MATTHEW ROLSTON’s photographic series, Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits, is comprised of portraits of mummified human remains housed in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily, where the religious, aristocratic and affluent classes from the 16th through the early 20th centuries chose to display their dead, fully clothed, as a measure of societal and spiritual distinction, and in an effort to bring them closer to eternal salvation.
An extension of Rolston’s recent works, the Vanitas portraits comprise an intertwined narrative of beauty and mortality, and ask both anthropological and philosophical questions about life, death and the ability of art to connect with the beyond – a similar aim of Rolston's Art People: The Pageant Portraits, another conceptual portrait-based series.
These works are an examination of visually-heated subject matter, yet also formally nod to art-historical influences in the works of other writers, painters and photographers, among them Otto Dix, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Egon Schiele, Richard Avedon and Peter Hujar.
In Rolston’s stylized portraits, his choice of dominant blue tones signifies that hue’s devotional relevance to traditional Catholic dogma and display, yet also references such works as those among Picasso’s Blue Period and the proto-pop of Yves Klein’s Blue Epoch. As such, the color blue carries with it a contemplative quality that conjures both the melancholy and the transcendent.
In an era defined by man’s irrevocable interventions into the natural environment – the theorized Anthropocene – Rolston portrays humanity’s stubborn insistence to touch the eternal and thereby achieve immortality, wrought here literally as portraits of decaying bone, silk and cotton clinging to existence even with the spirit long departed.