Superheroes and celebrities, totems and toys: the imagery of manufactured fantasy is reframed in the visual language of historical iconography in this multi-media exploration of popular culture today. With unprecedented access to an audience of one’s own, we find affirmation onscreen, and venerate fame as a final destination. As the real and the virtual increasingly collide, boundaries between art and media further blur, inspiring new mythologies realized in new materials: stars of stage, screen, and sport are re-envisioned, offering insight into how desire shapes identity. Appropriating images and practices from commerce, science, politics, religion, sports, and technology, these artists illuminate recent shifts in how culture is being created and consumed.
The legacy of late-20th-century Pop Art is evident throughout the exhibition: Andy Warhol’s style and subject matter in particular is echoed in paintings by Rebecca Campbell, Lisa Alonzo, and Mickalene Thomas; in photographs by Hassan Hajjaj and Laurel Nakadate; and in multi-media works by Nick Cave, Roberto Guerrero, R. Luke DuBois, and April Bey, among others. This broad spectrum of artworks investigating celebrity, commerce, and the media suggests an evolving definition of Pop. In the 1960s, says philosopher Arthur Danto, “Pop art was among other things an effort to overcome the division between fine and vernacular art, between the exalted and the coarse, between high and low.” Pop Stars! demonstrates the dominance of the popular as today’s ubiquitous culture. Culling from the canon of art history, mining the mass media, scouring the streets and screens where we live and dream today, these artists, alongside Kehinde Wiley, Brian Paumier, Robert Wilson, Fahamu Pecou, Frances Goodman, Derrick Adams, Titus Kaphar, Sanford Biggers, Brendan Fernandes, and others, enshrine the everyday, and intertwine past and present in transformative new intersections of art and life.
The consumer brands we eat, drink, and wear; the performers, politicians, and athletes we love and loathe: popular culture today venerates the secular more than the sacred, yet the form and function of religious iconography persists. The saints and angels depicted in ancient icons are today replaced by images of the celebrity gods and consumer goods we seek for affirmation, protection, and empowerment. Recalling the studio photography of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, Hassan Hajjaj’s saturated, brightly-colored portraits of musicians, cultural icons, and others are framed by popular brands of food and drink and other commodities typically found in the markets of Marrakesh. Surrounding the figure like altarpiece offerings, the consumer objects are part of the subject’s identity. Brian Paumier held and faced a gun when he made the manda (“vow”) that inspired his multi-part Act of Faith, an altarpiece-like installation dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. “Act of Faith starts with a promise that was made in the heat of battle in Iraq,” explains the artist, who was serving with U.S. forces. “I asked the Virgin of Guadalupe for her help and made a pledge: ‘If you get me out of this, I will make you a manda.’”
Like the stylized figures in Christian iconography, “Pop stars—icons—in American culture are subjected to a constant mediatization, becoming objects of veneration themselves,” says R. Luke DuBois. “(Pop) Icon: Britney is an art object that considers the shifting meaning of icon (in Greek—image), the original Greek word, which was used to signify an object of veneration, a staple of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic religious art…When embroiled in scandal (as Britney so often has), the cognitive dissonance of their audience is analogous to our experience of fallen angels.” Set within an elaborate gold frame, (Pop) Icon: Britney is a multi-sensory evocation of Orthodox iconography. “Her image is stabilized and blurred, creating a constantly shifting halo or aura, around her face, reflecting back our gaze. Her voice is stripped from her songs (removing instrumental and techno-sounds for an ‘a cappella’ mix) and filtered through the reverberation of the San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna, Italy, one of the most important sites of Byzantine iconography in Western Europe.” DuBois selected Britney as the ultimate (Pop) Icon because she is just that: pure image, simulacra.
Celebrity portraits may be the most easily recognized imagery in circulation today, though their ubiquity reveals more about our cultural obsessions than about the identities of those we admire. Most viewers today will recognize Lady Gaga as the star of Robert Wilson’s video portrait more readily than the figure pictured in Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière, who was the subject of J.A.D. Ingres’s 19th-century portrait that hangs in the Louvre. While Lady Gaga accurately channels the impending mortality of the sitter (who died shortly after Ingres painted her), we will always see the contemporary pop star, whose image has been infinitely reproduced and disseminated by the expansive engine of 21st-century media, driven and fed by the public’s desire. Aligning religious belief with the worship of beauty and fame that drives consumption, and enacting an obsessive practice, Graham Dolphin appropriates an advertisement for Dior perfume, onto which he meticulously inscribes the entire Biblical text of Exodus 1-25 as a shadowy, intricate outline on an image of Charlize Theron. Jacob Heustis painstakingly transforms press portraits of heiresses and socialites in his Debutantes series by engraving on mirrors with a diamond, distilling his medium and message into a reflection of public, aspirational value. Within the facial features and biographical inscriptions, viewers see themselves implicated in the creation of the media-driven identity of Paris Hilton and others.
