last decade Rolston’s focus has shifted from promoting beauty to dissecting it. “Art People” follows “Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits,” which depicted ventriloquist dummies housed in the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.

Both exhibits provoke the viewer to look closely: The Vent Haven figures take on human traits, while the pageant actors of “Art People” appear as almost mythic beings.

“One of those things (that make humans unique) clearly is art making — no other species that we know of does that,” Rolston said in an interview. “What are the underpinnings of that, where does that come from?”


Art about art about art

“Art People” features 18 large high-resolution works printed on cotton rag paper (commonly used for watercolors). The works are presented in various formats, including prints as well as several diptychs for a total of 48 individual photographs. One piece comprises 26 individual prints stretching over 30 feet, featuring actors who take part in the traditional pageant finale, the recreation of  Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”

“This series of images by photographer Matthew Rolston show volunteers who portray Jesus and the 12 apostles in the Pageant of the Masters’ tableau vivant of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” along with the makeup template for the 13 characters. (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles)As the subjects are photographed out of context of the paintings they’re representing on stage, they appear both God-like and grotesque. The meticulous fashioning of the subjects captures the styles of Diego Rivera, Peter Paul Rubens, and David Hockney as well as da Vinci, and allows the viewer to imbue the characters with a new story. The elaborate body paint lavished on the actors accentuate different features, with some resembling statues or paintings.

Dr. Malcolm Warner, former executive director of Laguna Art Museum,  who curated the exhibit, described the aesthetic Rolston was striving for in the exhibition’s catalog:

“In “Art People,” Rolston shows the performer, not the performance: the figure is removed from its context. … 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 photos’ painterly quality is exactly what Rolston was aiming for:

“All are an attempt by me to elevate photography to the status of painting,” he said. “Not through trickery — not using some kind filter to look like brushstrokes — but by photographing subjects that have a texture that looks painterly.”

The tableaux vivant style of the exhibit’s photos has taken on another dimension, foreshadowing last year’s social media trend of people dressing up during quarantine as famous artworks. Rolston, who shot the “Art People” photos in 2016, couldn’t have predicted that his work would become au courant.

“The Pageant is in some way the mothership of all that aesthetic,” mused Rolston. “This was a project about representations of representations of representations: This is art about art about art. It couldn’t get more meta if it tried.”


Pageant person

Rolston, 66, became entranced with the Pageant of the Masters as a child when he and his family would make a regular pilgrimage from their Los Angeles home to the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts. Rolston, who was discovered by Andy Warhol while attending ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, considers the pageant a seminal influence. He considers it as inspirational as his mother’s Harper’s Bazaar magazines and Disneyland.

“It took my little childhood heart by storm,” he said. “The theatricality of it, the makeup, the stage lighting, the stage magic, the illusion.”

A chance conversation with friends a few years ago brought Rolston back to the pageant. His return meshed perfectly with his foray into fine art, specifically exploring the duality of beauty.

“The linking that became clear to me after many years is that which is gorgeous and that which is grotesque are really the same thing,” he said. “They’re just two sides of the same pole.”

His new direction is inspired by his idol, the acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon.

“I was searching for a way to express an idea about projection,” he said. “That’s where I started. Everything I do involves projection. As a celebrity portrait photographer … you’re dealing with the iconography of celebrity. What are the ancient underpinnings of that? Is that about idolatry? Are there religious underpinnings to that?”

Rolston’s renewed interest in capturing the magic of the pageant led him through an odyssey of sorts: It involved gaining the trust of the festival organizers, befriending the volunteers, and even playing St. Matthew in the recreation of “The Last Supper.”  Appearing onstage offered him a different perspective, to be the one being looked at rather than orchestrating the action behind the scenes.


Exploring the duality

For his next project, “Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits”, Rolston continues to deconstruct humanity, exploring what he calls “death anxiety,” something as a celebrity photographer he actively worked to quell.

“The act of using makeup, lighting and sometimes retouching, whatever the tricks are, it all eradicates aging, it all denies death,” he said. “I’m very disturbed by the effects of death anxiety on human culture.”

He traveled to Sicily to take photos of the Christian mummies housed in The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. Rolston describes it as an “Expressionist project about death.”

“Vanitas” looks to be Rolston’s most jolting undertaking to date.

“I wanted to celebrate imperfection and the poetry of all that, celebrate age, celebrate weathering, celebrate these things that are rejected in the world of fashion, beauty and luxury,” he said. “I’m looking at the same subject matter and from a different angle, much more personally and from an older point in my life, a more mature point in my life where I’m more reflective.”

He’s also working on a book, “The Power of Pleasure” based on a master class he teaches at his alma mater ArtCenter focusing on critical thinking and the techniques used in fashion, beauty, and luxury communication.


If you go

When: “Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits” opens June 27 and runs through Sept. 19. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays, Fridays-Sundays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; closed Wednesdays

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

Tickets: $7 general admission; $5 for students (18+) and seniors (60+); free for children 17 and under and museum members; free for members of the military and their families through Labor Day; museum admission is free for all visitors on the first Thursday of the month

Information: 949-494-8971;