Matthew Rolston jokes that he’s only been a saint once in his life, and that his sainthood lasted just 90 seconds.
It happened in 2016 at the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. An elaborate tableaux vivant show that has run every summer since 1933, the pageant is a quirky, much beloved Southern California tradition that has been featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and spoofed on Arrested Development.
Almost every year the event’s grand finale is a re-creation of The Last Supper featuring 13 volunteers who pose frozen as Jesus and his 12 apostles for 90 seconds, their faces and clothes meticulously hand-painted and lit to mimic da Vinci’s brushstrokes. In 2016 Rolston played Saint Matthew in The Last Supper for one night. He describes the experience as a “unique sensation”: The lights came up. The music swelled. He held his breath. And the crowd went wild.
“I couldn’t look at the audience because of how I was positioned. I could just hear this huge roar of applause,” he says. “And we weren’t doing anything. In fact the point is not to do anything—to remain completely still. The crowd reacts to the visual effect and the way it is brought to them by the production.”
Rolston knows a thing or two about visual effects and how the right lighting and makeup can create a convincing illusion. In the 1980s the L.A. native gained an international reputation as a favorite photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, where his signature glamorous lighting enhanced the carefully crafted images of celebrities like Steven Spielberg, Madonna, and Michael Jackson.
But after years as a top fashion and celebrity photographer as well as a commercial and music video director, Rolston pivoted, reinventing himself as a creative director and boutique hotel “brand builder.” He is still drawn to portrait photography, but his photographic efforts have shifted from editorial to more conceptual and personal works.
The latest of three fine art projects Rolston has produced in recent years, Art People is a series of 22 large-scale portraits of Pageant of the Masters volunteers—mostly from Laguna Beach and surrounding neighborhoods—photographed in full, elaborate stage makeup. Rolston shot them using intense lighting and the highest-definition camera possible. “They’re also all shot from slightly low angles so they have a heroic quality, which is something that I do,” he explains.
Rolston first attended the pageant when he was a boy of seven or eight. “It was one of the most formative experiences for me,” he says. “I never forgot it. The theatricality of it just appealed so much to me.”
When he returned to the event as an adult, he brought his Nikon field binoculars. Viewing the tableaux up close diminished the impact of the visual effect, but it also brought into focus something Rolston found even more beautiful: “this wonderful imperfection of humanity intruding on illusion.”
Rolston speaks with affection about the pageant and its participants, and his tenderness toward the subject shines through in the work. When his show was first exhibited at Ralph Pucci in 2017, many of the volunteers came to the opening to have their photo taken with Rolston in front of their portrait. They’ll have the chance again next summer when, in a full-circle moment, Art People goes on display at the Laguna Art Museum in June.
The title is purposefully tongue-in-cheek. The term is usually used for elite collectors and dealers who inhabit the posh world of art fairs and auctions. He doesn’t consider himself a part of that world, and the people in these photos aren’t part of it either.
Still, Rolston says, he’s playing with the term here, expanding it to a wider range of people and art, the highbrow and the lowbrow, the saint and the sinner.
Here he comments on some of the pieces.
“I’ve done a lot of casting for sessions for a lot of projects. When you see a lineup like this and you’re a portrait photographer, you know you’ve hit gold.”
“This man is a retail clerk in a supermarket, and he is a volunteer. And yet he is also a living work of art. He is, quite literally, an art person.”
“The people who are in the ‘Last Supper,’ they’re kind of like a separate little club within the club. They have their own socials and they have t-shirts. It’s a big honor to be in the ‘Last Supper,’ and once you’re in it you can basically stay in it until you can’t do it anymore.”
“This guy is a body builder and personal trainer. They needed somebody with an amazing body for the role of Neptune. He was part of “La Fontaine des Mers,” which is a 19th-century fountain in Paris. He’s painted purple, which looks like weathered bronze under the right lights.”
“This woman is dressed as Marcia Weisman, a character from David Hockney’s ‘American Collectors.’ This piece truly expresses the concept of ‘Art People,’ because this is a hall of mirrors. Marcia Weisman was a collector, a pioneering art person in Los Angeles. She was painted by Hockney, then that painting was recreated in the pageant by a lay person, then that lay person was photographed by me. That’s about as meta as it’s gonna get.”
“Many of the volunteers have participated in the Pageant throughout their lives. It’s a community affair, and very much a family affair. This man and his son have both appeared in various productions of the Pageant since 2004, with his wife and friends cheering on.”