Social media, influencers, and “likes” have expanded the definition of celebrity, providing a platform for individuals to secure wide-reaching recognition, digital or otherwise. To create her Star Portraits series, photographer Laurel Nakadate used Facebook to invite participants with whom she had varying degrees of connection. Although the artist requested that her subjects meet her alone, often at night, in a secluded area, she received hundreds of responses, reflecting the pervasive desire to be captured on camera, resulting in a fleeting moment of fame for the willing subject. Frances Goodman’s Queen, from the series, Transmogrified, was made in 2021, and reflects the artist’s experience of heightened isolation and increased engagement with social media: “Unable to work with other people in a live environment, I turned to the social media platforms available to me,” Goodman recalls. “The extreme makeup/makeover trend – already popular even before the lockdown – rose to new heights during it because people were isolated at home with a lot of time on their hands. What appeared to start as a very niche and exclusive drag subculture moved into the mainstream.”
Politicians and athletes too, are subject to mediatization; the exponential circulation of their images online and in print reduces Obama to magazine profiles accumulated into a portrait by Robert Silvers, and stills from on-camera appearances by Condoleezza Rice fix her identity as a powerful, larger-than-life woman, a status Mickalene Thomas emphasizes by presenting her images in diptychs alongside those of mega media mogul Oprah Winfrey. An archival press photo of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is incorporated into April Bey’s mixed-media Power Girl (Incarcerated Queen), combined with references to colonialism, commerce, and Afrofuturism. The image of the young monarch appears behind fabric bars, alluding both to Elizabeth’s early, possibly reluctant, ascendance to the throne, and to the reproduction of her likeness on the currency and goods of Commonwealth nations, this portrait depicts more symbol than substance. Bey titles this series after Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther songs, which celebrate the resilience of Black women—true power girls, rather than a monarch who has inherited the exploitative legacy of colonialist practices without the power to assert individual agency, forever subject to her inherited, mediatized, celebrity status.
The media’s dual process of veneration and distortion extends to the world of sports where, like actors and musicians, athletes are both glorified and objectified. Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Roberto Guerrero’s portraits of male athletes present alternatives to the highly masculine, heteronormative realm of professional sports by subverting stereotypes and downplaying typical references to masculinity. Agbodjélou presents bodybuilders set against a colorful, patterned background holding vases of flowers; their pose recalling images from classical mythology of the three muses. Guerrero inserts gay identity where it had not been previously: here a coy, smiling, soccer player graces the cover of a sports magazine, a ball suggestively placed in the foreground. The pervasive use of drugs in the world of sports and beyond is the subject of works by Andy Diaz Hope and Felipe Barbosa. Barbosa’s Pill Ball conflates addiction to both sports and drugs and critiques the fantasy of a “magic pill” that can fix either personal or public challenges. The sacred and the secular collide and intersect in Alexandre Mazza’s If It’s Meant to Be Love, May It Brand the Soul!. In this video, a sweating, bloodied boxer persists in challenging himself over a six-hour period, performing like a devout penitent seeking salvation or transcendence. A gleaming blue basketball balances on the fingertips of the disembodied arms and hands of Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture, Faith. Painted with iridescent “chameleon auto finish paint,” the color of the work shifts and shimmers; its form and radiance illuminating the intersections of art, sports, religion, and politics.
The mystical and the mundane intertwine in the embellished costume sculptures of Nick Cave, best known for his Soundsuits series. Hustle Coat is classic trench outerwear lined with row-upon-row of glistening jewels, watches and chains, referencing the coats worn by illegal street salesmen, who offer ‘knock-offs’ of luxury, brand-name goods for a fraction of the price. An outstretched, disembodied hand proffers the Hustle Coat to the viewer, imbuing its everyday treasures with mystery. “I’m totally consumed by the special attire that has a powerful and meaningful purpose within a culture,” says Cave.
Ornamentation is a hallmark of Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of female subjects, most of whom he meets on city streets, often asking them to pose as models from art history. The elaborate hairstyles depicted in Portrait of Bintou Fall and sculpted atop the larger-than-life size bronze, Akilah Walker, reference both 18th-century royal fashion and the politicization of Black hair. Wiley first explored the symbolism of Black hair in his 1999/2000 series Conspicuous Fraud, featuring exceptionally large afros and other hair pieces. The artist utilizes hairstyles to assert the presence and power of Black female identity, while also referencing Biblical stories, such as Samson and Delilah, which have been common subjects in the art historical canon from which Wiley’s subjects have long been excluded. Inspired both by street life and scholarship, Wiley acknowledges references to both police mug shots and to 18th– and 19th-century portraiture. While both modes record the subject’s role in the world at the time of depiction, the inherent relationships between represented subject, maker, and audience are distinctly different: “One is positioned in a way that is totally outside their control, shut down and relegated to those in power,” observes the artist, “whereas those in the other are positioning themselves in states of stately grace and self-possession.”
