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ROSEGALLERY : Michael G. Wilson : Tableaux Vivants


My photographs are tableaux vivants, or “living pictures,” in the traditional sense of the term.

The tableau vivant as an art form has been performed throughout history from the Middle Ages to the present. Originally, tableaux vivants were reenactments of historical events or familiar works of art presented for entertainment. They persist to this day at arts festivals such as the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, CA.

In photography, the practice of staging a tableau started just after its invention. Pioneering British photographers William Henry Fox Talbot and Reverend Calvert Jones produced an early example in 1845, when they posed friends and family as fruit sellers. The practice follows a rich history into the present.

Some of the photographs in this exhibition were inspired by themes in classical European painting. Others were inspired by political events or social movements, and in one case, even a song. Often I try to tell stories, like that of Alan Henning, a modern-day saint, by adopting the vivid chiaroscuro style of Caravaggio. I have also revisited familiar religious themes, borrowing from Édouard Manet, to explore ethical issues such as “enhanced interrogation” and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. A few images share a narrative thread that comments on contemporary life.

Whatever the inspiration, each work is the result of collaboration by scores of talented people. All involved performers and crews, from hair and makeup to lighting and camera. Most needed sets to be designed and built by skilled technicians. Every image is a composite requiring many hours of post-production.

This body of work would not have come to be without the assistance of hundreds of persons, to all of whom I owe a debt of gratitude. I want to give special thanks to my right-hand woman, photographer, and printer, Ella Naef. In addition, this exhibition would not have been possible without the encouragement and friendship of Rose Shoshana of ROSEGALLERY in Santa Monica, CA.

Michael G. Wilson – April 2023


Tableaux Vivants Photo Captions

The Garage in Belsize (after Velázquez)
2013, printed 2023
Archival pigment print

The Forge of Vulcan, 1630, by Diego Velázquez, depicts a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Apollo visits Vulcan at his forge to divulge that while Vulcan is busy making a suit of armor for the god of war, Mars, Mars is making love to Vulcan’s wife, the goddess of love, Venus.

I wanted to reimagine the story in our time, portraying ordinary people.


Enhanced Interrogation, Part I: The Mocking and Part II: The Scourging (diptych)
2013, printed 2023
Archival pigment print

The publication of images of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse raised questions about the ethical and moral treatment of detainees. Upon viewing the photographs, I immediately recalled performing the Stations of the Cross ritual as a child at Catholic school. At Easter time, we would make a pilgrimage on our knees around the walls of the chapel, reciting prayers in front of the fourteen pictures depicting the horrors Christ suffered on the way to his crucifixion. At the same time, we were told the story of the Passion of Christ, a recounting of the tortures Jesus endured during his trial, which included being mocked, scourged and crowned with thorns.

The Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib suffered humiliation, beatings, dog bites and other tortures to “soften them up” for interrogation. Such “enhanced interrogation” techniques had been authorized by the U.S. Department of Justice. I wondered how people would react if the subject of the interrogation was not Iraqi, but rather European or American. If the Department of Justice had determined such interrogations were legal, what would keep them from arresting anyone and “softening them up” for questioning?

The Passion of Christ has been a rich subject for artists for centuries. One such painting is Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers by Édouard Manet, which inspired Enhanced Interrogation, Part I: The Mocking.

The flagellation of Christ at the pillar is another recurring artistic theme in classical European painting, and it inspired the second part of the diptych, The Scourging. Here, I wanted to show the negative impact that torture has on the torturer.

The location for these photographs was a decommissioned chapel, which seemed appropriate.


Guantanamera (diptych)
2016, printed 2023
Archival pigment print

I have always enjoyed the classic and much-loved Cuban song, Guantanamera. Its haunting melody tells the story of a mysterious woman from the Cuban province of Guantánamo, “where the wild palms grow,” and of longing and loneliness following a failed romance.

In the late 1990s, I heard Wyclef Jean’s version featuring Lauryn Hill, and I immediately fell in love with it. This version of the song is a mash-up of the traditional folksong, as sung by Celia Cruz, with hip-hop, R&B and rap. It also introduces a new and complex narrative about the characters in the song.

When Jean’s version was released, both Jean and Hill were at the peak of their fame and were also in a relationship. Since then, much has changed. Their relationship ended, and both have stepped back from the limelight. And Guantánamo, the wild, exotic land in the song, has unfortunately come to be associated with a U.S. prison for foreign detainees.


American Bar
2016, printed 2023
Archival pigment print

In recent decades, boys have been falling behind girls in school, leading to higher school dropout rates for boys and a failure to thrive in the academic world. Forty years ago, there was a parity of men and women graduating from college. However, at present less than 40% of college graduates are men. This disparity is having and will continue to have major social and political consequences, not only in North America but in Europe as well.

One of the major consequences I have noticed personally is the effect on professional women. Many women who achieve success in business find themselves unattached in their thirties, with few available suitable men at a time when they are thinking of marriage and childbearing. American Bar is meant to illustrate this situation.

In the picture, the professional women are socializing after work. Watching them from the bar are available men — unattached blue collar and middle management types. The scene is meant to portray a social reality, but it is symbolic rather than realistic.


