Filmmaker Gus Van Sant first saw the Mona Lisa when he was 11 years old. Sixty years later, she is the inspiration for his paintings

In 1963, 11-year-old Gus Van Sant traveled from Connecticut to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his painter grandmother to see the Mona Lisa during his tour of New York. They waited outside the museum in the freezing cold, then faced the rushing crowd to catch a glimpse of the famous little painting. After taking this quick look, he understood why some people say life is more about the journey than the destination.

Despite this disappointing look at the Mona Lisa, the filmmaker revisits the painting six decades later in his own work. A series of new paintings dedicated to this pillar of Western art is now on display at Vito Schnabel’s gallery in St. Moritz, Switzerland (until February 19). With no crowds to obstruct his view, Van Sant deconstructed the iconic Mona Lisa silhouette into pointillist squares, like pixels in a digital image.

“I’m interested in how computers work on multi-colored pointillism instead of the four main colors typical of screen printing,” Van Sant told Artnet News. “Eradicating a widely known figure helps me play with color without worrying about the subject’s familiarity.”

The idea to use Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance masterpiece came to the artist via a Lego advertisement in which the painting appeared divided into 400 different colors. The image reminded Van Sant of Salvador Dalí’s photomosaic lithograph Lincoln at Dalivision from 1976, “and how the pointillist aesthetic of computerized iconography is also made up of representative colored squares”.

Gus Van Sant, Mona Lisa Gold #1 (2021). ©️Gus Van Sant; Photo by Flying Studio; Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

Van Sant limited his materials to gold, copper, and silver leaf, as well as oil and pencil. He views each of the 12 paintings in the series as “a different journey from concept to execution,” determined by the gap between his hand and his printed reference.

“Even though I tried to stick to the print, the color combination of the squares determined the procession,” he said. “My references had defined color spectra, but once I painted, say, a medium green, a yellow green followed, then came just yellow.” The results vary in reproducing the unmistakable likeness of the model, from instantly recognizable color juxtapositions with oil to rather pixelated abstractions in gold. This exercise – what he calls “sticking to the plan and not” – coincides with a transition to adopting the Technicolor aspects of cinema in painting.

Cinema, in particular the dirty and golden glamor of Tinsel Town, served as the narrative inspiration for Van Sant’s previous exhibition with Vito Schnabel, in New York in 2019. In contrast to the regimented geometry of the new works, these watercolors on linen vaguely depicted an enlarged nude man wandering down Hollywood Boulevard. The alienation of the nameless figure brought to mind some of the director’s iconic protagonists, like Bob Hughes (played by Matt Dillon) in Cowboy Pharmacy and Mike Waters (played by the late River Phoenix) in My own private Idaho.

Van Sant was drawn to what he called the “freak show” nature of the Los Angeles streets: “Stuntmen dressed as superheroes, mixed with tourists in front of the Chinese Theater, standing next to homeless people.”

Gus Van Sant, Untitled (Hollywood 16) (2018-19). © Gus Van Sant. Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects.

Gus Van Sant, Untitled (Hollywood 16) (2018-19). © Gus Van Sant. Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects.

While the hustling man in the face of shimmering urban chaos echoed Van Sant’s decades-long work behind the camera, his fine art trajectory dates back to his teenage years. He cites his high school art teacher, Robert LaVign – “a vibrant, assertive gay man in 1960s Connecticut” – as his first artistic role model. After winning first prize at Darien High School’s annual art show for a painting of three gold-washed police officers, he opened a gallery with a friend to sell their paintings, as well as LaVign’s. , at 16 years old.

In 1970, Van Sant enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design to take a double major in filmmaking and painting. After the founding year, however, an assistant in the film department warned him that if he wanted to succeed, he would have to “eat, dream and sleep a movie in the film department”. and he bid farewell to formal training in painting.

In the 1970s, a time when disciplines intermingled, Van Sant moved to New York, where he was exposed to both art and film at institutions like MoMA. He bought his first 8mm camera from a store under the museum’s subway station. “At the time, mediums weren’t strictly defined and visual artists like Stan Brakhage were making films,” he said. He too approached the reel as a kind of canvas, drawing or scratching the film to shoot experimental short films with friends.

Van Sant’s hands-on auteur approach to filmmaking and a string of successful films have further overshadowed his attachment to the easel until the late 2000s. With the exception of sporadic attempts, such as a series of tornado-ravaged desert landscapes that he often gives as gifts to his colleagues on film sets, the artist n made an official return to painting only in 2011. Gagosian’s Beverly Hills space offered James Franco, whom Van Sant directed in the 2008 gay political drama Milk-an exhibition of his work inspired by Van Sant’s film My own private Idaho. At Franco’s invitation, the director suggested showing his art as well, as a salable item in the exhibition.

Installation view by Gus Van Sant: Mona Lisa, Vito Schnabel Gallery, St. Moritz, 27 December 2021 – 19 February 2022); works © Gus Van Sant; Photo by Stefan Altenburger; Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

For this return to painting, Van Sant transforms a barn into a studio and produces eight watercolors of young male twinks. “They were an extension of what I was doing in the ’60s, with posers staring directly at the viewer in set outfits, like uniformed policemen or turn-of-the-century women in Victorian hats,” he said. declared. Van Sant showed his paintings to Vito Schnabel at the Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg Oscars party a few years ago, and, after a visit to his home studio, the dealer offered him an exhibition in his gallery.

Today, his latest work goes back even further in his story, to another figure “looking directly at the viewer”, perhaps sparked by that childhood pilgrimage to the Mona Lisa so many decades ago.

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