In a curious twist, the history of fine art thievery has become a subject so fascinating, it’s spawned its own body of artwork. Kota Ezawa’s new exhibition, “The Crime of Art,” pays homage to stolen classical art masterpieces from a massive heist, through multimedia works in the form of paintings, light-boxes, and video animations. Ezawa’s artwork is on view at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens through December 5. The artist joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes along with the museum’s Curator of European Art, Nelda Damiano, to talk about the works and the brazen caper that captured Ezawa’s imagination.
The particular incident that inspired Ezawa, the “biggest art heist in American history,” took place in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. “It was a nighttime operation,” recounted Ezawa, “where two thieves dressed as policemen came to the back of the museum, and then subdued the guards, and went away with some of the most prized and famous artworks of the collection – among them, a Rembrandt seascape, and works by Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet.”
Ezawa found himself compelled to reinterpret the stolen paintings. “There was a really clear moment where this idea sprang on me,” he said. “It was the summer of 2015, and I found this website by the FBI, which is like a visual database of stolen artworks from U.S. collections and museums… I started to recreate one of the Rembrandt paintings, in the way that I have recreated photographs and other artifacts from history in the past.”
Apparently, Ezawa wasn’t alone in his preoccupation with the still-unsolved heist. “Just while I was making these drawings, a news story came up in the New York Times that a videotape had surfaced that might lead to the whereabouts of the paintings…. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really crazy coincidence.’ And I decided to recreate the entire lot of works that were removed from the museum, along with the… security videotape of activity, suspicious activity in the museum the night before the theft.”
Ezawa’s imagery often appears as a reinterpretation of the stolen works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and others. The paintings’ representations are simplified, rendered in clean, elegant lines and subdued colors. “What I’m creating is not… a precise replica of the original, but more like a ghost image, and also kind of an abstraction of the original.” The exhibition also features renderings of museum interiors with empty frames, and animations of scenes borrowed from security footage.
“One of the galleries has the thirteen light-boxes of the thirteen stolen works of art, and then in the other gallery, we have both videos. So the video which is the compilation of the [security footage] films, is set up so… you can sit down and enjoy,” said Damiano. “It’s about two minutes and a half on a loop, and the only thing we have missing is the popcorn.”
The exhibition comes with a full schedule of associated events and activities throughout the fall season, such as a presentation by the artist, a screening of the 1966 classic film starring Audrey Hepburn, How To Steal A Million, and Family Day To-Go kits – free art kits and activity guides, relating to the art on exhibition, that families can pick up and enjoy at home. “Kota’s exhibition lends itself to just fantastic programming for different audiences,” said Damiano. All the events are free to the public.
More information about the exhibition and events are available at https://georgiamuseum.org/exhibit/kota-ezawa-the-crime-of-art/.