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'Mona Lisa' inspires new takes on femininity

Luke Quinton

Like many who have hiked the gilded halls of the Louvre in Paris, Austin photographer Rino Pizzi has never seen the "Mona Lisa," not really.

That's because, these days, Leonardo da Vinci's masterwork is encased in bulletproof glass and swarmed, more often than not, by a crush of humans, each trying to capture one of the world's most-photographed images on their own cameras.

They want to mark the occasion, to possess the image for themselves.

Meanwhile, Pizzi says, hardly a soul stands before da Vinci's "Virgin of the Rocks," a work of comparable skill, but without the history of the "Mona Lisa": It was not carried around day and night by the artist, it wasn't stored in Napoleon's bedroom.

In the back room of the Austin Museum of Art, Pizzi's "Mona Lisa Project" is an attempt to reimagine this iconic image.

Pizzi, a native Sicilian who has called Austin home since 1985, decided to use Mona Lisa as a template for new work.

It was a fairly narrow idea to start. He would photograph 16 Texas artists, all women, in variants of the Mona Lisa pose, and then the artists would take the print and appropriate it for their own purposes.

"To be frank, in the process, I didn't know what to expect," he says.

And when his printer offered up new possibilities for materials, the vision expanded. Pizzi photographed the artists over the course of four months. Some practiced their best Mona Lisa smile, and some chose purposely conflicting backgrounds and had other ideas about how their Mona Lisa should smile or gesture.

They met at certain junctures to discuss the printing and the vision overall, unexpectedly forming a new community, Pizzi says.

What resulted was what Pizzi calls an "intense experiment in creativity." It's 16 versions of Mona Lisa, remade, with modern techniques and modern ideas about what makes provocative art.

Taken as a whole, the works act as a brilliant survey of women working in Austin and Texas. It's teeming with beauty, but also with subversion and irony.

In her take on Mona Lisa, "Ah, Youth," Nancy Scanlan gave herself a hand: or, actually, an extra set of arms, one of which she uses to pull back the skin on her face in a mock face lift.

Faith Gay's portrait is adorned on two sides with blue-painted magnolia leaves, dangling from a neon pink string.

Sally Weber built a ghostly hologram of her image, set in a gilded frame.

We can't really see Margo Sawyer, because her image sits on a light box, below a grid of acrylic pyramids, so that we're given a bug-eyed view. It's never a clear picture, just certain angles, refracted and repeated.

Any number of these works speaks volumes about femininity, art and the possibilities and limitations of each medium.

Jana Swec's "Maiden, Mother, Crone," uses her trademark organic swirls, woody tangles to surround her head. It's both beautiful and Gorgonian.

Ellen Berman made a book, but her portrait is covered in Mylar. The inscription says she was "inspired by how the Mona Lisa's iconic status keeps viewers from really looking at the image."

No other work of art has this impact, Pizzi says. "It still carries this mythology."

The image has been endlessly co-opted. It appears in college dorm rooms and puzzles. Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali both mocked the work by painting versions with a moustache.

And our interest is hardly waning. In May of this year an excavation began in a crypt in Florence, Italy, to find the bones of Lisa Gherardini, the suspected model.

But this fruitful collaboration shows us how wide and deep is the well of inspiration, and how much artists have to offer beyond the mainstream art icons who are known to us all.

'The Mona Lisa Project'

When: Through Sept. 11

Where: Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress Ave.

Cost: $4-$5