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For celebrities like Mel Gibson and Hugh Grant, it can be hard to tell the difference between their on-screen and off-screen lives. In his show, “The Real Tinsel,” Dwayne Moser has created backdrops of infamous scenes involving celebrities. Built by backdrop artists from photos Moser takes of the sites, these paintings ask whether public figures have private lives anymore, or are even their most personal moments up for grabs?

Dwayne Moser received his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 2001. His works have been exhibited extensively in California and Europe. His most recent solo show was at Laura Bartlett Gallery, London. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles and is a faculty member at CalArts.

All images appear courtesy Stellan Holm Gallery, copyright © Dwayne Moser, all rights reserved.

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What’s “The Real Tinsel?”

The title of the show comes from this Oscar Levant quote—”Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath”—that is probably the best quote I know about Hollywood. What it’s suggesting is that underneath this artificial façade these Hollywood types wear is a real artificiality. In that way it’s kind of disparaging and I don’t necessarily mean to suggest that about all the people who are the subject of the works I’ve done.

I love the idea that what’s underneath the tinsel is still tinsel; that the private lives of these celebrities are as turbulent as some of their onscreen roles.

I started this series with Hugh Grant. For quite awhile, I think he was more known for [getting caught with a prostitute] than for his movies. Robert Downey Jr.’s private problems are just as familiar as his onscreen roles. These pieces are referencing moments in a celebrity’s private life, and in that way they are the “real tinsel,” the behind-the-scenes actual person. But obviously, these are in most cases private moments that have become very public because of who these people are and the nature of the incident that went down. The off-screen face is different and just as public.

Why are these paintings so big?

Big is a relative term. They’re big for paintings, but they’re not big for backdrops. I titled each one “Untitled Backdrop” and then I explain the location. Initially, I was making photographic work and video and a little bit of installation. I knew I wanted to make paintings and I couldn’t think of what the subject matter would be, and then one day I realized Hollywood already makes paintings in the form of backdrops. Once you’re going to use backdrop artists and you’re going to really foreground that by talking about it in the press release and titling the pieces “backdrops,” you have to think about the scale of the backdrop. Mine are quite small for backdrops—in fact too small to be backdrops. But hopefully they’re big enough as paintings to hint at the fact that I want them to be backdrops. You can walk among them and imagine yourself in that scene.

Are you in any way poking fun at these celebrities, or are they victims in some way?

I don’t think that I’m poking fun at them, although I think these paintings are fun. People see them and kind of laugh and enjoy themselves. I think all of us struggle to not live in a purely ego-based way, and the world kind of treats [celebrities] as though they are the center of the universe. They have a particular challenge in that respect. Whenever we’re messing up and doing stupid things like getting blow jobs in the back of cars and overdosing on drugs, it’s because the ego has taken over. I think that [celebrities] are victims in the sense that they have extra challenges to overcome. Obviously, there are some advantages. In a sense, these “backdrop paintings” are about those moments when [celebrities’] egos have really gotten in the way of their better selves.

Our culture is allegedly more focused on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes than the genocide in Darfur. Why are we so fascinated?

We’ve lost the faith, at least in this country, we’ve lost the faith that we can go and wipe out the Germans or the Japanese and we don’t know how we’re going to solve something like Darfur. Maybe we’re not going to solve that; because we haven’t solved a lot of things over the last 40 years. But, Tom and Katie—we can just sort of laugh at that and be titillated by it.

How were you able to photograph the hotel room where Kevin Federline cheated on Britney?

In general, I have to do a lot of research and sometimes I get police reports. In this case I found out what kind of suite it was in the Venetian Hotel [in Las Vegas], and I went and got lucky enough to be tipped off to which room was the right room. That is the only instance in which I haven’t been able to rely on official documents. I can’t promise you it’s the right room, but I feel pretty confident that it’s the right type of room. I went into it with a slight hesitation, but I liked the scandal so much because it had such a short shelf life. I don’t think that in a couple of years we will remember who Kevin Federline was.

Are you worried that people will forget the celebrities you’ve based your work around?

I used to think about that a lot and now it’s [funnier] to me if that’s the case. One of the pictures in this series is an exit ramp that Nicole Richie was forced off of when she was driving while intoxicated. If I was investing in these people as though I were investing in the stock market, I wouldn’t bet on Nicole Richie being around in 10 years, but that was partially what was interesting to me. One thing I like about the project is that it can be very of the moment. That was about two months ago to the day and here it is now as a painting in a gallery. The paintings can be as of the moment as the incidents themselves.

How do you do your research? Are you a tabloid reader in general?

I’m not much of a tabloid reader, but I look at the magazines at the grocery store and I read I find it just as much fun as anybody. I’m not clinical about it, I am pretty interested. But the project came before the research.

Sometimes you have to get official police records. Anne Heche was taken away from a house in this little town near Fresno, Calif. and she was on ecstasy and aliens had come to take her away. For that, I had to do a lot of research.

Is there a future for this project?

These days I’m looking at and the tabloids with one eye towards the scandals, but I’m also [thinking about] how I can expand the reach a little bit. You won’t run out of images, but you’d like to have more rather than less to choose from. There was a painting I showed in London of the street in front of the Argyle where Lindsay Lohan got into a big argument with Jessica and Ashlee Simpson. It was picked up in US Weekly and other magazines and I figured if it was reported on at that level it was fair game. I haven’t yet decided that Angelina Jolie buying groceries is fair game, but someday it may be.

I read that you’re a screenwriter.

I am. I teach screenwriting at Cal Arts. I’ve optioned a few scripts and like every screenwriter in L.A., I’m really close [laughs].

If you don’t mind talking about it, what is your work about?

[Laughing] All right, I’ll give you one example. The first script I wrote was a biopic about Robert Downey Jr. It requires him to star as himself. It’s very faithful to his life and about two-thirds of the way through it catches up. It’s not like Being John Malkovich; he’s not an artificial character. Even the future seems, I think, very consistent with his real lived past. He’s not a monster, or demonized in any way. It’s an emotionally driven biopic. [The script] has been optioned several times, but I don’t know how far it has gotten with him. That’s the sticking point. Maybe if he reads this he’ll want to do it.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka