Steal­ing the show Kota Ezawa

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - KOTA EZAWA

ONthe morn­ing of March 18, 1990, two men dis­guised as Bos­ton po­lice of­fi­cers talked their way into the Isabella Ste­wart Gard­ner Mu­seum, tied up the guards, and spent more than an hour ran­sack­ing the gal­leries. They made off with 13 ob­jects from the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing a Ver­meer, sev­eral works by De­gas, and paint­ings by Rem­brandt. Since then, the empty frames from which the paint­ings were re­moved re­main on the mu­seum’s walls, solemn re­minders of what was lost. It was one of the great­est art heists in U.S. his­tory, and the case re­mains un­solved to this day. But you can see an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of what the orig­i­nals looked like in the Kota Ezawa in­stal­la­tion The Crime of Art, the in­au­gu­ral SITElab ex­hi­bi­tion in­side SITE Santa Fe’s newly ren­o­vated build­ing.

In a strange way, Ezawa’s light-box recre­ations of miss­ing ob­jects from the mu­seum form an ad­junct to the Gard­ner’s empty frames. They are quasi re­pro­duc­tions done to scale in a flat, Pop style unique to Ezawa and not in the styles of the orig­i­nal mak­ers. “It’s fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­rial,” said Ezawa about the art heist, which has fired the imag­i­na­tions of many arm­chair — not to men­tion bona fide — art sleuths for decades. But the Gard­ner heist isn’t the first time crime has played a role in his art. “Crime has been a sub­ject of my work go­ing way back to an an­i­ma­tion that I did in 2002 called The Simp­son Ver­dict,” he said. “That was a sort of re­cre­ation that I did of the O.J. Simp­son trial. There were others. I did a book project that was also an ex­hi­bi­tion called The His­tory of Pho­tog­ra­phy Remix where crime was also a sub­ject. But I don’t think crime is nec­es­sar­ily the main thing that in­ter­ests me. It plays a role, for sure.”

Ezawa’s art­work in gen­eral can be seen as a kind of ap­pro­pri­a­tion, which makes deal­ing with stolen art­work as a sub­ject an ironic com­men­tary on con­tem­po­rary art it­self, par­tic­u­larly his own art. Typ­i­cally, he deals with im­ages de­rived from other peo­ple’s films and videos and from pho­to­graphs which he then trans­lates into his sig­na­ture style — they ex­ist, then, as his and not his, orig­i­nal and not orig­i­nal, at the same time. So he may say that crime is not his pri­mary in­ter­est, but it seems the fluid na­ture of art and im­agery it­self most def­i­nitely is.

In the case of the works in the SITE show, he had the idea of recre­at­ing stolen paint­ings be­fore con­sid­er­ing the Gard­ner theft specif­i­cally. He looked through the FBI’s on­line data­base of stolen art­works search­ing for a wor­thy sub­ject. “The Rem­brandts from the Gard­ner Mu­seum were the first ones that re­ally at­tracted me,” he said. Three Rem­brandts were stolen in the heist: a small ink-on-pa­per self por­trait and two paint­ings — A Lady and Gen­tle­man in Black and Christ in the Storm on the


Sea of Galilee, both from 1633. Ezawa’s in­stal­la­tion, recre­ates all 13 miss­ing ob­jects. Any­one fa­mil­iar with the case will rec­og­nize the im­ages even though they con­form to his re­duc­tive, car­toon­like style. “The first one I did was the Lady and Gen­tle­man in Black . I find it to be a re­ally beau­ti­ful paint­ing. While I was mak­ing this, the story sur­faced on The New York Times web­site that they found an­other sur­veil­lance tape and the FBI was look­ing for the pub­lic’s co­op­er­a­tion in iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple on the tape. That was in 2015.” Ezawa recre­ated the sur­veil­lance footage as a five-and-a-half-minute-long, sin­glechan­nel video an­i­ma­tion called Dou­ble Tape, which is also on view at SITE. “I’m dis­play­ing it on th­ese small se­cu­rity mon­i­tors. It’s murky sur­veil­lance footage from 1990.” Ezawa’s recre­ations of the Gard­ner ob­jects are ar­ranged sa­lon style in­side the ex­hibit space. The wall op­po­site con­tains one im­age of an empty frame as it would ap­pear in situ at the mu­seum. Ezawa’s light-box im­ages, lit from be­hind by LEDs, have a glow about them that makes them seem some­how un­real, more like what you might imag­ine when you think of the stolen orig­i­nals, try­ing to re­call them in your mind. Re­duc­ing the de­tails to flat, fea­ture­less, col­ored forms (ex­cept for the re­drawn De­gas, which look re­mark­ably like the stolen works) en­hances the il­lu­sory ef­fect.

The last time the Gard­ner heist was in the news was this past June, when Dutch pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor Arthur Brand claimed to have leads through former sources in the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army that could help solve the case. Should the miss­ing paint­ings, draw­ings, and other ob­jects — an an­cient Chi­nese bronze ves­sel called a gu and an ea­gle-shaped bronze finial among them — turn up, Ezawa would have to re­con­sider the ex­hi­bi­tion. “The fo­cus of my work was al­ways more his­toric than it was about on­go­ing events. When I re­drew the sur­veil­lance footage, it was lit­er­ally a day af­ter it resur­faced on the in­ter­net. I had no idea where this was go­ing. Maybe they would ar­rest some­one two weeks later and then the sub­ject of the show would change,” he said. The pos­si­bil­ity, at times, seemed real enough. Hot leads such as Brand’s seem to come up time and time again, and ev­ery few years the heist is back in the news with some­one else, even the FBI it­self, claim­ing fresh in­tel­li­gence that could lead to the lo­ca­tion of the stolen works. But the news quickly fades and the years drag on with noth­ing sub­stan­tial ever com­ing to light.

Per­haps Brand, who re­cently told CBS News that he was 100 per­cent sure the art­works were in Ire­land, is cor­rect, and the case is soon to see some res­o­lu­tion. “Right now it’s a me­mo­rial to some lost art­works,” Ezawa said, “But if they show up, they be­come some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

— Michael Abatemarco

Kota Ezawa gives a free talk and signs copies of “The Crime of Art” at 2 p.m. on Sun­day, Oct. 8, in SITE Santa Fe’s SITElab Gallery; 505-989-1199.

in­stal­la­tion view, 2016; photo Gabriela Cam­pos

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