Art House, Santa Fe
August 10, 2018 – ongoing
Why is it no one looks? Why is it no one knows how to look? —Robert Wilson
Eye Contact is a small exhibition of three works: a Spanish Colonial painting by Andrés Solano of a wealthy landowner’s wife, an interactive digital piece by Daniel Rozin, and a video by Robert Wilson featuring Lady Gaga. As a group, the three pieces don’t cohere, but there is a center of gravity and it rests within Wilson’s video, which takes command of the space.
Wilson is one of the foremost international artists of the last half century, perhaps best known for his collaboration with the composer Philip Glass on the opera Einstein on the Beach. Besides being an experimental theater director, he is a performer, sculptor, painter, and video artist, and if you could define Wilson in as few words as possible you might describe him as an extraordinary pusher of boundaries.
Even though Wilson’s video piece with Lady Gaga at Art House has been taken out of its original context—and for all intents and purposes has had its intention skewed—this work is a stunning, mysterious, and melancholy meditation on death. Wilson’s video recreation of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s portrait of Caroline Rivière, from 1806, was originally part of a quartet of videos—all featuring Lady Gaga—where three of the works are based on paintings in the Louvre. As a guest curator at the Louvre in 2013, Wilson chose for his video collaboration with Lady Gaga three famous paintings: Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, from 1806, Andrea Solario’s Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, from 1507, plus the Ingres portrait. To see how Wilson both meticulously re-created the paintings using the pop star icon and brought them to other levels of philosophical consideration is to begin to understand the true depths of Postmodernism and its addiction to appropriation—not to mention Postmodernism’s wide flirtation with the death of painting, the death of the author, and the death of representation itself.
On the other hand, when an artist such as Wilson explores the concept of “the gaze” as an act of radical artistic will, the very idea of academic representation is reborn into the digital age, while losing none of its addiction to the beauty of surfaces—even as beauty is wed to mortality. Ingres’s portrait of Mademoiselle Rivière was in part his attempt to take visual possession of the ravishing teenager Caroline in all her youthful radiance. She, alas, would not survive the year in which she was painted.
In a masterful feat of reenactment, Lady Gaga assumes Caroline Rivière’s clothes, her pose, her hairdo, and her long, white fur boa in a setting that is, in fact, a computer-generated copy of the landscape against which Ingres painted Caroline. One thing that Wilson does add, however, is the swan in flight that moves slowly from right to left across the sky above Lady Gaga’s head. The flight of the enigmatic swan serves to emphasize that Wilson’s portrait belongs in the category of moving images. When the viewer really studies Wilson’s video portrait, although Lady Gaga appears to be uncannily still, there are tiny increments of movement: her jeweled earrings tremble; her arm shifts ever so slightly; there are the faintest of quivers in her body; and then there are Lady Gaga’s heavy-lidded eyes, mostly open, but occasionally they close, and from one eye a large tear falls and rolls down her cheek in a mesmerizing sign of inner life.
I recommend looking on the web for the whole series that Wilson created for the Louvre with Lady Gaga as his model and muse. Seeing Wilson’s use of Lady Gaga’s head as the head of John the Baptist is quite astonishing. And her incarnation of Jean-Paul Marat, one of the heroes of the French Revolution, murdered in his bath, is a mind-bending two-way mirror—a contemporary Postmodern re-presentation of an image that looks through time at a tragic representation of its own twin self.