Interview by Julia Cipriano
This past Saturday, Miles Ladin’s show “Masquerade” opened in The Java Project Gallery.
Below you’ll find an in-depth description of this series, Miles’s past work, artistic process and intention. His work is incredibly funny, biting, layered and always containing a cultural commentary. In this series, he moves away from the direct representations of celebrities and the ultra-privileged to include a variety of mediums and subjects. His distinctive style of humor and social commentary is still apparent – layered, poignant and sardonic.
We hope you’ll come to the gallery to see this show in person, and join Miles for the two upcoming events he’ll be holding in the gallery.
Friday 10/25/19 – Greenpoint Gallery Night: 6-9 pm
Saturday 11/2/19 – Artist’s Talk: 4 pm
1. Much of your past work centers around celebrity – you artfully photograph events, parties, red carpets, etc. The images show a respect for the subject while also demonstrating a kind of tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. It seems the staged distance between photographer (you) and subject is one layer of this distinct humor. It doesn’t feel like you’re poking fun at the celebrity though – if anything, the proverbial finger is pointed back at you yourself (the photographer). It reads as a kind of meta-commentary on the tabloid practice of portraying celebrities and our cultural obsession with fame. Can you share a bit more about how you came to photograph celebrities, and the intention behind the shots you produce?
For about 20 years, I photographed celebrities and the world of privilege. I started out wanting to make night life pictures within the modality of my mentor Larry Fink and other photographers that I admired such as Lisette Model and Brassai. But I soon fell into shooting the rich and famous when I took on assignments for the Styles Section of The New York Times. Although I grew up comfortable in NYC and attended private school, my reality was not that of the mega rich 1%. So although I could relate to a certain degree of privilege, I found absurdity in the vanity and superficiality that I would witness at A-list events. The images I created have a sardonic sense of humor which allows the viewer into the picture exposing them to a social commentary about a very specific world.
2. Your other photography work also contains a similar humor to that of your work with celebrities. The series, “Sunstroke” is a great example of this.The images show sun-drenched beach bodies in various poses – bulging, oiled muscles, tramp stamps, banana hammocks. A woman in a recliner fans her hands over her ice-covered chest – we see the bottom of her grin. These images celebrate rather than exploit or mock their subjects. It feels like they’re “in on the joke.” Can you share a bit more about your experience creating this series? There’s such a vibrant, fun energy – it seems as though you must have established a solid rapport or relationship with each subject. Was that the case?
Sunstroke started as a commission for the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami. They knew my celebrity work had a biting sense of humor and wanted me to create a series of pictures that would comment on contemporary swim culture in South Beach. After the exhibition, I ended up extending the project to shoots in Los Angeles and Fire Island. Like my pictures of the rich and famous, the special access I was granted at exclusive pools was critical to making the work. Shooting subjects in bikinis however was very different than making the candid pictures at the Met Gala and other fetes that I would frequent. I knew that if I didn’t want to get beat up by someone’s boyfriend, I’d need to ask permission each time I wanted to make a picture. In that way it became more of a collaboration. The pictures were not posed but sometimes recreated from an earlier un-posed moment. Like my pictures of the glitterati, these outdoor photographs are also a commentary on vanity but also speak to the cultural desire to attain beauty, wealth, and sex appeal. The attitude poolside in Miami was all about putting on an aspirational mask that the world would gage as being fabulous. There was a Saturday Night Live character in the 1980s whose tag line was “it’s better to look good than to feel good.” The audience who heard that line at the time realized the irony. But today that sentiment has become a mantra for a lot of people… but without the irony. One only needs to look at instagram to see the full extent of narcissism and superficial pleasures embraced by the popular culture.
3. The series now showing at The Java Project contains a variety of mediums along with photographs. What inspired this shift, and how does it connect with the overarching theme of Masquerade?
Several years ago, I started photographing the Zombie Walk in Asbury Park, NJ. I was intrigued that participants seemed titillated by the idea of pain, purgatory, and the living-dead. I was attracted and repulsed at seeing young children with their parents dressed up as zombies with fake blood oozing out of their bodies. This seemed a very different spectacle than the Mexican Day of the Dead which is about reconnecting with lost relatives. After shooting the zombies for a few years, I couldn’t help but think about the brilliant work of painter James Ensor. I felt that his pictures strongly related to my NJ zombie images and decided to travel to his hometown of Ostend, Belgium to make related work about Ensor and the Flemish carnival.
On that 2015 trip to Belgium, I made only photographs but I was also thinking a lot about Ensor’s drawings, paintings, and prints. As a young student, I painted and did drawings but stopped working in that direction in order to exclusively focus on photography which at the time had a stronger pull. My recent obsession with Ensor, to my surprise, reconnected me to my early desire as a child to draw and paint. Initially, my intent was to experiment with a variety of wet and dry media until finding a combination that would lead me to a “serious body of work.” The non-photographic works in this show were not created as a dedicated series but as related experiments within the artmaking process that focused on a related theme.
4. Can you share about your process creating this series, and if your with with different mediums (drawings, watercolors, etc) changed the way you typically work?
In 2016, I started to make mixed media works with my own photography but soon after embraced doing other pieces that were completely non-photographic. I started to paint with watercolor and also reconnected with my love of rapidograph ink, a medium that had inspired me in junior high. My process was intuitive and was never intended as the creation of a finished body of work. In fact this exhibition has an eclectic feel which embraces the idea of the open-ended creative process.
Besides creating non-photographic work with the subject matter of masks, the pictures also embrace the idea of masking by referencing master artists who spoke to me and the work.
The oil painting “Flemish Mask” represents one of James Ensor’s carnival masks but was painted in the studio of Alice Neel, one of my artistic idols. On some level, while painting, I was trying to channel her guidance. There are other pieces in the exhibit that also reflect this idea of masking my artistic identity while channeling my artistic idols including Goya, Man Ray, Warhol, and more obviously Ensor. This aspect of my work is not completely new; I’ve previously created artist’s books where I merged my own creative impulses with the work and personas of poets James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara.
5. Lastly, can you expound upon the connection between this masquerade series and your past photography work? There is a clear link between fame and identity — our cultural obsession with celebrity, how an image is created and manipulated, where the image “ends” and the person “begins.” But I’d love to hear your thoughts on some of these ideas.
As an artist, I’m interested in exploring contemporary society, both mainstream and the world of privilege, from a critical if humorous standpoint. The pictures in Masquerade explore our societal desire to mask ourselves rather than confronting and transcending our demons. In Ensor’s time wearing masks at carnival was a way for individuals to escape for a brief period of time the regimented life that was prescribed to them by church and state. In our own time, flirting with self destruction and nihilism seem to be a demented salve from the day to day realities of politics and personal traumas. Celebrity worship has also become an overarching form of escapism. By placing a mirror up to society, and poking fun at things like zombie culture and celebrities, my hope is that the viewer will allow their own mask to fall and perhaps consider searching for a deeper and more meaningful reality.