Madonna With Angels, 47 x 39.5

Fame is the New Immortality: Lady Gioconda’s Star-Studded Contemporary Icons

Contemporary celebrity portraiture takes many forms, usually photographic, ranging from the hit-and-run methods of paparazzi like Ron Galella to the elaborate and painstaking setup preparations of Annie Leibovitz, the diva of the genre, who lights and poses her subjects as though filming scenes in a feature-length film. Few photographers, however, achieve anything like the poetic perfection of the painter Lucien Stilss, known professionally as Lady Gioconda, whose oils on canvas are as close as we come, in an increasingly secular age, to having our own religious icons. Let’s face it, for better or for worse, celebrities, for many today, are the only gods and goddesses in town (forget the capitol “G”): larger than life, lording it over the Mount Olympus of the mass media. No other artist seems to know or accept their status more readily than Lady Gioconda, who works in a studio near Rapallo, Italy. Be they saints, sinners, or in rehab, the artist, who seems to love them, states that she seeks to “depict every model in the sweetest, most loving expression.” Although she also admires Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, having been trained at the Academy in Florence she looks primarily to the masters of the Italian Renaissance for inspiration, both technical and spiritual. Indeed, unlike Andy Warhol, perhaps her most star-struck artistic predecessor (for whom the closest thing to a halo was DayGlo hues), Lady Gioconda often goes so far as to surround the subjects of her portraits with an honorary nimbus, such as the gold medallion she places strategically behind the head of Prince William –– on whom she also benevolently bestows a full head of hair that makes the hirsutely challenged young royal appear all the more mythically regal. In her likeness of Scarlett Johansson, the golden-locked film ingenue is crowned with a laurel of flowers and surrounded by fluttering putti. Her peaches-and-cream complexion is complemented by Lady Gioconda’s unique ability to make oil on canvas glow like sunlight streaming through a stained glass window. On the more fetchingly devilish side, Sharon Stone is depicted slumping in a throne-like gold chair, smiling seductively with one bare-to-the-thigh leg raised in a pose recalling the famous scene in “Basic Instinct,” in which she teasingly distracts the detectives questioning her about a murder mystery. The artist’s namesake, Lady Gaga, appears in the guise of the Botticelli Venus in another picture, not entirely nude but striking a more bodacious pose than the original, having stepped off her seashell pedestal as if to sashay to the front of the stage. Here, too, the artist has skillfully copied and doubled the subsidiary figure in the long floral gown from the original picture to create a more formally symmetrical composition. And naturally, in “Madonna with Angels,” the heavenly beings behind the singer look more like voluptuous Vegas showgirls. For all her Dali-esque posturing for publicity, including her theatrical pseudonym, Lucien Stilss is an enormously gifted portrait artist in possession of a flawless classical technique and an impeccable conceptual wit. Both are especially evident in her vision of a radiant Nicole Kidman in a shawl and Elizabethan costume standing in front of a slot machine holding a silver vase filled with pink roses. Long live Lady Gioconda! –– Maureen Flynn Lady Gioconda, Agora Gallery 530 West 25th St., Nov. 22 – Dec. 13, 2013. Reception: Thurs., Dec. 5, 6-8 pm.

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