A-Listers Back In B.C.

Exhibition places modern celebrities in ancient sculptures

Ceramics artist Sarah Hahn wonders if we've completely misunderstood the cultures that came before us. Reading myths full of divine infidelities and pelvic humor, she wonders whether the Greeks read them literally. If they were meant as parables, jokes, or scripture, we can only guess.

But for Hahn, who holds various credentials from Ohio Wesleyan and the University of Kentucky, this question is almost secondary. She is fascinated about how themes like lust, tragic downfall, and violence repeat themselves throughout history, even as the names in stories change. Her exhibition at The Sculpture Center, Of Gods and Demigods, Relics and Souvenirs, draws out the similarities between our tabloid fodder and the great epics by recasting celebrities in the leading roles of Greco-Roman and Renaissance statues of heroes and deities.

In "Cupid Awakening the Psyche-Justin. Bieber and Miley Cyrus," the angelic tween idol folds his wings and bends down to plant a not-wholly-gentlemanly kiss on Hannah Montana.

Recalling Michelangelo's statue of the Roman god of wine and theatrics, "Bacchus-Lil Wayne" presents the rapper in glorious revelry, dreadlocks flowing and party cup aloft. His collaborator Drake, here depicted with goat legs, sits nearby on some speakers.    According to myth and a famous first-century B.C. statue, the priest from Troy Laocoon and his sons were devoured by a serpent when he tried to warn of Greek infiltrators inside the Trojan Horse after the gods had fated the destruction of his city. In Hahn's "Laocoon-Paterno," the priest is replaced by the disgraced Penn State coach and the sons by two football players.

This is Hahn's most pessimistic piece. It implies revisionist history will win, and Paterno will be remembered as a doomed prophet whose warnings were silenced, rather than the silencing accomplice to cruelty that he was.

A few pieces feel like missteps for reasons beyond aesthetic considerations. Fashioned after a Bernini statue, "Pluto and Persephone-Chris Brown and Rihanna" depicts the infamous 2009 domestic abuse case. Brown sneers while grasping Rihanna roughly by the waist, while she flails at her attacker's face. Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the underworld, paws an iPhone by Brown's feet.

Despite Hahn's downplaying of her work's humor, it's clearly there. Jokes take away the power of the person who is the butt of them. That's why jokes about Nazis or Joe Paterno are comparatively noncontroversial (at least in my circles), and why making light of Holocaust victims or pedophilia survivors will get you shouted down. By depicting Rihanna in a moment of victimization with a caricatured, mock-heroic style, it tears down someone who already at a low point.  

Hahn's exhibit contains a "gift shop" featuring umbrellas, cellphone cases, watches and other paraphernalia with images of her statues printed on them. It might be the cleverest part of the exhibition, suggesting the souvenir annex of a surreal museum, or money-changer's booth at a star-worshiping pilgrimage site.

Most of the mementos are based off work in the Sculpture Center show. Some are also based off statues not in the show, including one that mashes up an image of the two-gendered character Hermaphroditus and Lady Gaga. Presumably, this piece is based off the Internet rumor that Gaga secretly has male genitals, as these are on full display in the nude sculpture. Even if the intent here was not malicious, repeating the rumor is denigrating to transgender women because it fixates on their anatomy, perpetuates the myth that they are "deceivers," and treats their mere existance as somehow sensational or comical.

Yet on the whole, Hahn's work is ripe with suggestions as to how low and high culture can address each other.

    The show runs through April 13 at 1834 East 123rd St. For more information, call 216-229-6527 or go to sculpturecenter.org.