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When you enter the Penny and Jeff Vinik Gallery on the second floor of the Art of the Americas wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, you’re transported back in time.
With its red Victorian wallpaper, its ghostly white classical statues and its jumble of 19th-century landscapes and seascapes stacked nearly to the ceiling, the room is meant to evoke the style of the original Paris Salon art show. This is what the whole MFA looked like in the 1890s, a sign explains.
So it’s a little jarring to come across "Museum Epiphany III," the central painting on the gallery’s southeast wall. Though it has an ornate gold frame, like the pictures around it, this isn’t a painting from the past, or about the past. It’s very much an expression of the present.
In fact, it’s a painting of everyday people hanging out in the gallery it's on display in, taking in the paintings and sculptures.
If you stand near the painting, you realize that your real-time view of the gallery is about the same as the one in the picture. You can see where the models, including a little girl in a luminous white dress, would have had to stand to appear in the painting. It occurs to you that you could have been in the painting, if you’d been standing there when the artist captured the image.
And that’s when the recursiveness of the whole situation starts to make you a little dizzy.
"Museum Epiphany III" is art as prank, in the spirit of the famous M.C. Escher etching of a hand drawing another hand that’s drawing the first hand.
The whole idea for the painting was that it would be “hung in the very room which it paints,” says Warren Prosperi, the Southborough-based portrait and mural painter who co-created the piece with his wife, the photographer Lucia Prosperi, in 2012. “That would make the piece more enticing for the viewer to, in a sense, unfold or unlock or deconstruct — ‘Oh look, there’s someone like me.’ ”
Malcolm Rogers, director of the MFA at that time, had seen the two previous paintings in Prosperis' Museum Epiphany series — both depicting MFA visitors who are seemingly transported by the art they’re viewing — and he wanted one for the Vinik salon.
“The idea of these Epiphany paintings is that sometimes, for sensitive folks who hear the voices of the past, they can be transported and brought out of their world into the world that created those pieces,” Prosperi says.
That’s apparently what’s happening to the little girl in white, who’s transfixed by a dramatic statue of Nydia, the “blind flower girl” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s popular 1834 novel, "The Last Days of Pompeii." Rogers knew that an Epiphany painting of people encountering Nydia and her neighbors would not only help to show off the fancy new salon — the $504 million Art of the Americas wing opened in 2010 — but would also remind museumgoers why they came to the MFA in the first place.
“That’s what Malcolm was looking for, was some kind of tactile, direct interaction with the artist and his choices, the gallery, the other pieces,” Prosperi says.
Judged on those terms, the painting is a huge success. Because I happen to be friends with one of the models in the painting — Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital — I’ve visited it many times. My unscientific impression, after much time spent lurking in the Vinik Gallery and watching how visitors circulate, is that it’s the most engaging piece in the room. If the paintings here were celebrities, this would be the one getting plastered across Instagram and Twitter.
And in fact, the painting has gone a little viral. On a Friday when I was at the MFA gathering material for this piece, several groups of field-tripping seventh-graders from North Andover buzzed excitedly through the gallery. I learned that they were engaged in a scavenger hunt, and that one of the tasks was to find the painting showing their math teacher, Sean Quinn.
The kids gathered in front of "Museum Epiphany III" and pointed to a figure in the background of the painting. The man is leaning forward inquisitively — Prosperi later described him to me as “the figure of the perennial artist in the museum; we always get our noses too close to the paintings trying to figure out what’s going on and then get scolded by the guards and sent away.” A small bald spot made the model identifiable to the North Andover kids, who insisted that it was their own Mr. Quinn.
I ran into Quinn, and his bald spot, a little later. He is, in fact, a look-alike of the man in the painting, who, I later learned, is actually Chris Green, a former employee of the Newbury Street gallery that sells the Prosperis’ work.
“Over the years the kids have just kind of grown to think that it’s me,” Quinn told me. “[But] I embellish the story ... I’m a seventh-grade math teacher, so I have to try to entertain the kids.”
I’ve known Alice Flaherty for many years, but it wasn’t until a serendipitous introduction to Warren and Lucia Prosperi last winter that I decided to head to the MFA and the Prosperis’ Southborough studio, recorder in hand, to investigate the painting further. And beyond the recursive, Escher-like qualities of the installation, which appealed to my inner geek, I discovered several more layers to the story.
For one thing, the painting embodies Warren and Lucia’s unique style of collaboration. They’re known for their living and posthumous portraits of Boston movers and shakers, including Malcolm Rogers, and for historical paintings and murals. (One is a recreation of the first surgical procedure done using anesthesia, commissioned for the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the operation occurred in 1846.) Generally Warren conceives a scene and recruits appropriate models. Lucia photographs each of them in a range of poses. Later they choose the best shots and use Photoshop to create a composite image, which then guides Warren’s portrait work.
I was fascinated by that melding of old-fashioned design and digital technology to achieve an ideal, and joint, vision.
“In a lot of ways, none of the images we make are actual moments,” Lucia says. “We really deconstruct to construct.”
In their technique, the Prosperis' paintings also float in a tantalizing zone between the sensuality of a Peter Paul Rubens or a John Singer Sargent and the precision of late 20th-century photo-realism in the style of Chuck Close or John Baeder.
Flaherty, author of "The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain," views the paintings through a neurologist’s eyes. She calls Warren Prosperi’s style “optical naturalism” and says that by carefully removing or withholding certain details, he creates scenes that look “even more real than a photograph.”
All these layers combine to make a painting that does more than perhaps any other 21st-century work at the MFA to make viewers think about the meaning of art.