The Last Supper (triptych)
2018, printed 2023
Archival pigment print

The Last Supper is one of the most important events in the history of Christianity and is the basis for Holy Communion. The stories of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection are part of Western culture, affecting believers and non-believers alike. These events have had and continue to have a major impact on literature, culture and art. But much of the art depicting Jesus, the apostles and their setting is historically inaccurate. I wanted to attempt to picture the Last Supper in a more realistic way while keeping in mind that a true representation is impossible.

When considering how to illustrate the Last Supper, I made a series of assumptions:


Ethnicity of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. The population of Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime was a mixture of various Middle Eastern ethnic groups, due to the successive occupation of the region over the preceding 400 years. Six of the apostles were rough fisherman. Two are thought to have had Greek heritage. All twelve had been travelling for months, probably sleeping most nights out of doors or in barns.

Location. The Gospels all say the Last Supper took place in the upstairs room of a wealthy Jewish household, which had been prepared for Passover. At this time, Jerusalem had been occupied for 72 years, so I assumed that the inhabitants would have adopted Roman customs. Thus, the apostles are reclining around a low table in the Roman style.

People present. In addition to Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, I have added:

  1. The youngest son of the owners of the house, acting as host and sitting at the left end of the table.
  2. A servant girl from the household, essential to help with the meal.
  3. Mary Magdalene, acting as hostess for the event. The portrayal of Magdalene as a prostitute began in the year 591, when Pope Gregory I confused her with Mary of Bethany, “the sinful woman” described in the Bible. This spawned a 1500-year tradition in art and literature portraying Magdalene as a repentant prostitute. In 1969, Pope Paul VI clarified the matter and restored her status as a confidante of Jesus, declaring her “Apostle of the Apostles.” Some scholars believe she was a wealthy widow who travelled with Jesus and financially supported his ministry.
  4. Salome, acting in much the same capacity as Magdalene. She too travelled with the apostles and is considered by many to be a disciple. She was with Magdalene at the Crucifixion.


Part I: Jesus washes the feet of Peter

The washing of feet is described only in the Gospel of John, but it is firmly established in the Christian tradition. The pope washes the feet of the poor at Easter every year. John specifically mentions Peter not wanting Jesus to wash his feet. This is the moment depicted in Part I.


Part II: Communion 

Communion is a common part of Christian service and is thought to be essential by many Christian faiths. There are three events during the Last Supper relating to communion: 1) the pouring of wine, as Jesus pronounces, “This is my blood”; 2) The breaking of bread and sharing it, as Jesus pronounces, “This is my body”; and 3) a conclusion, as Jesus commands, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Part II portrays the moment when Jesus pours the wine.


Part III: The Betrayal  

All four gospels mention that Jesus was betrayed by Judas. During the Last Supper, Jesus said that he would dip his bread in the oil and that the person he gave it to would betray him. None of the apostles witnessed Jesus handing the bread to Judas. The Gospel of John reports when Jesus handed the bread to Judas, “… Satan entered into him.” This brings up the intriguing possibility Judas was chosen by Christ to betray him rather than already having planned it. Either way, whether being revealed as the betrayer or chosen as such, Part III shows the moment when Jesus hands Judas the bread dipped in oil.


2021, printed 2023
Archival pigment print

With the recent blossoming of gender-fluid teens and young adults, it seems that a natural place for them to congregate is at an art opening, especially when the work in the exhibition relates to subjects of gender and sexual orientation.

As is typical at an art opening, most people are not looking at the art. Standing at the back wall, artist Jo Ann Callis explains her work to two guests who, in a rare instance, are actually looking.

Behind the scenes in the storage area of the gallery, three older people are examining a vintage 19th century albumen print by Carleton Watkins. They are posed in the form of a “conversation piece,” a style of portraiture popular in the 18th century. Collector Michael Blasgen examines the print while gallerist Rose Shoshana looks on. Getty photography curator Virginia Heckert looks out to the viewer, inviting us to join the conversation.


The Calling of Alan Henning (after Caravaggio)
2022, printed 2023
Archival pigment print

 In this photograph, Manchester cab driver Alan Henning is having a break with his fellow cabbies when two volunteers for the UK-based charity Syria Relief enter the café. Henning is so moved by the plight of the Syrian refugees that he makes the life-altering decision to join them.

The Calling of Saint Matthew is certainly among Caravaggio’s greatest works. I wanted to make a contemporary version of this painting ever since I first saw it at the Contarelli Chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. According to the New Testament, Matthew was a Roman tax collector who was sitting in a tax collector’s booth when Jesus came by and said, “Follow me.” Matthew did. Ultimately, he was martyred. In Caravaggio’s painting, Matthew is counting money with his fellow tax collectors when Jesus enters.

What would be the modern equivalent of the calling of Saint Matthew? The story of Alan Henning seems to fit the bill. He was an ordinary man who dropped everything to follow his humanitarian impulse, and like Saint Matthew, he was martyred for it.

Henning was inspired to volunteer to provide humanitarian relief to Syrian refugees. He was abducted by ISIS when he crossed into Syria to deliver supplies. He was ultimately beheaded on video by “Jihadi John,” or Mohammed Emwazi, a British citizen who became radicalized and joined ISIS. Emwazi was killed in a US drone attack a year after murdering Henning.


Michael G. Wilson : Tableaux Vivants
April 22 – May 6, 2023
2525 Michigan Ave, B7
Santa Monica, CA 90404

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