Spitting Images: A Brush With 'Celebrity'

Matthieu Laurette drops celebrity look-alikes into real-life galas, then films unsuspecting partygoers' reaction to the pseudo-stars.
Matthieu Laurette drops celebrity look-alikes into real-life galas, then films unsuspecting partygoers' reaction to the pseudo-stars. (Numark Gallery)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 4, 2005

Aparty isn't a fabuganza until Us Weekly's cover subject shows up. So contends the Paris- and New York-based media artist Matthieu Laurette in his pair of short films on view this month thanks to Numark Gallery and the French-American Cultural Foundation. Like the programming on the E! cable channel, the works screen all day and all night (when Numark is closed, they are visible through the front windows) for our nonstop celeb-spotting enjoyment.

Here's what's on view: Footage of glitzy folks schmoozing at a party for the Dia Art Foundation in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. We're pretty sure we glimpse Robert De Niro, Bette Midler, Howard Stern and other A- and B-listers. All are trailed by paparazzi . Laurette's jittery camera flits from one patch of stardom to the next, recording his quarry alongside art-crowd preeners and poseurs.

When not picking out faces in the crowd, I wondered what distinguished Laurette's art from, say, "Entertainment Tonight." Something had to be up. I began to question whether that really was Howard Stern. Come to think of it, his nose looked too small.

Yet I was positive that I recognized Michael Govan, Dia's president and director. If he's for real, then Stern is, too. Right?

Busted. Laurette set me up. If I'd known the film's title beforehand -- and I'm glad I didn't -- I would have known that the artist hired impersonators to mingle with authentic creative folk for the seven-minute "Deja vu: The 7th International Look-Alike Convention at DIA's Fall Gala (Making of)." Govan (real) and Lou Reed (real) hobnobbed with gala guests (real) who (really) were kept in the dark about the ruse. Like me, the guests took a while to figure out that "De Niro" (played by ringer Joseph Manuella) and his celebrity posse were impostors.

(A shorter film screening alongside the Dia piece, "Deja vu: The 2nd International Look-Alike Convention at Castello di Rivoli (Making of)," loses its power to bamboozle when Marilyn Monroe shows up.)

Placing counterfeit personalities alongside real ones exposes celebophilia as efficiently as a psychology experiment. I had taken one person, Govan, as a measure of the entire group -- a bad idea but a common brain mnemonic. And the Dia guests weren't much better: When perceived stars walked in, backs straightened. Heads nodded. Whispers began. Once I was in on the joke, watching the nobodies and the sorta-somebodies react to the "celebs" was a stitch.

The Dia film plays a brilliant, if embarrassing, trick on all of us. Laurette exposes our hunger for celebrity, our lust for glamour and the media's role in stoking those appetites. A media hijacker of a high order, the artist is a prankster with a message. Over the years he's staged online projects that link to the authentic Web sites of government and businesses, and he's held numerous events like the Dia gala spoof. Every time, he superimposes his "event" onto another event to link false reality to authentic reality. Whatever that is.

Two New Group Shows

We're four days into August and group show season is well underway. At Strand on Volta, three photographers play on Italy's legacy of landscape and portrait painting. At the JET Artworks show, works don't revolve around a particular theme, but the creators share a quirky vision.

Strand's airy "Rate of Exchange" brings together three artists who recently returned from Italy. Ken Ashton's photographs make a country renowned for its unspoiled vistas look a lot like anywhere else; he is sure to interrupt a bucolic scene with a utility pole. Chan Chao presents three closely cropped portraits of anxious-looking women backlit by ethereal white light. I like the juxtaposition of heavenly light -- the kind lifted off an Italian altarpiece -- with less-than-beatific faces.

You could call E. Brady Robinson's multipanel photo installation travelogue impressionism. Shot from inside a bus, the images catch reflections of passengers as well as fleeting images of the countryside. Robinson's wall of ethereal images collapses boundaries between inside and out.

At JET, artist Jason Robert Bell raises some boundary issues of his own. He stationed a curious sculpture -- I confess I thought it was a child's toy -- just outside the gallery as part of his ongoing "Trashures Project," which aims to defy distinctions between public and private.

Also at JET, Swedish photographer Knut Hybinette poses his parents in tableaux relating to Nordic myth and folklore. What emerges isn't a strict retelling of tales, but a visual metaphor for role reversals that happen when children must take care of their aging parents. That sounds maudlin, but the pictures aren't. Perhaps inevitably, an Oedipal current bubbles up when Hybinette includes himself in the picture.

Two painters are also on view. Emily Lambert makes naive-style paintings and drawings with an infectious oddness and a great sense of color. Many star a heroine with Betty Boop eyes in hallucinogenic landscapes. Matthew Arnold makes shaped paintings riffing on anatomical models and drawings you'd find at the doctor's office: a uterus here, an ear canal there. They're eye-catching at first, but their thrill fades.

Matthieu Laurette at Numark Gallery, 625-27 E St. NW, 202-628-3810, Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., films screen continuously when gallery is closed, to Aug. 19.

"Rate of Exchange" at Strand on Volta, 1531 33rd St. NW, 202-333-4663, Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m., to Aug. 20.

Group show at JET Artworks, 2108 R St. NW, 202-232-4407, Tuesday-Saturday noon-5 p.m., to Aug. 13.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company