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Kota Ezawa: The Crime of Art (Hollywood Edition) installation view, Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica, CA, 2018 (all images courtesy the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica)

SANTA MONICA — Kota Ezawa calls himself a “visual DJ,” because remixing music has become more socially acceptable than appropriating images in art. “The scandal of appropriation has changed,” Ezawa said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Nobody works out of thin air. Everybody works with something.”

Ezawa turned to art crimes as his subject in 2015. It all began when he recreated the 13 masterpieces stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the unsolved 1990 theft (worth $500 million in artworks) and restaged the surveillance footage of the two men disguised as Boston police officers. “The subject of thieving is a bit self-referential because in the eyes of some people my work is image theft,” Ezawa said. He emphasizes that “artists are close to outlaws” — “the breaking of laws comes naturally to an art project because we want to break the boundaries.” 

Kota Ezawa, “The Crime of Art” (2017) (still), three-channel video, color, sound dimensions variable, edition of five

In his exhibition The Crime of Art (Hollywood Edition) at Christopher Grimes Gallery, Ezawa appropriates art heist scenes from famous Hollywood films: the theft of a Monet painting in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), a Rembrandt in Entrapment (1999), a Cellini in How to Steal a Million (1966), and an emerald encrusted dagger in Topkapi (1964). Using his iconic cartoon-like style, he recreates the crime scenes in video animations but leaves the original artworks as they appear in the original movies, rather than using rotoscoping. In this unexpected reversal of fiction and reality, the artworks stand out as real but everything else in the video is repackaged as a fiction.

Ezawa also remixes sound clips from the original movies to create a soundtrack that has no beginning or end. The three-screen projections have no required viewing time, much like contemplating an artwork that doesn’t have a linear narrative.

Kota Ezawa: The Crime of Art (Hollywood Edition) installation view, Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

In a small back room, behind a curtain, are two light boxes. For these, Ezawa recreated Edvard Munch’s The Scream” to scale, versions of which were stolen in 1994 and 2004, and Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which was appropriated by the Nazi regime in 1938 and later repatriated to the Bloch-Bauer family in 2006. These light boxes are lit from behind by LEDs, illuminating the ways in which famous art can be reduced to kitsch in consumer culture; they recall the poorly copied images sold as souvenirs.

Art thefts are particularly fascinating because their motive is not always clear — masterpieces cannot be sold, except on a black market, and although a fee can be charged for their return, the robbers rarely seek this reward. Museums might be the caretakers of great art, but can anyone ever really own an original masterpiece of stupendous cultural significance? By using images of stolen art, Ezawa implicates himself in the lineage of theft and the dilemma of ownership, especially in the digital world where the availability of images has made information sampling and manipulation so commonplace that the line between real and fake has been blurred.

Kota Ezawa: The Crime of Art (Hollywood Edition) continues at Christopher Grimes Gallery (916 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, CA) through March 10. 

Lita Barrie

Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. She blogs for HuffPost and her writing appears in Painter's Table, Art Agenda, Artweek. L.A and art ltd. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art...