The relationship between a portrait artist and a sitter is always loaded, but it's even more strangely skewed through the lens of modern celebrity. An Italian Renaissance or English Baroque painter began with the human experience of a direct encounter with the subject. Today, an artist begins with the fractured experience of an image forged through the shifting kaleidoscope of mass media, then layers in a direct encounter afterward.
In "Amy Adler Photographs Leonardo DiCaprio," the young Los Angeles artist pictures her superstar contemporary in a manner at once forthright and remote, immediate and detached. DiCaprio seems there and not-there, both a presence and an absence. The same goes for Amy Adler. Not since Warhol has an artist figured out how to vivify so well the debased mass-media imagery of a movie star, turning it to illuminating ends. Appropriately, the six large Cibachrome prints at the UCLA Hammer Museum have been given an elegant installation in a gallery that recalls the apse of a chapel. They derive from a photo shoot the artist arranged with the actor last year, when both were living in London. Adler photographed DiCaprio, as is her method, and then made pastel drawings from the photographs. Next she photographed the drawings. Finally she destroyed the original photographs and the pastels. The photographs of the drawings are displayed at the Hammer, putting us at a remove of several steps from the initial encounter.
Adler's process shuffles the established deck of artistic values. The sense of privilege once accorded to a portrait drawing can't accrue to a celebrity snapshot, which is inherently mundane. By tearing up the drawings and the snaps, Adler acknowledges the dissipation of their power in media culture, but she also acknowledges the power of art by turning them into a singular photographic suite. Art is her trump card
The result is visually odd and conceptually poignant. The six pictures are like an old-fashioned film-strip. The actor, illuminated from the side, looks down, looks up, glances back, tilts his head to speak, covers his eyes (and a sheepish grin) with one hand and then squints, Vermeer-like, toward the unseen light source (a window?). The implication of a narrative emerges--call it a silent picture--and it reinforces yet another story.
Sequestered within these images is the narrative of their making. You can see right away that they're glossy photographs, while the crosshatched pastel markings, generalized surface planes and simplified palette also immediately reveal that they're pictures of drawings. The encounter between artist and sitter expands in time, becoming a subject. Thoughtful reflection replaces the photographic myth of a decisive moment when the shutter clicks. These photographs don't pretend to be a transparent pipeline to movie-star essence; they announce their distance.
DiCaprio is casually dressed in an open dark shirt and a white T-shirt, while the bust-length compositions and his relaxed demeanor suggest an easygoing rapport with the artist. He's up close and personal. But, like any portrait subject, he's still inaccessible. The layers of experience are what distinguish these pictures from publicity stills or other camera images. That doesn't make them more truthful, only more compelling. Making photographic portraits of drawings, Adler touches a deep nerve about the nature of identity in a world of mass media.
"Amy Adler Photographs Leonardo DiCaprio," UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood