Almost Famous

Richard Phillips
Gagosian Gallery
Through October 20, 2012

I am running late, so I park the Ducati on the sidewalk and toss the keys to an eager production assistant. It is incredibly hot and crowded as I push my way through a crowd of background actors to the location, which has been carefully designed to look like a gallery. Wardrobe has given me an antique Ramones t-shirt (which actually has some of Debbie Harry's vintage blood on the sleeve) and a period Hugo Boss Nazi SS uniform jacket with five firing-squad bullet holes through the left lapel (vintage blood carefully removed). Also, store-torn Alexander McQueen jeans (a gift from an Olsen twin, I think) and flip-flops, which are decorated with pictures of colorful monkeys.

I stop to talk to Rachel Weisz, who seems to remember me from her chemistry reading for the part of a "kindly doctor" in Stasi Sluts II but suddenly excuses herself, gesturing excitedly to Philip Glass, who is wiping tapenade off his black Prada turtleneck. Everything else -- the cramped perspective of the gallery, Lars von Trier and Lena Dunham talking to Christopher Nolan, the noise -- all form a vague penumbra; the unsatisfactory footage of this shoot will later be edited out in the final film. The director, Michael Lee Nirenberg, storms through the set barking orders for paintings to be taken down, removed, or rehung on different walls.

The gallery is packed with beautiful celebrities. Blake Lively, Keira Knightley (who replaced Natalie Portman at the last minute), Heath Ledger, and Willem Dafoe are casually chatting in front of "Adriana III" (2012), a picture of someone called Adriana Lima. Since nobody knows who she is, subtitles will be burned in later, reading:

  • Phillips has collaborated with Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima to create a new series of paintings that depict her against backdrops of iconic Brazilian landmarks, such as Oscar Niemeyer's Cathédral de Brasília, the patterned sidewalks of Copa Cabana, and the favelas of Rio. In these scenes, such as "Adriana I" (2012 [above]), in which Lima poses seductively across the roof of the cathedral, the impact of her preternatural beauty and the aura she commands as a supermodel are conflated, and thus equated with, national icons of economic and political culture.

Ryan Reynolds, who is playing the role of the painter and filmmaker Richard Phillips, is walking about the gallery and talking to Cindy Sherman, who is shooting a segment for TMZ on her iPhone. "I was approached by a lot of people who saw my videos and said, 'You know, I really am so bored and don't like video art at all, but I loved your film,'"he is saying to Cindy, impressively hitting his marks. "I mean, a lot of video art that's made takes for granted what people are willing to put up with and see." He stops walking and continues speaking, dramatically: "I have embarked on a new phase of work that hinges on the self-awareness of real-life subjects. "Lindsay Lohan" (2011) and "Sasha Grey" (2011) made their debut at the Commercial Break film project at the 2011 Biennale di Venezia. In these 'motion portraits' the actresses pose erotically -- Grey in a modernist John Lautner home and Lohan in an aquamarine infinity pool. Both actresses project self-conscious recognition in their performances and, in turn, point toward the transformative potential of narrative action, framed by their compelling beauty. My third film, First Point (2012), is my second collaboration with Lohan and third collaboration with legendary surf filmmaker Taylor Steele. A contemporary film noirFirst Point juxtaposes haunting nocturnal imagery with surf sequences by the female pro surfer Kassia Meador, who is Lindsay's stunt double."

After his antics at the restaurant (and refusing to pay a corkage fee), James Franco is mercifully nowhere to be found. Bjarne Melgaard has fucked off to the toilet with Tyler Perry, which is a little disconcerting, as the only drugs I am aware of are in Perry's giant Louis Vuitton makeup bag. A large group of people has clustered in front of a giant painting of Lohan wearing yellow sunglasses, "First Point" (2012). Lohan herself, out on bail after being charged with shoplifting, or breaking and entering, or maybe drunk driving -- I really can't remember -- is standing in front of the painting, wearing a yellow Top Shop pullover and an ankle tracking bracelet, which measures her blood alcohol level. Michael Stipe, who is wearing something resembling cargopants, is trying to get her to set it off by offering her his drink.Skrillex's mix of Pussy Riot's cover of the Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed" is playing, very loudly, in the background.

Someone brings Reynolds a revised copy of the script, and he continues, "Each of the individuals I collaborated with is known for image production on an extremely high level throughout the world. In this work, their iconic status is being used not just to comment about the power of beauty or whatever, but it's actually being used to explore different psychological states -- transformative moments in the actors' lives themselves, or the models' relationship to culture." Melgaard returns, carefully dabbing at what appears to be blood on his sleeve, and is immediately cornered by Stipe. "Have you seen my newest sculptures?" Stipe gushes, "They are the berries!" Melgaard replies, slightly less enthusiastically, "I haven't, but they must be incredible…I was always big fucking fan of yours when you were in Green Day."

Jessica Biel and Victoria Beckham are studying a large painting of Lindsay Lohan, "Lindsay II" (2012), where she is reclining on a beach set wearing a white top. "It's a Michael Kors swimsuit…" says Biel. Beckham interrupts, "No, I think it's Victoria's Secret underwear…it is a commentary on a post-feminist auto-critique of the queer gaze." Itis a beautiful painting; gauzy and atmospheric. Chuck Close and Vito Schnabel are looking at "Sasha III" (2012), a painting of Sasha Grey. "This reminds me of your portraits. Just a head -- simple, concise, direct," Schnabel says to Close. "My work is more about the making of an image, not celebrity," responds Close. "My paintings are all of friends, many of them I have painted for 30 years or more. I can't help it if they became famous!" Close makes a valid point. In spite of the similarities that "Sasha III" has to certain paintings by Gerhard Richter of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists ("Baader-Meinhof October 18, 1977" [1988]), particularly the triptych of the murdered Ulrike Meinhof, those comparisons become overshadowed by references in Phillips's painting to Grey in such films as Spring Break Gangbang VII andThe Spurt Locker. Probably the most disconcerting thing about Grey is how uncomfortable she looks wearing clothes.

Reynolds continues reading, "When wecan't determine what art is -- when we get to that point where we're not sure, that's the strongest likelihood that we're actually experiencing something great. That's what the art world is most afraid of, because we don't know how to assign value, whether it's cultural or otherwise. In a way, the films were meant to be a destabilizing artwork. They exist in another area, a zone where we were free to work."It is pretty clear that these paintings are about big ideas. You can see that in "Black Water" (2012). An eerie, nighttime seascape of roiling waves, with no celebrities at all lounging on the beach or even surfing, it is obviously referencing the tragic Hollywood death of Natalie Wood. Christopher Walken, who will appear in a cameo later in the film, happens to walk past. I decide not to share my thoughts on the painting with him. - Bradley Rubenstein


The Gagosian Gallery is at 555 West 24th Street, New York, New York.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.