Museum seeking wannabe Warhols

The BMA auditions a cast of impersonators to bring more than 15 minutes of attention to its Warhol exhibit, coming next month

September 13, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

It's an irony that Andy Warhol himself would have appreciated.

On Monday, the Baltimore Museum of Art held a casting call for performers willing to don a platinum fright wig and a pair of oversize shades. The museum was looking to hire at least 10 so-called "walk-around Warhols" to impersonate the man who became famous for paintings featuring eight Elvises, a yellow-lipped Marilyn Monroe and the world's largest, reddest can of tomato soup.

The casting call's purpose — to publicize a Warhol exhibit that opens Oct. 17 — was one he would surely have blessed. Not only was Warhol a masterful manipulator of the media, but his career became a kind of shrine erected to the cult of celebrity.

As Warhol wannabe Heather Joi Baker put it: "I think Andy would really, really enjoy the BMA's approach to this retrospective. Having multiple Andys roaming the city and attending parties is something he would have approved of."

But the notoriously aloof pop artist would have been in favor of the concept only so long as he didn't have to do any of the actual shoulder-rubbing with the public himself.

And therein lies the contradiction: The museum needs the impersonators to promote, promote, promote. The Warhols are supposed to engage the public at such high-profile events as the Baltimore Book Festival and the Fells Point Fun Festival, and during more casual appearances at farmers' markets and Penn Station.

So the performers have to be outgoing and enthusiastic, while the man they are portraying was anything but.

Warhol loved irony, but the performers depicting him must embody a straightforward sincerity.

The pop artist was mysterious and enigmatic. He mumbled and said "ummm" a lot, while his modern-day mimics must communicate with a crystal clarity.

And that's no mean feat.

"It's a delicate balance," says Preston Bautista, the museum's director of public programs, and one of four judges for the casting call.

"Andy Warhol gave monosyllabic answers to questions, and we want someone who will actually talk about our program and be more vigorous and welcoming than Andy Warhol would ever be."

Of all the performers who spent the afternoon channeling Warhol, it was the 31-year-old Baker who seems to have been the most strongly influenced by the artist, who died in 1987.

Baker has loved Warhol since she was 14 years old. Even before she heard about the auditions, she had been planning on putting together an Andy Warhol costume for Halloween. It is Baker who critiqued the authenticity of the fright wig that museum officials asked the actors to wear during their auditions.

(Her verdict: "It should have been teased out more from the roots.")

And it was Baker who, once the wig was pulled off, revealed a head full of dark locks that were spiked and gelled with in a style reminiscent of her idol.

"I didn't even realize I was doing it," she said. "It was subconscious."

Because she thinks that Warhol is underrated as an artist, she welcomes the museum's exhibit, which could burnish his reputation.

"I think Andy was grossly misunderstood," she said. "He was making commentary about pop art and about the repetitive culture of commercial art. Because he was so plastic and shallow, because he only lived in the moment, he achieved a level of Zen. I think there's something to contemplate there."

Another would-be Warhol, John Russell Herbert of Baltimore, couldn't agree more.

Though he has had some impressive acting gigs, the 40-year-old Herbert identifies himself foremost as a painter and fiction writer. He says that Warhol's "over-the-top, yet streamlined approach" has inspired his own work.

Warhol, he says, could be far more prescient and astute than his public persona might indicate. For instance, the late artist almost seems to have predicted the emergence of such social media tools as Facebook and YouTube.

"Andy Warhol is the one who said that in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," Herbert said. "That really has come to pass."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Exhibit information: "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade" runs Oct. 17-Jan. 9 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Admission is $5-$15. Call 443-573-1700.

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