Left: Part of “Rosa Vader.” Right: Detail of “The Ascension of Leia.”
You can’t spell Star Wars without A-R-T. And while fans and critics debate the artistic and cultural value of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which opens in theaters Thursday, an exhibit at Anacostia Arts Center in Southeast D.C. presents another view of the movie franchise.
The painting, sculpture and photography by six D.C.-area artists in the Holiday Starkillers exhibit explores the films, their thematic parallels and the overwhelming body of related merchandise.
“The entire collection of work is this fun amalgamation of homage and farce and love and ridicule,” says Andrew Wodzianski, the show’s Northeast D.C.-based curator.
At times, he wasn’t even sure it was a good idea.
“This has been a very tumultuous 10 months in the planning of this exhibit, because I’ve always been concerned that Star Wars would permeate our culture so much we would be so inundated with Star Wars marketeering and merchandising that everyone on the planet would be sick before the film’s release,” he says.
For now, it doesn’t appear that those fears were warranted. The Force Awakens has been called the most hotly anticipated movie since Gone With The Wind.
A Pink Vader, and Lucas allegories
Some Holiday Starkillers works are lighthearted, such as a three-foot-tall Darth Vader toy that Wodzianski took apart, painted pink, then put back together and titled Rosa Vader.
The painting “Father Knows Best” by Greg Ferrand is part of the exhibit.
“It’s a pretty superficial handling of Darth Vader,” he says. “It’s satire.” (Another artist in the show, Chris Bishop, has a three-panel study of Vader.)
But some works delve deeper, and in different ways. Holiday Starkillers is a double reference, both to George Lucas’ original drafts, in which Luke Skywalker’s last name was actually “Starkiller,” and to the 1978 televised Star Wars Holiday Special, which was so awkward that Lucas himself reportedly said he wished he could destroy every existing copy.
These insider references can also be seen in the artwork. In Scott G. Brooks’ painting The Ascension of Leia, a halo illuminates the princess’ iconic hairdo, as she levitates above a planetary surface. Three very ugly winged monsters hover by her feet.
“Under closer inspection you realize one of them is a Gamorrean guard from Return of the Jedi, and another is an Ewok,” Wodzianski says.
Then there are the photographs by Steve Strawn. In one black-and-white image, a figure struggles to carry a cross. The subjects don’t typically belong in this story. “Christ has been replaced with the infamous bounty hunter Boba Fett,” Wodzianski says. He gets some help from Chewbacca.
In another image, Strawn recreates the Last Supper scene, replacing Jesus and his disciples with more Star Warscharacters. Like the crucifixion and ascension imagery, these Christian allegories almost seem out-of-place during Christmastime, when the focus is on Jesus’ birth, not his death. But, religious calendars aside, Wodzianski says Christian references fit within the Star Wars narrative.
“George Lucas’ intention with his first six episodes is very much about the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, which has several Christ analogies,” Wodzianski says. “It’s important to remark that any religious allegories that are found in Star Wars was completely intentional from George Lucas.”
In a 1999 interview with Bill Moyers, Lucas said that even though he doesn’t see his creation as being profoundly religious, he “consciously set about to recreate myths.” (Of course, Star Wars references can be found in places of worship, too: At the Washington National Cathedral, a sculpture of Darth Vader looks down from the northwest tower. In Berlin, a Protestant church is getting international media coverage for its plan to hold a Star Wars-themed serviceon Sunday.)
There’s one more reason to tie Star Wars, and the exhibit, to Christmas: commercialization. Jared Davis says he tapped into that theme by making much smaller, and cheaper, works than he usually would.
“I wasn’t looking to slave over one painting that was going to be a whole lot of money, because I knew that the fan base would get excited,” Davis says.
In addition to his portraits of Darth Vader and other familiar characters, Davis also puts scenes from the movies through a cubist lens.
“Part of the fun of cubism is that it’s, you know, familiar objects, but then seen from multiple viewpoints … things that wouldn’t occur to you until you’ve actually looked at the painting for a good, long while,” he says.
One of those works is based on a scene from Episode IV: A New Hope. R2-D2 and C-3PO are playing a game of holographic chess with Chewbacca when Han Solo tells the droids that Wookiees can be sore losers, and are known to tear arms out of their opponents.
“I see your point, sir,” C-3PO says. “I suggest a new strategy, R2. Let the Wookiee win.”