It’s often said that the best kind of art holds a mirror up to society. But reflections can also create distorted images that need redressing. With a mix of humor, irreverence and irony, photographic duo E2 — New Orleans natives Elizabeth Kleinveld and Epaul Julien — re-create masterpieces from previous eras in ways that reflect a view of the world more relevant and engaging to visual art’s growing audiences.
In doing so, the pair explores race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status and beauty, prompting a revaluation of the norms and stereotypes perpetuated by the Western art canon. The act of dismantling these established “truths,” however, isn’t a reductive process for E2. Rather, their glossy hyperreal photographs are lavishly constructed compositions.
Take Ode to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, 2015. The picture contains no fewer than 32 characters, including a dog, but unlike the 17th-century Dutch original, it is an all-female militia that is depicted preparing to defend the city from attack.
Opulent tableaux like this can take months to produce. The pair casts sitters, sources costumes and creates elaborate sets before shooting the images, which are then finessed using meticulous postproduction techniques as the artists exactingly replicate the original compositions.
That verisimilitude adds gravitas and drama to new and surprising scenarios. Within the familiar stylistic settings, the duo severs ties with the past, placing marginalized communities at the center of the story and thus shifting the narrative focus toward hope, equality and inclusion, always with a sense of theatricality and playfulness.
Titled “In Empathy We Trust,” the series began with a reenvisioning of the Old Masters. The pair’s latest body of work, “Everything Changes,” continues in the same vein but draws on modern and contemporary canvases, including Norman Rockwell‘s “Four Freedoms,” for source material. An exhibition of their recent output debuts at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, in New Orleans, on February 25. Ahead of the show, the gallery, which represents the duo, is offering the new photographs, as well as several of their previous works, on 1stDibs Auctions.
With many pieces completed during the pandemic, this latest installment displays a shift in style. The artists have added paint to the surfaces of some photographic prints, adding depth to their already-altered mise-en-scènes. This technique also represents a visual metaphor for the feelings of strangeness that many people experienced during the lockdown.
Kleinveld and Julien note in their artist statement that the title for the series was inspired by one of their favorite Frida Kahlo quotes: “Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”
“The pandemic fostered a collective understanding of just how malleable and fragile our reality is,” they explain. “Our perceptions, our personal routines and our culture as a whole — these realities are never guaranteed stasis, and the only way to move forward is to evolve, both as artists and individuals. The pieces in this show invite viewers to embrace the inevitability of change and the natural discomfort of re-examining their expectations of how a work of art — and by extension, a culture — should look.”
In one recent work, Ode to Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, 2020, the Thanksgiving meal becomes a celebration of nontraditional gender roles and multiethnicity. E2’s modern family revels in a bountiful feast, subverting the notion of a homogeneous, heterosexual middle class and revealing a changing America.
According to gallery director and partner Matthew Weldon Showman, the duo’s photographs use “memory and matching” to inventively broaden our perspectives. “The viewer is initially drawn in by their recognition of the original artworks that the pieces reference,” he notes. “This sense of familiarity makes the work accessible to a broader audience that may otherwise not visit a gallery or engage with contemporary art. Upon close observation of E2’s individual works, the viewer embarks on a journey of identifying the various elements which the artists have changed, initiating conversations about gender, race, sexual orientation and a wide array of other current socio-political issues we face.”
This is perhaps best illustrated by several self-portraits in which Julien assumes the identities of celebrated white artists like Albrecht Dürer, Norman Rockwell and Jan van Eyck. These images say as much about the absence of the Black figure in the history of Western painting as they do about the importance of broadening the scope of work on today’s museum calendars.
Showman has some thoughts about how larger institutions might tackle the latter issue. “Displaying E2 works in museum spaces alongside the original works would be a powerful viewing experience,” he says. “Seeing the past and present alongside one another and understanding the differences in the contexts in which they were created would perfectly illustrate the immense importance and purpose of E2’s work within the narrative of art history.”