Celebs! Celebs!

Where Lindsey Lohan meets Einstein, and it all makes sense

Pop Hybrids is on display at the Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery through July 13 at 1305 West 80th St. For more information, call 216-631-6719 or go to kennethpaullesko.com.

In Pop Hybrids, Seattle-based artist Troy Gua makes audiences see double, layering atop one another unlikely celebrity portrait combinations, like John Wayne and Elton John, or Michelangelo's David and David Bowie. The colorful, grocery store glossy mag pictures feel like Andy Warhol in an age of mashups.

Because of the ease of the comparison—Gua even repurposes the same portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong that Warhol used in his own work—it is necessary to emphasize differences between the two artists.

Gua's definition of what counts as "popular" culture is more expansive than Warhol's, and perhaps more cynical. Teen idols, heads of state, scientists, and cartoon characters are all Pop for Gua. John F. Kennedy, Lindsey Lohan, George Orwell, and Yoda are all on equal footing.

In this deflating equality, associations between personalities are made frequently through nothing but wordplay. In "The Salvador Dali Lama," His Holiness of Tibet grows the upturned mustache and perverted grin of the Spanish Surrealist. In "Mickey Mao," the Chairman sprouts Mouseketeer ears, while the bulb of the cartoon nose imposed over his own sits like a skull's empty nasal socket.  

Warhol embraced ugliness, whether in the form of kitsch, camp or in hyperbolic contortions of mass-produced culture. His Marilyn Diptych distorts its subject with bubblegum-pink skin, yolk-yellow hair, and a clanging orange background. Smears and other errors of the printing process are left to stand, emphasizing the mechanical means of their creation.

Gua, however, displays an old-fashioned commitment to beauty and craftsmanship. Simplicity defines his renderings of celebrities' faces, with features being revealed mostly by strands of shadows along and under the nose and lips. A typical picture contains between three and four colors, but they are always well chosen. Beige and red, magenta and teal, blue and gray are all splashed liberally with black and/or white, creating surfaces that are spare but harmonious. Gua's own take on Marilyn layers her face underneath that of Albert Einstein's. The two white-gray faces bleed in and out of a black background. Marilyn's red lips are the only color in the image.

In another picture, Einstein is merged with his physicist colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the pair emerge from a field of white, blue and orange. It's an application of elementary "color wheel" theory—twist a rainbow into a circle, and pair each shade with the "opposing" one across from it. It's elementary because it works.

Gua's work, unlike Warhol's, is worth looking at for its own sake. Even if viewers did not recognize the personalities in them (they will), viewers could get lost in their colors and fluid forms.    

Celebrity itself is a subject in all of Gua's works, but his project seems more like one of exploration than of critique. By imposing JFK and Jack Kerouac, he seems more curious about what both men's ascendance said about their era, rather than which is worthier of admiration. In an age of infotainment, Gua does not recognize distinction between creators of images for their own sake, and those for whom images are a means to an end. The distinction is harder to recognize because it is diminished. Everyone, for better or for worse, makes culture.

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