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Playing with the stars

Francesco Vezzoli has enlisted celebrities to assist in his deconstruction of fame, Sarah Milroy writes. Is he heir to the Warhol throne?

Globe and Mail Update

'He wanted to be a celebrity himself," reads a giant fake movie poster in Francesco Vezzoli's exhibition at The Power Plant in Toronto, "but how far is too far?"

The 36-year-old Italian artist has conducted his career riding the glossy, curling wave of that question, enlisting the support of film, fashion and television celebrities - Helen Mirren, Veruschka, Sonia Braga, Gore Vidal, Bianca Jagger, Courtney Love, the list goes on - in the making of his performance, print and film-based works. These are witheringly precise deconstructions of the mechanisms of mass entertainment and fame, entailing exquisite mimicry of the tropes of the movie and television.

Detractors have seen Vezzoli as just another wannabe out to grow his own brand by rubbing shoulders (and maybe more) with celebs. But the art world is coming to see him increasingly as a shrewd diagnostician of Western society's consuming media obsessions.

In this regard, he is the inheritor of the Warhol mantle, although he quails at the idea. Meeting to talk about his work last week at the gallery, he said: "I get nervous when people say this because, to me, he is up so high," his English usage stumbling a bit in the fluster of the moment. With aquiline features worthy of one of Bronzino's velvet-clad courtiers, he is clad in blue jeans and his hair could use a wash.

Warhol is a star, in his mind, precisely for his ability to play with power without succumbing to its virus. "I am increasingly amazed by the way in which the art world is coming to resemble the movie business," he says, "and by the growth of our field. Warhol had the great premonition." Playing devil's advocate, perhaps, Vezzoli declares Warhol's most important works to be his pay-to-play society portraits of the eighties, precisely the works that the critics love to hate for their sycophantic vacuity.

"He paid the price of respectability by identifying and upgrading a whole class of people who were not taken seriously as collectors at that time but have since become a force in the art world," he says, referring to Warhol's silkscreen portraits of the brash new fast-money crowd that now swarms the art fairs of London, New York and Miami. "It used to be you had to have something to be considered an important collector," he says - things like taste, education, depth of soul, vision. "Now," he says, "it's just about money."

Decadence and vulgarity define the work that gained Vezzoli his own first shot at stardom: Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula, a five-minute fake movie trailer that stole the show at the Venice Biennale in 2005, with Vezzoli in the role of the depraved emperor. The projection work posits a remake of the erotically charged 1979 original, written by Gore Vidal. Vezzoli talked Vidal into performing a cameo, also conscripting Helen Mirren, Karen Black and Benicio del Toro into his cast.

The result is a hilariously over-the-top pastiche of big-budget excess, complete with thunderous sound effects and a cast of (seemingly) thousands. In fact, the whole thing was shot in just two days at an art collector's house on Sunset Boulevard. "It looked like the White House," Vezzoli says of the pillared and porticoed villa in which man-slaves are walked on leashes, ejaculate is harvested for eye serum (to reduce puffiness, one presumes) and there's more slipping and sliding than in the otter tank at the San Diego zoo. "It was perfect."

The work recalls Greco-Roman antiquity, a fitting subject, perhaps, for a man who received a classical schoolboy's education in his native Brescia. "My upbringing was completely bourgeois, very middle-class," he says. His mother was a pediatrician and his father a lawyer. Left-leaning in their politics, they didn't have the money to have art in the house, with the exception of a small multiple artwork by Joseph Beuys given to them by a friend: a small blackboard work inscribed with the words "Kunst = Kapital" (Art = Capital).

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