“(Pop) Icon: Britney” (2010) by R. Luke DuBois (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — At the foot of the stairs leading down into the main gallery space of the 21c Museum Hotel Louisville hangs a kinetic digital portrait of pop star Britney Spears in an ornately gilded frame. The video sequence “(Pop) Icon: Britney” (2010) by R. Luke DuBois cycles through still captures from music videos throughout Spears’s decades-long pop canon, isolating her face and aligning the digital fragments so that her eyes remain fixed throughout. As she gazes out at the viewer, all of her other features morph, capturing moments in a time-warp through the creative output of a meteoric and scandal-laden career.

The piece forms an ideal thesis statement for the expansive exhibition Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art, which explores the imagery of fantasy and celebrity culture reframed in the visual semiotics of religious iconography. Celebrities of all stripes have always enjoyed elevated status, visibility, and mass adoration to some extent or another, but as the culture ever trends toward the projection and worship of images, this status has become tantamount to pantheism.

21c Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites contemplates a portrait of Paris Hilton etched into the surface of a mirror, “Paris Whitney Houston” (2013) by Jacob Heustis, part of his Debutantes series.

“This is a show that [21c co-founder and collector] Steve Wilson and I have been talking about for many years, looking at the prevalence of artwork that addresses popular culture in the collection,” said 21c Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites. Though a version of the exhibition inaugurated at the museum’s new Durham location, 21c Louisville is presenting Pop Stars! in its largest iteration, filling nearly all 9,000-square-feet of gallery space.

Main gallery, installation view

“Many things were acquired for this exhibition, because we wanted to examine the shift that has taken place in art, where there is no longer a real distinction between the popular and the fine, because artists are looking directly at popular culture to examine compelling and powerful issues,” said Stites.

Stites references the writings of critic and professor Arthur Danto, whose writing prominently grappled with the conceptual issues being raised by then-emerging Pop artist Andy Warhol. Indeed, many of the smaller galleries flanking the main room present works in direct conversation with the Pop artists who began exploring this inextricable connection between fine art and pop culture. There is a trio of Lichtenstein takeoffs by Greg Gossel, a rather double-take inducing conglomerate image of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and a series of works by Lisa Alonzo, who uses pastry chef tools to render images of commercial beverages, like Diet Coke and Red Bull, as well as a gun in gaudily decorative rosettes and flourishes.

Three works by Greg Gossel: “Like It or Not” (2009), “Sinking” (2009), and “What A Mistake” (2009)

Lisa Alonzo, “The Gun in Roses #44” (2014)

The works that most powerfully and literally present celebrities as the modern religious icons are found in the vaulted main gallery. Graham Dolphin obsessively fills iconic album covers with fields of minuscule writing in white ink, leaving them abraded and presenting Bible verses and other messages in a manner that is both visible and subliminal (another work in the upstairs gallery fills in the shadows of a Dior perfume poster with the full text of Exodus 1-25). There are numerous portraits that interpose celebrities and fine art, such Robert Wilson’s video portrait of Lady Gaga as a stand-in for Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière from a 19th-century portrait of the same name by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

“Lady Gaga: Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere” (2013), Robert Wilson’s portrait of Lady Gaga after “Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière”

A number of artworks explore our paradoxical deification of sports stars, even as we require the sacrifice of their bodies, such as “Se é pra ser amor, que marque a alma! (If It’s Meant to Be Love, May It Brand the Soul!)” (2016) by Brazilian artist Alexandre Mazza, a video portrait and endurance performance shot over hours of a boxer; and “The Ascension” (2016) by Titus Kaphar, which elides Michael Jordan’s figure from an action painting of him dunking, and fills in the negative space with imagery of a crucified Christ from Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Descent from the Cross.”

The concept of martyrdom is perhaps most powerfully expressed in a graphic work by T.J. Wilcox, “Jackie on Skorpios” (2007), which presents tabloid imagery of Jackie Kennedy Onassis nude, sunbathing aboard the yacht of her second husband, Aristotle Onassis. Rumor suggests that her husband, jealous of the adoration garnered by his wife’s media image, informed the press where she would be recreating, enabling the nude footage that created international scandal. Wilcox represented this betrayal as a dagger superimposed over the blown-up photograph, aimed at her heart. Fame, as any saint or celebrity can tell you, comes at a price.

Graham Dolphin’s intervention into a Charlize Theron ad for Dior, “Dior Exodus (Chapters 1-25)” (2007), detail view

Pop Stars! is an expansive show, and taps into the zeitgeist of celebrity obsession and commercial ambition. At times, the themes feel a little too multitudinous — many of these works are brutally impactful, and, in tapping themes of worship, seem to want a little more room for the viewer to meditate upon them. The show might’ve done well to afford the viewer just a little more space for the quiet reflection that is the traditional mien of the religious experience.

Titus Kaphar, “Ascension” (2016)

Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art continues at the 21c Museum Hotel (Louisville, Ky) through March 2018.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...