Mummy dearest: The Wall Street Journal’s exclusive first look at Matthew Rolston’s startling new fine-art series, “Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits”

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Matthew Rolston, “Untitled,” Palermo, 2013. © Matthew Rolston Photographer, Inc.

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Noted celebrity photographer Matthew Rolston, fresh off the success of “Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits,” his book and exhibition featuring monumentally scaled portraits of vintage ventriloquist dummies, recently completed his latest fine-art project—and this new series is just as striking and unexpected.

Rolston’s “Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits” comprises portraits of mummies from the Capuchin Catacomb of Palermo, Sicily, which houses some 8,000 of these unearthly remains, many of them religious figures and notable citizens of the ancient city. Bathed in an otherworldly blue light, Rolston’s stylized portraits explore the mystery of life, by way of death.

“I’m in search of the meaninglessness of life. I’m getting to the age where you contemplate these things,” said Rolston in a Woody Allen–ish aside to The Wall Street Journal, which published an exclusive first look at “Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits” online yesterday. (The feature will also be appearing in print just in time for the Halloween weekend.)
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A screenshot of the Wall Street Journal feature. Click to read at wsj.com.

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Rolston first visited the Capuchin Catacomb one year ago, his curiosity having been piqued by an online posting he discovered about them. “The first time I went to the catacomb, I cried,” Rolston told the Wall Street Journal’s Christina Binkley. “I’m drawn to [the mummies] because they fascinate me.”

Interestingly, Rolston was tuning in to what has become a zeitgeist surrounding those who are no longer living: From the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s current exhibition “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” to the self-described “death-centric” Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, which opened this past summer, to the exhibition “Sylvan Cemetery: Architecture, Art, and Landscape at Woodlawn” at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery, a fascination with death is in the air, pop-culturally speaking.

Last fall, Rolston and a seven-person crew spent nine nights shooting in the catacomb, accompanied by Los Angeles–based documentary director Alessandra Pasquino, who is creating a feature-length documentary about the project. The shoot was a painstaking process, because the fragile mummies could not be touched or moved. As is the case in his commercial projects, Rolston—primarily a portrait photographer—was guided by instinct as he walked the catacombs and searched the haunting figures for some form of personal connection. “It’s totally between the sitter and the photographer,” he told the WSJ. “And they are the sitter.”

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Matthew Rolston, “Untitled,” Palermo, 2013. © Matthew Rolston Photographer, Inc.

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Matthew Rolston, “Untitled,” Palermo, 2013. © Matthew Rolston Photographer, Inc.

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“For me, this is the mature work of a mature artist,” noted art dealer Diane Rosenstein, who hosted an exhibition this summer of “Talking Heads” at her Los Angeles gallery, Diane Rosenstein Fine Art. “Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits” is also unequivocally compelling. “When they see this work,” she said, “people immediately put down their phones.”

Read the complete Wall Street Journal article here: “Matthew Rolston’s Mummy Portraits.”

To learn more about “Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits,” and to watch both an emotionally affecting slideshow and a work-in-progress edit of the documentary film about how it all came together, please visit vanitasproject.com.

For more on “Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits,” including selected images, reviews, installation views, and video, please see matthewrolstontalkingheads.com.

To see more of Rolston’s work, please visit stocklandmartel.com/rolston and matthewrolston.com.

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