Silver surfer: Matthew Rolston, Frishmuth, The Dancers (#1), 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Pucci

Matthew Rolston Holds Up a Funhouse Mirror to Art History

Michael Slenske

In a striking new series, the storied magazine photographer revisits a curious popular reconstruction of some painterly and sculptural classics.

Silver surfer: Matthew Rolston, Frishmuth, The Dancers (#1), 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Pucci

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.

Matthew Rolston, Rubens, Brueghel the Elder, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Eve), 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Pucci

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 Binkley, 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."

Matthew Rolston, Hittorff, La Fontaine des Mers (Neptune), 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Pucci

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."

Matthew Rolston, Da Vinci, The Last Supper (Jesus Christ), Pageant Makeup Template, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Pucci

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.