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The Beauty in Artists' Unlikely Collaborations with Celebrities

Alexandra Grant's new photo book with Keanu Reeves is only the most recent touchstone in a history of collaborations between celebrities and artists.

by Shana Nys Dambrot
Feb 24 2016, 3:10pm

Strip from Shadows by Alexandra Grant and Keanu Reeves

You can't see Keanu Reeves' face in any of painter, designer, systems sculptor, and photographer Alexandra Grant’s new book Shadows. You might never know it’s him if they didn’t tell you. So then, why bother? It turns out, there are plenty of reasons besides, say, profile-raising or street cred-garnering; why both visual artists and media megastars would want to commit themselves like that, ranging from romance, to creative freedom, horizon-expansion, bucket list reasons—even a dare.

There’s also the difference between a collaborator, a muse, and a model. Even the most inspired or unconventional casting choices, experimental commissions, unique and expressive portraiture, or solicitation of input from the “actor/sitter” do not a true collaboration make. When it comes to hands-on artistic dialogues between equals, with co-active engagement in what is almost always a one-off special undertaking, well, that’s hard enough between couples and friendly peers. So what happens when a celebrity not known or even practiced as an artist goes outside their comfort zone to become involved in the mysterious, often volatile artist’s world?

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Sandro Miller, from The Malkovich Sessions. Bert Stern’s “Marilyn in Pink Roses” 1962 (2014)

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Still from Picasso Baby performance, courtesy of MAI

Notable flops include an LA art gallery show that was supposed to be a multimedia performance of a magic ritual starring James Franco. When organizers realized Franco wasn’t going to make it, they had someone in a mask do his part and didn't tell anyone present until later that it wasn’t him. And who can forget that super awkward, shark-jumping, internet-hairline fracturing Jay Z/Marina Abramovic performance video stunt for "Picasso Baby" at Pace Gallery in New York back in 2013?

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Amber Heard by Tasya van Ree

But successful collaborations do happen. Photographer Tasya van Ree and actress Amber Heard made some terrifically sexy and timeless photographs and short films together during their time as a couple. What made this special is of course their openly intimate relationship—the same thing that clearly made the work so deeply collaborative. As life and as art-making partners, the notoriously shy photographer and radiant subject would surely have drawn on personal experiences and serious pillow talk to create such a prolific amount of work, knowing it would be linked to their real-life, if ill-fated, love story.  

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Sandro Miller, from The Malkovich Sessions. Diane Arbus’s “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey” 1967 (2014)

In April of this year, photographer Sandro Miller will release the complete volume of his Malkovich Sessions—a 17-year collaborative juggernaut with the madcap virtuoso actor John Malkovich, for which they meticulously recreated iconic works of art, especially famous fine art photographs, as well as some of the best-known portraits of other actors, writers, artists, and pop culture celebrities. No one was safe, from Che Guevara, to Marilyn Monroe, Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and Meryl Streep. Their combined talents for channeling styles and theatrical mimicry resulted in some of the most hilarious, thought-provoking, occasionally unsettling, outrageous, and inventive homages in art history.

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Ken Browar and Deborah Ory with Misty Copeland. Courtesy of the artists and Harper’s Bazaar

Another instance of creatives reaching across disciplines in homage to art history came in the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar, as photographers Ken Browar and Deborah Ory (themselves a married, collaborative, slightly interdisciplinary outfit, working as the New York City Dance Project) worked with ballerina Misty Copeland to recreate some of Impressionist Edgar Degas’ most beloved paintings on the occasion of a new Degas show coming to the MoMA. You can be sure Copeland had more to contribute in those sessions than just excellent poses. She was required to inhabit the characters in the artworks, to reverse engineer emotion and story—and thus interpret Degas’ original artistic intention—from what the dancer was doing with their body; and her germane expertise, not as a painter but as a dancer, was fundamental to the success of the images.

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From Shadows by Alexandra Grant and Keanu Reeves.

In that spirit, Grant and Reeves are on a little bit of a crosstown tour together in support of Shadows. With a gallery show at ACME. in Los Angeles through March 12 showing selections from the project (a book signing is coming up at the gallery on Saturday, February 27), they’ve been doing joint appearances and public discussions about the project which have, laudably, centered around the nuts and bolts of the creative production process itself rather than the what-was-it-like-working-with-him nonsense. In this project, Reeves is not only the model, but also the conceptual touchstone and contributing writer, co-creating with Grant a meditation on what shadows are as “phenomena, image, and metaphors.” Blending her instinct for what makes a good picture with his facility in using his body as an instrument of self-expression, and later marrying her capacity for visual narrative and his language-based way of searching for meaning, the perhaps unlikely duo have produced an utterly poetic, strange, and emotional work of art that took them both in unexpected directions. Whoa.

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