“Elvis/Marilyn” by David Scheinmann | Photo by Sara Havens

Cultural icons have always dominated the canvases of art. After all, a painter usually chooses a subject he knows well, wants to honor or is fascinated with — whether that’s Jesus Christ or Britney Spears.

Times have certainly changed since saints and saviors were the heroes of the day, and now, our culture places much of its worship — for better or worse — on celebrities and sports figures. The latest 21c Museum Hotel exhibit focuses on this topic and explores the imagery of manufactured fantasy as it relates to the past and present.

“Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art” is one of 21c’s largest shows to date and includes more than 90 pieces by 53 internationally acclaimed and emerging artists — from Frances Goodman and Mickalene Thomas to Nick Cave and Kehinde Wiley. The show is so grandiose, it inhabits just about every gallery and hallway in the museum.

A portion of the exhibit first debuted at the grand opening of 21c Durham (N.C.) two years ago, but dozens of pieces have been added for this installation in Louisville.

Alice Gray Stites

While at first glance, the pieces seem accessible and familiar, there is much more purpose and meaning bubbling just below the surface. Insider met up with 21c’s chief curator Alice Gray Stites for a brief tour and explanation of what it all means.

Stites explains that in art, the popular is now the dominant, and there are no longer distinctive categories like fine art. She reiterates the theme she quoted in the exhibit’s original press release:

“As the real and the virtual increasingly collide, boundaries between art and media further blur, inspiring new mythologies realized in new materials — stars of stage, screen and sport are re-envisioned, offering insight into how desire shapes identity. Appropriating images and practices from commerce, science, politics, religion, sports and technology, these artists illuminate recent shifts in how culture is being created and consumed.”

“MoMA Don’t Preach” by Olivier Blanckart | Photo by Sara Havens

The first piece of the show, “MoMA Don’t Preach” by Belgian artist Olivier Blanckart, is situated near the museum’s front door and is hard to miss. It’s a life-size sculpture of Madonna performing in a concert with her foot propped up on a small trampoline. Upon further inspection, you can see a reproduction of Picasso’s controversial “Demoiselles d’Avignon” on the trampoline’s surface.

The title references New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which has the Picasso painting in its collection. While the painting was considered radical in its day (1907), it is one of MoMA’s most celebrated pieces.

Stites says that juxtaposition is what the artist is commenting on by having a pop icon literally stomping on the art.

“It’s Blanckart’s way of making fun of traditional institutions that are trying to control what is art and what is worthwhile,” she says.

Another can’t-miss piece is the replica of the World Trade Center in American artist Ryder Ripps’ “Barbara Lee (Towers).” As you approach the scale model, you begin to see thousands of images of people, products and slogans the artist sourced from the internet.

According to the artist’s statement, the artwork is a commentary on what he calls our “attention-based economy,” meaning pop culture is being created and consumed on screens, and current events, info and opinions are incessantly available at all times.

“Barbara Lee (Towers)” by Ryder Ripps | Photo by Sara Havens

The title refers to California politician Barbara Lee, the only congressperson who voted against allowing the president to authorize use of force against anyone deemed a threat following 9/11. Ripps believes it was the images of 9/11 that ultimately convinced Congress to vote for the authorization.

The show features many familiar celebrities, politicians and sports figures of the day, including Oprah, Lady Gaga, President Obama, Michael Jackson, Charlize Theron, Tina Turner and more. And almost all, says Stites, blur the lines of secular and sacred, profound and profane.

Another interesting look at celebrity culture comes from local artist Jacob Heustis’ “Paris Whitney Hilton,” which is a portrait of Paris Hilton etched onto glass by a diamond. Alongside her image are words and phrases that either she wrote or have been written about her.

The diamond the artist used to create the piece references both the wealth of his subject and her eligibility for marriage. And he chose the glass, Stites says, because the viewer is partly responsible for giving Hilton her celebrity status.

“Ascension” by Titus Kaphar | Courtesy of 21c

“By using a mirror as a canvas, we can’t escape our own reflection and our own implication in feeding this media machine,” she says.

One of the most striking pieces of the show is American artist Titus Kaphar’s “Ascension,” which shows the iconic image of basketball star Michael Jordan soaring to the basket above the court, but replacing the silhouette of Jordan appears to be Jesus from Rogier van der Weyden’s famous 1435 painting “The Descent from the Cross.”

Stites points out the silhouette is affixed to the painting by brass nails, further tying the symbolism of the image to the crucifixion.

“The piece speaks to the religious passion mirrored in our own obsession in sports and also the sacrifice we ask athletes to make for their fame,” she explains.

Although we’d love to go into detail about many more pieces in the exhibit, we want to save some of the mystery.

But we will mention a few more highlights: R. Luke DuBois’ “(Pop) Icon: Britney” is a video featuring the singer from all her music videos morphing around her, but her eyes remain locked in one position, evoking a Greek icon; a live video portrait of Lady Gaga, by artist Robert Wilson, posing as the subject of J.A.D. Ingres’ 1806 painting “Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere,” a 15-year-old sitter who died shortly after the painting was made; and Dietrich Wegner’s “Cumulous Brand, Bill” showing a fetus with advertising logos all over its body.

As Stites was explaining Laurel Nakadate’s “Tucson #1” photograph, we thought her sentiments about Nakadate’s process summed up the show nicely.

“Tucson #1” by Laurel Nakadate | Photo by Sara Havens

The artist used Facebook to invite participants who wanted to be photographed to meet her alone at night in a secluded place. One would assume she wouldn’t have too many takers, but Nakadate received hundreds of responses.

“We’ve come a long way from Andy Warhol saying everyone wants 15 minutes of fame,” says Stites. “People will show up anywhere just for a snapshot, even without knowing where they are.”

“Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art” continues at 21c through March of 2018. The exhibit is free and open to the public. 21c is located at 710 W. Main St.

Here’s a look at some of the other pieces: