Stealing the show 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
THE HEIST AT THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM 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.
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