What happens when we see a picture of a celebrity?
Are they asserting authority over us, by their ability to capture and hold our attention? Or is it the public that has all the power in that exchange: to decide who deserves our gaze, to assign the label of “celebrity” as we see fit?
“Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze,” a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, wrestles with these ideas. Most of the 53 works on display have never been publicly displayed before. They cover all media: video portraits, paintings, sculpture, photographs, prints, drawings.
As curator Dorothy Moss explained by phone, the curatorial team and senior historian David Ward “had been thinking a lot about what it means to be a celebrity at this current moment, and how important it is for all of us to be thinking critically about this constantly shifting and changing category called ‘celebrity’ in the age of social media,” said Moss. These are individuals “who have made a significant impact on the history and culture in the U.S., and think about how they have a staying power in our history.”
So those kinds of questions have been on her mind for a while, and she hopes visitors confront them, too. “Who is looking at who? Who is controlling the image? What role do we play in the status of these people, and to what extent do we shape their image, and to what extent are they in control? In the case of fine art portraiture, what role does the artist play?”
There’s no sense of a celebrity hierarchy here: Sonia Sotomayor and Michelle Obama share real estate with Brad Pitt and Michael Phelps. Diane von Furstenburg’s portrait, a massive painting, nearly reaches from the ceiling to the floor; Barbra Streisand’s pop-art-style profile is practically a postage stamp inside an expanse of blank space. Some individuals are seen in a context that feels natural, like the simple, black and white photograph of Serena Williams, eyes aimed at a horizon we can’t see. Others are presented anew, crafted in unexpected ways. A double portrait by Mickalene Thomas of Oprah Winfrey and Condolezza Rice, titled “Where Ends Meet,” depicts these iconic faces almost entirely in rhinestones. Oprah’s smile sparkles like she’s in a toothpaste commercial.
Some celebrities are empowered in image with what they are denied in life. Michael J. Fox has a stillness in his photograph; Peter Dinklage’s image is blown up so he is, literally, larger than he is in life. “In those two cases, there’s a sense that the subject is in control, and we are able to stand in front of them and see them as human,” said Moss. “We’re able to look right in their eyes, and they are definitely in control. It gives us a chance to consider the way their identity has been shaped either through disability or disease, but they’re still in control, and they’re still the ones who we are looking up to.”
“What we’re really doing is looking across fields and considering the spectrum of celebrity,” said Moss. “We’re showing some people who are recognizable worldwide, like Katy Perry, and others who may not be as recognizable, someone like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who we know through Google but we don’t really see their faces across media.” Brin and Page are shown through video clips from interviews — obtained, of course, through Google — as a real-time Google search of the words they say plays out on an adjacent screen.
“Eye Pop” is also an invitation “to think critically about the way celebrities can rise and fall, like Britney Spears, whose portrait by Luke DuBois takes a critical look at her celebrity status through the lens of a religious icon,” said Moss. “He’s framed her generative portrait in gold, so you see footage from her various videos streamed together [inside of a] gilded frame.” Spears’ eyes stay in the same spot on the screen as her videos play, so her body shifts across the screen but her gaze remains the same.
In the main hall, photographs of artists and athletes line the walls, and you can pick up on a disconcerting theme: there’s a real murderer’s row of men accused of committing or glorifying violence against women: Floyd Mayweather, Kobe Bryant, Eminem.
“It’s something we think about,” Moss said. “But people rise and fall. People make mistakes. We have portraits of people in the collection who have certainly fallen in the public eye, but that’s part of history. So we don’t hide from that, we’re not celebrating that, we’re telling the story of reality. That’s why they’re there.”
The exhibit engages with the nature of celebrity — whether it is something to admire or criticize — but does not question the importance of the individuals on display. Fame, then, isn’t seen as a disqualifying factor in the race to be taken seriously or considered relevant, even legendary. “Everything that we do at the National Portrait Gallery is rooted and grounded in history,” said Moss. “So to put these celebrities, in this current moment, in the context of history, is important because it gives us a chance to think critically about the present in light of history, and to hopefully stir some intergenerational dialogues about what it means to be a celebrity right now.”
“Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze” is on display at the National Portrait Gallery through July 10, 2016.