Moving Pictures

Robert Wilson's cutting-edge portraits bring something new to the frame.

Observing viewers engaging Robert Wilson's sensational series of high-definition video portraits at the Bass Museum of Art was akin to watching a pet dog discovering its own image in a mirror for the first time.

People stood transfixed in front of the celebrity and animal portraits before reeling back with astonishment when the works came alive.

Robert Wilson's William Pope L.: Burger King's new ad campaign sure is different.
Robert Wilson's William Pope L.: Burger King's new ad campaign sure is different.

"VOOM PORTRAITS Robert Wilson" features 26 moving images on large-scale HD plasma flat-screens, including Macaulay Culkin, Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, Isabella Rossellini, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt.

They also depict a frog, a panther, a sheep dog, and an auto mechanic who looks a lot like one of those backwoods supporters of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign (you know, the hard-working white ones).

Better known for iconic theater productions such as Einstein on the Beach, with Philip Glass, and The Black Rider, with William S. Burroughs and Tom Waits, Wilson literally rewrites the law book on portraiture, using HD technology with theatrical razzmatazz. Each work boasts an original musical score, often by performers with whom Wilson has collaborated in the past.

In 2004, he began working as an artist-in-residence for VOOM HD Networks, a U.S.-based television provider devoted to high-def TV. Wilson often takes months to develop and produce these pieces in an elaborate process that includes set design, lighting, makeup, and costumes. The resulting portraits, notable for their tantalizing clarity, blur the lines between photography, literature, film, and sound — with poetic effect.

The works are scattered across several galleries, hallways, and nooks; one is even isolated in the museum's café.

At first blush, you might think they are still images, until the figures begin to move.

Inside the Bass cafeteria, Scottish actor Alan Cummings is decked out as a spacey Kabuki character in drag. He poses atop a white fur carpet, wearing a rumpled black and white tie-dyed kimono and platform lace-up sandals. A platinum Carol Channing fright wig and what appears to be a poof of pink cotton candy crowns his head.

As music by Michael Galasso wafts through the air, Cummings bats a single fake eyelash that looks like a black coral twig. Slowly he moves his hand from behind his back to reveal a Reese's peanut butter cup. In one fell swoop, he stuffs the candy into his ruby lipstick-smeared puss.

Across a hall, Wilson gives French actress Jeanne Moreau the role of Mary Queen of Scots. Accompanied by Beethoven, she cuts her eyes at the spectator while Wilson intones, "Mary said what she said."

On an adjacent wall, actor Peter Stormare is suspended upside down against a blue background. A lance hovers over his heart as a knight's armored fist plunges a dagger into his eye. As the blade saws into the Swede's bearded face, one hears a door slamming, a bug zapper, and violins.

Both of these works are juxtaposed against ornately framed classic oil paintings of European countesses and earls and an old-fangled portrait of Austrian emperor Kaiser Franz Joseph I, which are part of the museum's "Splendor in the Bass" show.

The contrast is startling and drives home the freshness and intricate vision of Wilson's high-tech canvases.

Another work steamrolling traditional imagery is the portrait of Robert Downey Jr., in which the actor lies on a dissection table, posed as the corpse in Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

Downey's left arm is skinned open to reveal muscles and tendons as a physician uses hemostats to pluck at the sinew. While Tom Waits's voice is heard croaking, "It can't possibly hurt; all they will find is my beard and my shirt," Downey's chest slightly heaves and his eyes pop open.

The bulk of the exhibition is located on the museum's second floor, where a few curating flaws hinder the show's flow.

First, none of the 19 works is identified with wall text. Upon guests' entering the museum, a receptionist provides a handout with information printed on both sides of one page. One side features an architectural drawing of the space with a number indicating corresponding works. The other side shows an indiscernible image of each portrait along with its title. The flyer intends to make navigating the upstairs gallery easy, but fails.

Also, the gallery is blacked out like a theater to heighten the impact of the works, which makes reading the handout nearly impossible, unless you hold it against the glow of Wilson's pieces — risking rebukes from museum guards.

During a recent visit, several spectators were left scratching their heads and frequently asking the guards to give a brief tour and identify the works. One of the guards threw up her arms and grudgingly obliged.

The technical nature of the show also created some speed bumps. Portraits of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Macaulay Culkin began sputtering before fizzing out.

Annoying quibbles aside, Wilson more than sweeps viewers along on his magic carpet ride.

His portrait of Dita Von Teese captures the burlesque performer as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Clad only in stockings, bubblegum-pink rhinestone pasties, and pumps, the luscious brunette blinks at the sky to the plaintive warble of Ethel Merman. On an opposing wall, a slobbering mutt seems to pant his approval.

One of Wilson's most surreal images on display is the picture of William Pope L., a.k.a. "The Friendliest Black Artist in America."

The writer and performance artist lies prone on a manicured lawn, sporting skivvies and combat boots. His body is covered in pancake makeup and a crown jauntily rests on his dome. He regally holds up an egg in one hand as a plush toy lamb sits on the grass near his crotch. As one waits for some movement, the lamb suddenly puckers up and bleats, "Mary had a little me," in the subject's own voice. Like many of Wilson's gemlike miniproductions, it's good for a belly roll.

Two works that also elicit laughs are the portraits of Brad Pitt and Steve Buscemi.

Pitt is seen in his boxer shorts as he stands against a brick wall in a downpour. When the rain stops lashing him, the actor slowly raises a water gun at the spectator and crows, "Ready or not, here I come," while squirting away.

Buscemi shows up in a white coat and tie and a bloody lab apron. Chewing gum and tapping his toes, he leans over a slab of raw meat.

If I had to choose a favorite portrait, it would be that of Norman Paul Fleming, a grease monkey wearing a mustard-hued plaid shirt, overalls, and plenty of grit under his fingernails. Sitting at a wooden table, sporting sunken cheeks and red-rimmed eyes, the mechanic exudes an American Gothic vibe. As the tinkle of piano ivories emanates from the image, the Clintonian prole seems to teeter from side to side.

And not unlike the New York senator's evaporating presidential chances, Wilson reminds us that if he had his way, those throwback approaches to painting might soon fade too.

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