Since his first show in New York nearly 20 years ago, Yasumasa Morimura has been called the Cindy Sherman of Japan, because he plays dress-up for the camera. It’s a not entirely fair comparison for the obvious reason that Morimura is a man, or more precisely a drag artist, who adds art-historical icons to the usual cross-dressing repertoire of movie stars and characters. Among these are women, of course, but he’s also portrayed men, including, for the first time here, himself.
His latest show of digitally manipulated color photos, “Las Meninas Renacen de Noche (Las Meninas Reborn in the Night),” focuses on Diego Velázquez’s 1656 canvas, which depicts the Old Master painting himself along with members of Spain’s royal family and retinue. The composition appears to center around the doll-like figure of King Philip IV’s daughter, the Infanta Margaret Theresa. But the sitters are actually Phillip and his wife, reflected in a mirror on the back wall of Velázquez’s studio.
An epic of self-reflexiveness, Las Meninas raises astonishingly modern questions about perception, the viewer’s relationship to art and the societal roles artists assume—themes Morimura interrogates in his images of the painting in its Prado home. Borrowing from Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, Morimura appears to leap into Las Meninas, transforming himself into each of its figures. These figures, in turn, pop into the gallery like the dioramas coming to life in Night at the Museum.
Some critics have suggested that the reflection of the king and queen in Las Meninas isn’t that at all—that, in fact, the scene represents the painter in front of a mirror. Adding more than a bit of smoke to the occasion, Morimura revamps Velázquez’s masterpiece, posing the unsettling riddle: Just who is on which side of the looking glass?—Howard Halle