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National Portrait Gallery Show Explores Nature of Celebrity

  • Associated Press

A photograph of John Leguizamo, left, byTimothy Greenfield-Sanders, and a painting of Brad Pitt by Colin Davidson, right, are among the works on display in "Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze," at the National Portrait Gallery, May 18, 2015, in Washington.

A photograph of John Leguizamo, left, byTimothy Greenfield-Sanders, and a painting of Brad Pitt by Colin Davidson, right, are among the works on display in "Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze," at the National Portrait Gallery, May 18, 2015, in Washington.

In the age of selfies, social media and streaming videos, the idea of what makes a celebrity has expanded far beyond the Hollywood icons of the past. Now scientists, technology geeks, designers, writers and YouTube stars achieve fame alongside athletes and entertainers.

Curators at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery have examined how celebrity images are cultivated and how they've evolved for the new exhibition “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze,” opening May 22.

The exhibition includes dozens of new paintings, photographs, sculptures and digital portraits by leading artists that the museum acquired in recent years. “Eye Pop” will be on view through July 2016.

Curators narrowed their list to 54 influential figures still living and active in their fields. Images of Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry made the cut, along with the founders of Google, star architect Cesar Pelli and food-to-table pioneer Alice Waters.

Many of the portraits are being shown to the public for the first time.

Asma Naeem, one of six curators on the exhibit, said everyone these days is trying to reach celebrity status in some way, posting carefully selected images on social media sites to shape how they are seen by others. And quick access to information and photos online makes it easier to recognize stars in many fields.

“Celebrity is really a very elastic concept now. It's far-reaching. It dips into fields that we would never have considered typical of celebrity 50 years ago,” Naeem said. “It also has many different edges to it. Celebrity encompasses not just somebody who is accomplished and who garners our admiration but somebody who has also fallen ... has been able to put themselves back together again.”

Britney Spears' new portrait at the Smithsonian was created by multimedia artist Luke DuBois as a mashup of images from her music videos. The small piece is housed within a decorative gilt frame that would normally surround a religious artwork, playing on the idea that the pop icon is an object of veneration. Instead of playing Spears' music with the moving images, DuBois used the white noise reverberations of an Italian basilica.

Katy Perry's portrait was the culmination of her collaboration with artist Will Cotton, who designed the candy-land theme of Perry's “California Girls” music video. Cotton went on to design the album cover and then painted Perry's portrait dressed in a cupcake wrapper and candy tiara. Perry visited the National Portrait Gallery after the painting arrived and took a selfie with her image.

“This to me shows how art is intersecting with celebrity-making in such interesting ways,” Naeem said.

Other artists would try to strip away any notion of celebrity, which also drew the attention of museum curators.

Pitt's first painted portrait is being revealed for the first time in the exhibit with a newly acquired large-scale piece by artist Colin Davidson. The two began collaborating in 2012 when Pitt asked Davidson to give him painting lessons. Pitt was drawn to Davidson's style from other portraits.

When they agreed that Davidson would paint Pitt's portrait just before the actor's 50th birthday, “he knew it wasn't going to be the airbrushed, flattering way in which we normally see him,” Davidson told The Associated Press. Instead, the artist spent time with a jet-lagged Pitt, talking and drawing, trying to catch a raw moment of humanity.

The result is a rugged picture with thick brushwork that captures the scruffiness of Pitt's face and long hair, with a glassy-eyed look.

“My interest in him was very much as a fellow human being, rather than as the actor or producer or celebrity,” Davidson said from his studio in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “I'm putting forward something else and actually encouraging us to look at people again as fellow humans, rather than anything else.”

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