One of the Milli Vanilli duo painting with another painting in the background. (screenshot by the author)

One of the Milli Vanilli duo painting in the “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” video, with another painting in the background (screenshot by the author)

This week, a new opera devoted to the bizarre tale of pop duo Milli Vanilli, WOW (aka Work-In-Progress), will conclude its short two-week run. Focused on the almost mythic story of rise, deceit, betrayal, and fall — not to mention accidental death and some redemption — that we’ve come to expect of all legends, the opera focuses on one particularly interesting aspect of the duo’s “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” video from 1989, in which one of the pair is portrayed as an artist.

A screenshot of Milli Vanilli painting on glass combined and contrasted with iconic images of Pollock and Picasso painting on glass.

A screenshot of Milli Vanilli painting on glass combined and contrasted with iconic images of Pollock and Picasso painting on glass.

The mythology of the artist in this scene is clear. He paints on glass, which evokes the famous Hans Namuth film of art legend Jackson Pollock or the short film of Picasso doing the same, he walks through the scene of his art opening, all the lore of modern art creation is in place. If the Milli Vanilli opera, which was created by Joe Diebes, Christian Hawkey, and David Levine, focuses on this aspect, it is primarily to emphasize how the myth of the creator is manufactured, appropriated, and manipulated, but there’s more to the story … and we found out through an unlikely source: Instagram.

A view of the WOW art exhibition (courtesy Rebecca Uchill's Instagram feed)

A view of the WOW art exhibition (courtesy Rebecca Uchill’s Instagram feed)

After visiting the opening of the associated exhibition for WOW at the new BRIC center in downtown Brooklyn, I posted an image of the Milli Vanilli “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” video painting on my personal Instagram feed. A few hours later, user @richardjacobs1 (aka Richard Jacobs) identified himself as the artist behind the paintings in the video. I was in disbelief.

I reached out to David Levine, one of the opera’s co-creators, who confirmed what I suspected, that the organizers had thought the paintings were created for the video shoot and not part of an established body of work by a real artist. I asked Levine to explain the concept behind his operatic tribute to the duo and what he made of this new development:

“Rob and Fab somehow wound up at the center of this crazy vortex of contract work, appropriation, and re-attribution that wound its way from Munich to to London to Boston, before finally touching down in LA and leaving them there, exposed, battered, and perplexed. The way Milli Vanilli and their videos were produced is no different from the way any pop or any art is produced (session musicians, songwriters, fabricators, studio assistants), yet something about this band, these guys, this era, all the subcontracting arrangements malfunction so that the primary artist always seems to be in the wings, waiting to be discovered. It takes so many people to engineer a Miley Cyrus twerking controversy, and yet, at the end of the day, she gets all the credit. We assumed the painting was just a set dresser’s inspiration, but I guess it was inevitable, given who we’re dealing with, that at the end of the day someone was going to come forward and say, ‘That was my Yale thesis show.’

Paint-syncing, lip-syncing — that Pollock/Namuth reference in this video — there’s something about the MV machine’s entire attitude towards production and attribution that’s so casual, so cheerfully fictitious, that it actually makes attempts to equate value with authorship look dull. When you can make discoveries like this over Instagram, why would you want to oversimplify things to the point where the singer in the video is the singer on the record?”

The Milli Vanilli recreations in the WOW opera exhibition. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Milli Vanilli re-creations in the WOW opera exhibition. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

I later spoke to Andrea Merkx, who was the driving force for the art show in the opera, and she explained the basis for the exhibition:

“The exhibition is really based on two stills from the music video — the image of the gallerist was painted by three artists, Cy Amundson, Paul Jacobsen, and Peter LaBier. The image of face was stripes was recreated by one artist team, Sean Joseph, Patrick Carney, and Michael Welsh, while the larger painting of the face with stripes was painted by Amanda Beroza Friedman.”

The news seemed to be, like the duo’s real story, strange, and I finally spoke to Richard Jacobs, whose work is featured in the video. What was unusual about his story was that he admitted to me that he had never seen the music video until this month.

Richard Jacobs with his Yale MFA triptych in the 1980s. (image courtesy the artist)

Richard Jacobs with his Yale MFA triptych in the 1990s (image courtesy the artist)

Jacobs explained that he still has the painting in the video, which, he said was his MFA thesis show triptych wall at Yale. He’s not particularly proud of that phase of his work, he said, but the work did help him get nominated for a Luce Scholarship to Bali which, he says, “changed my life”:

I don’t remember much about the circumstances of the video, but I may be able to track down some info. I was showing in Boston at the time and they told me that a pop band needed a painting with a girl for a music video. The videographer was very hot in the Rick Ocasek (The Cars) Boston music scene. I told them I only had one painting that was not totally abstract, and had a huge Medieval Princess face in it. I can’t remember at this late night moment where I appropriated the face from, but it looks Flemish. I remember the video dude freaked over it, but I was not at the shoot.

The original painting (left) contrasted with the recreations. (collage by Richard Jacobs)

The original painting (left) contrasted with the re-creations. (image by Richard Jacobs)

A day or two passed and Jacobs finally watched the video and remembered more about the whole Boston incident:

I just googled the video and the memories flooded back. I checked out my scrapbook from Boston in the ’90s and I was able to date it to March 1990. There was no internet then so you had to watch MTV for hours to see a video, and I lived in an artist studio loft with no TV.

I remember they pitched it to me like a screenplay of an artist who falls in love with a gallery girl. They borrowed the triptych and you can see parts of it during the fake art studio scenes where he is splashing paint on canvas’s and through glass.

But that is just the beginning … I was an emerging artist in Boston having my first one person show at Howard Yezerski Gallery. I remember now that they rented and closed the gallery for a day during the show to shoot those scenes of my show. I do not think I was invited to that shoot … I don’t have any of the paintings because they sold, but one is in the DeCordova collection, and another in the Rose Museum at Brandeis University I think. I am not particularly fond of that stage of my work when I was over pushing decorative elements, but I guess it fits the theme!

I am embarrassed to say that story continues … I vaguely remember they commissioned me to do that portrait of the gallery girl for the video. I think I whipped it off in a day from a photo they gave me. Thank God they burned it on the beach at the end! I think I had to agree it was OK to burn it.

This is all very funny now, and I am surprised how catchy the tune is, but I remember being conflicted about lending my work for a band I did not like, and then being somewhat horrified to be associated with them after the scandalous outing of their fakeness.

If this new development shines a light on anything about the story of Milli Vanilli, it’s that the pop group was a collage of the world around them. Speaking to Levine during the night of the WOW art opening, he emphasized that the group spoke to their audience because they seemed to challenge perceptions of race, sex, gender, success, and more. If the duo mirrored one another, they also held up a mirror to their audience and their anxieties about art, music, and life. The deceit and myth of Milli Vanilli seems to evolve.
The painting the video crew commissioned from Richard Jacobs, and appears in the "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" video, and later is burned. (screenshots by the author)

The painting the video crew commissioned from Richard Jacobs, which appears in the “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” video and later is burned. (screenshots by the author)

“I think that this, in a way, hasn’t changed the story very much for us,” says Merkx. “Obviously there was someone out there whose works were used for this kind of very thin pop production, and I think more than anything we’re just relieved that he is named, instead of being a kind of unknown and random element lost at sea — it’s really amazing for us to hear the story of the works … or even that they had a story.”

WOW (Work-In-Progress) continues at BRIC Arts I Media House (647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through Saturday, February 1.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.