Andy Warhol set a precedent for these combined references to depictions of society’s least and most venerated in his series of screen test shots from 1962-64, The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, which began as a parody of the New York Police Department’s “Thirteen Most Wanted” campaign. But while Warhol’s Pop Art images privilege the physical beauty of their subjects, Wiley, along with Titus Kaphar, destabilizes the conventions of both traditional portraiture and the mug shot. Kaphar says that art history served as an important catalyst for his practice: “What seemed to be obvious oversights in the canon were regularly understated, suppressed or ignored,” says the artist. Kaphar’s Destiny IV is a composite portrait of multiple incarcerated women sourced from online mugshots. These women—whose features blur and coalesce on the canvas—all share racial identifiers as well as the same name. In portraying them within a large-scale portrait whose features shift and multiply, Kaphar simultaneously alludes to the disproportionate incarceration of people of color and asserts the potential for his subjects to transcend current conditions, pursue new destinies, and be represented, as Wiley says, “in states of stately grace and self-possession”—in control of their own lives and identities.
The representation of African-American identity in advertising as well as in art is addressed in works by Sanford Biggers, Hank Willis Thomas, and Fahamu Pecou. The bright colors and blinking lights of Sanford Biggers’s Cheshire suggest carnival signs, while the form—broad red lips surrounding white teeth—alludes to the racist images of African Americans used in early 20th-century advertising. Like Wiley and Kaphar’s portraits, Fahamu Pecou’s Broken Open resists the appropriation of African-American culture and deny the erasure of African-American experience. Inspired by #BlackLivesMatter, a simple hashtag that symbolizes an ongoing movement, Pecou’s painting attempts to reorient the angst and despair experienced by Black Americans by emphasizing beauty, strength, and resilience in this rock-star-like figure.
The media’s under- and misrepresentation of people of color is the subject of works by Derrick Adams, Deborah Roberts, and Van Hoang. Using the flat, saturated colors of Pop Art, Adams’s Floater series mixes the imagery of advertising and portraiture to illustrate Black people at leisure—a topic rarely depicted in art history or commercial reproduction. Roberts explains that her collages of young Black girls are in part a response to the lack of advertisements and television shows featuring Black females: “To me, Black beauty has always been put on the back burner.” She notes, “If you’re eight, nine, and ten, and all of the images of beauty that you see on TV and ads are white faces, then where does your beauty lie? And how does that challenge you?” Roberts’s polymorphic figures suggest a multiplicity of identities and potential, as does Van Hoang’s monumental After Angela, inspired by the iconic civil rights activist, Angela Davis. The artist notes, “The work is not a portrait of the living breathing woman, Angela Davis. Rather, it is a look at just what the title suggests—a modern black female, today, after much of the defining work of Davis and her counterparts (of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement) has transpired. What are our expectations for this girl? Who constructed them? Are they attainable?”
The longing for celebrity status affects institutions as well as individuals. Olivier Blanckart critiques the aspirational culture of the art world in his life-sized sculpture of Madonna, posed mid-performance, with one black boot on a trampoline, which bears an image of Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, one of the most famous works in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. This painting was considered radical when it was created in 1907: the five nude women are depicted as Cubist forms with faces resembling Iberian and African masks, and the title is the name of a Spanish brothel. Blanckart tweaks the title of Madonna’s 1986 hit pop song, “Papa Don’t Preach” to MoMA Don’t Preach, in reference to that institution’s role in shaping the canon—and effectively preaching a Euro-centric gospel. This contemporary work subverts the status of Picasso’s masterpiece, and by implication, the authority of the institution to determine what constitutes fine art.
Glowing green and yellow with the neon of commercial signage, Brendan Fernandes’s 1979.541.7 is entitled in the format of an institutional accession number, indicating that this work also addresses museum practices and power structures. One of a series, the artist explains that it “explores the dissemination of Western notions of an exotic Africa through the symbolic economy of ‘African’ masks sold on Canal Street, and on the streets outside museums in New York, such as the Whitney and the Metropolitan. The work plays on their contrasting relationship to the masks on display in the museums themselves, examining the authenticity of these objects (the souvenirs on the street and the artefacts in museum collections) through pulsating neon masks. The pulsating neons seem to be trying to communicate with the outside world. Their pulses silently spell out, in Morse code, questions about their own provenance, asking: ‘who is the Master of Buli? Where is the Master of Buli? Is there a Master of the Buli?’, in reference to an unknown artist who is listed on multiple works in the archives of the Met. How little is known about this figure, and the possibility that the figure himself may be an invention of the museum system, highlights issues in provenance and inequities in the practices of Western collections.” A related series of NFT works (non-fungible tokens) entitled Souvenir, extend the artist’s investigation of authenticity, appropriation, and the spiritual origins of West African masquerade, into the newest digital arena in which popular culture is being created and consumed.
– Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director