Both familiar yet oddly unsettling, a new collaborative effort between New Orleans-based photographers Epaul Julien and Elizabeth Kleinveld (she also resides in Amsterdam) offers a modern take on European masterpieces, with a retelling of classic paintings through twists on age, race, gender and sexual orientation. The pair, who bill themselves as E2, can spend from six to twelve months on a single image, from the painting of custom backdrops (often by Marco Ventura) to the loan of costumes from the Dutch National Theatre to the authentic hairstyles inherent with each reenactment.
The resulting photographs, on view at Aker Imaging Gallery in E2’s “In Empathy We Trust” exhibit, are both brilliant and witty, with a playfulness that updates works by van Eyck, Rafael, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Fragonard and Manet.
In the original painting by Edouard Manet, ghostly pale Olympia reclines in the nude as her dark-skinned maid proffers a bouquet of flowers; in the updated Olympia Pinging the physical characteristics are reversed, with the lounging woman holding a pink cellphone as she gazes out toward the viewer. Painted onto the photograph is a curious gray cat, replacing the black cat found in the original.
In some of the more complicated compositions, it’s fun to spot the anachronism, as in Ode to Millais’ Ophelia, with the doomed heroine wearing a tie-dyed garment in place of the jeweled dress, or in Ode to Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, with the papier-mâché dog, rubber-strapped African sandals, and the clever scene within a scene in the convex mirror behind the couple. The shot uses custom-made costumes, as authentic rentals were not available and, just as the original artist penned “Jan van Eyck was here in 1434,” so has E2 marked the wall just below the mirror.
The proportion of painting to photography varies among the images, with Adam and Steve relying heavily on painted elements (a banana-eating displaced female standing in for the tempting serpent), and men portraying the original couple, poised to eat the forbidden fruit from the painted tree.
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Especially compelling are Ode to Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, with an evident tenderness to the loving pair, and Ode to Hayez’ the Kiss, with two women portraying the passionate couple in an alliance between France and Italy.
Insiders and those familiar with the Louisiana art community will enjoy Ode to Faith Ringgold’s Café des Artistes, which was shot in groups of two and three. Sitters include Dr. Mora Beauchamp-Byrd (art historian), Tina Freeman (photographer), Russell Lord (curator NOMA), Richard McCabe (curator Ogden), Katrina Andry (painter) and Gus Bennett (photographer), as well as local artists and both of the photographers in multiple poses.
The overall collection is riveting, beautiful, and forces the viewer to rethink stereotypical assumptions. Also available is a companion book, with background information about the images displayed alongside a thumbnail of the original.
“In Empathy We Trust” continues through December 2, at Aker Imaging Gallery, 4708 Lillian, open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 713-862-6343, akergallery.com.