Some artists are ahead of their time, but how many get to see time catch up to them? Celebrity make-up artist, photographer, and Instagram luminary Mathu Andersen has spent most of his career on the margins of popular aesthetics and gender expression. But in the past year his self-portraits have been featured in their own gallery show, and he was honored with an Emmy nomination for his work as RuPaul’s hair and makeup guru on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” It seems Andersen is inching closer to the mainstream—or, perhaps more accurately, the mainstream is inching closer to him.
The Australian-born Andersen has for decades worked primarily behind the scenes. But with one selfie, Andersen stepped firmly into the limelight. All razor-sharp cheekbones and grey beard beneath one of RuPaul’s wigs, the photo was striking, and Andersen watched the “likes” roll in. Now, his Instagram followers number more than 120,000, and while he still posts simple selfies wearing RuPaul’s hair, Andersen also crafts thoughtful portraits that display not only his mastery of hairstyling, make-up, and Photoshop, but layers of symbolism and meaning.
Two converging social phenomena set the stage on which Andersen currently stands. First, increasing awareness of all the iterations of gender that lie between the binary poles have cleared the way for an artist like Andersen, who is reluctant to “labor under labels” when it comes to gender and sexuality. (“People say, ‘Well, you’re gay,’” he says. “And it’s like, ‘Well, if you say so, sure.’”) His reluctance to work within the binaries that drag has traditionally posited is fully displayed in his perfectly coiffed facial hair, present in every portrait and undermining even those that are otherwise masterful illusions of idealized femininity. The second revolution that paved the way for Andersen’s current renown is, of course, the social media platforms that connect Andersen to his thousands of fans. Andersen’s work and recent career arc are perfect artifacts of the 21st century.
Still, many of his portraits invoke the most enduring theme in Western art: Christianity. “My religion is based on Sunday school,” he says. “I was brought up with the Jesus that was kind and good and loved children... you really can’t come for Jesus.” His most popular religious portrait portrays Andersen styled like a cross between Jesus and the Virgin Mary, naked save for x-shaped nipple pasties and hands cupping large breasts.
His work melds the contemporary and ancient, and as might be appropriate for someone with feet in two very different eras, Andersen’s engagement with the social media platforms that made him famous is somewhat cautious. Though it’s the primary vehicle of his artwork, Andersen laments the fact that most of social media is full of, as he calls it, “grandstanding, panhandling, and glad-handing.”
“It’s a rather cynical way of looking at it,” says Andersen of the solipsism and self-promotion that comprise most of our online presences. “I know everyone’s a special snowflake. But snowflakes, when you put them all together, are just white stuff... Look at me, look at my latte. Really, you should be crediting your barista for that swirl.”
To see more selfies of Mathu Andersen click here.