If somehow Leighton Meester, who plays Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, tempted you this past February into seeing the horrible horror flop The Roommate, you may have noticed her character's obsession with contemporary artist Richard Prince, specifically his disturbing series of drippy, masked nurses who appear to be oozing blood. It's a rare feat for a Hollywood production to acquire the rights to famous visual art, so before Prince agreed to let his work potentially be devalued by sharing a screen with what Time Out called “trash of the tamest variety,” the film's art department called master fabricator Douglas Wright.
The producers needed something that shocked like a bloody nurse and discomfited like a bloody nurse but wasn't infringing on any copyrighted, actual bloody nurse, so Wright painted a creepy, looming nun.
“[Prince] took vintage pulp book covers, printed them and did a little overpainting,” Wright says. “It's like, hmm, easy, right? … [But] when I went to make art that was some cousin to that, it was, like, wow, this is sort of harder than it looks, which is maybe why [one of his paintings] sold for $4.5 million.”
In the end, Prince gave the film permission to use his nurse paintings, and the nun was scrapped — so goes the life of an artist for hire. Wright, however, so enjoys the challenge of inhabiting someone else's creative perspective that he decided to paint a few more tortured-looking women of the cloth, just for fun.
Countless businesses in Los Angeles cater to the whims of a Hollywood set, renting specialized props and furniture out of warehouses across the county. But only a few people have devoted entire careers to producing commissioned artwork for films and television shows, in any style the production demands.
In almost a decade on the job, Wright, a self-described “eclectic hack” who works out of a tidy home a stone's throw from the Hollywood Sign, has created everything from Bernini-inspired, Renaissance statues, which disguised resin as marble, to Warhol-inspired pop art that replaced a soup can with a bag of cat food.
Because most film and TV productions can't splurge on the rights to an actual Picasso, a set decorator will ask for work in the style of one, or of, say, a Tibetan fresco or one of George Rodrigue's Blue Dogs, with at least 20 percent of a given work altered in order to avoid legal issues.
In 1996, Universal Studios had to give architect Lebbeus Woods a high-six-figure cash settlement when its movie 12 Monkeys used an interrogation chair that was based entirely on his 1987 sketch; that was a kind gesture on Woods' part, considering the judge initially ruled that all copies of the movie be pulled from circulation and edited to remove the offending scenes. This case, along with similar suits over The Devil's Advocate and Batman Forever, haunts art departments from Burbank to Culver City, inspiring a meticulous process of “clearing” all visual elements that will appear on air or in the final cut.
For artists such as Christine Wilson, a kooky, Midwestern redhead in her 60s who attended the Cleveland Art Institute, the trick is to change just enough that your work clears but not enough to keep attentive art history majors from recognizing the style. When Wilson moved here in the '80s, she wanted to support her art by renting out the abstract paintings she was already doing but soon found commissioned work to be more lucrative.
For The Flintstones, in 1994, Wilson put a stone-age twist on what she called “corny classics,” making blatant reference to artists like Keith Haring, Andrew Wyeth and Grant Wood, whose American Gothic became a chiseled-looking portrait with a spear replacing the pitchfork and a cave replacing the house. In recent weeks, she has reproduced one of Egon Schiele's distorted, grotesque portraits for Showtime's new series House of Lies and created eight landscapes for the FX show Sons of Anarchy, whirling through three canvases at a time for maximum efficiency.
The detail-oriented Janice Perlin, a brunette with a broad smile, who has been painting for Hollywood for almost 25 years, researches an artist's body of work in depth before attempting to produce a believable replica. She once ordered paints from a century-old Dutch company because she thought Van Gogh might have purchased his oils there.
For one TV miniseries, Perlin cast in aluminum and urethane a doppelgänger of one of the 20 or so bronze ballerinas made in 1922 from Edgar Degas' 1881 wax sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years and clothed her in a handmade tutu, cartridge-pleated and aniline-dyed. The ballerina was reused on the 1993 Melanie Griffith film Born Yesterday in a scene shot at LACMA. While Perlin was on set fluffing the skirt, a museum guard came rushing over in a panic to chastise her for touching the art. “You don't have one of these,” Perlin shot back, laughing — the real ballerinas are at the Tate Modern in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among other places.
Most artists dream of seeing their work hanging in a museum, where passersby linger and ponder their unique legacy. But creating art that deliberately imitates other art with the intention of contributing to a larger collaborative work confuses each artist's sense of originality and identity.
“Anything that you make, you have to leave your ego out of it, because the director may say, 'Oh, yeah, we decided the backstory was that it was in a fire,' ” Wright says.
Because Wright and Perlin both worked on set in production before discovering this niche, the two are less sensitive about separating the business and the muse.
“I've never been driven — except for very short periods of time — to be that out-of-my-gut artist, unfortunately,” Perlin says, “but I feel that I found my forte in copying. I can separate myself emotionally a little bit, because my brain works more analytically. Obviously I feel sometimes, most of the time, that [other artists] have more talent because it comes totally from within themselves.”
Wright also downplayed any creative work he does for himself, including a series of triptychs involving bones, and insisted a few times that his noncommissioned paintings didn't “relate to anything.”
Wilson, on the other hand, has always considered herself an artist first and a Hollywood craftsman second. “I liked to pretend it was OK, but it does take away from my own creative process, to be imitating,” she says.
Wilson also says she would be upset if someone disrespected her as an artist by copying her style for a piece of set decoration, though she has no such qualms about borrowing. “I should feel a little bit bad about it, but I guess I just don't for some reason. I'm a hopeless, immoral person,” she jokes. “I don't mind so much with Rothko because he was such a jerk … [and] kind of a chauvinist.”
If visual art starts a nonverbal conversation between artist and viewer, then how do we feel about art that says nothing about the psyche of the artist, that is not meant to call attention to itself, that blips by on-screen before taking up permanent residence in an anonymous warehouse or being torn up by attorneys as the production designer looks on forlornly?
“It's a little upsetting because you work so hard and then it's out the door, and at least three-quarters of the time you never hear anything again because [the art department is] too busy,” Wilson says. “They put it up, they shoot the scene, they're moving on. And you're forgotten.”