Virgin Mary Gets a Make-Over at L.A. Art Show


For four days, January 20-24, 2010, the 15th Annual L.A. Art Show was held in the West Wing of the downtown Convention Center. This is one of the four largest shows in the U.S. and it is filled with hundreds of galleries and thousands of spectacular works of art. At the David Lawrence Gallery, I was kindly introduced to the work of Tao Dong Dong, which I have been enjoying and contemplating these months since.

It is rare to find something interesting enough to contemplate. That is what excites me about Tao Dong Dong’s work. The images at first don’t look pretty to me. My first reaction was not to look at these images, but to look away.

The first painting I saw was the underwater Marilyn, part of his series of “Water World” images. I had been wandering from one Marilyn after another, thinking about the iconic beauty, and how she was represented by so many artists at the fair in so many forms. In this image, Marilyn, as Andy Warhol would have seen her colorized, is only an image flattened under a pool of water.

virgin mary 2
(c) 2010, Tao Dong Dong, with courtesy of

The surface refraction of the water in rippling motion creates depth, so that crests of light pull the viewer to the distorted patterning, which obliterates one’s original preconceptions about the icon underneath. Approaching the iconic with a blank state, it becomes abstract and void of meaning in the few seconds that the brain suspends recognition of what we’ve already seen thousands of times.

As I took a second look at Marilyn, to see if I could see “underneath” the surface of the water, a representative of the gallery approached me and she and I struck up a conversation about the artist, for whom she had a deep respect. She talked about the process of developing a photograph, in which the images are submerged in chemical baths. A person with more classic photography experience than me might have instantly thought of that when first seeing the paintings.

What I liked more and more about the work was that it made me keep looking at it. On a purely physical level, I wanted to look because I couldn’t see the surface of the water at the same time as the image below. Trying to get to what was underneath seemed like a metaphor for how we try to approach iconic representations of archetypes; looking past the representation or outward form to the symbolic meaning of that figure in that culture at that time, distilled.

For example, Marilyn Monroe is a person who people today, born decades after her death in some cases, still feel like they “know.” But the “knowing” is really trying to reconstruct a sense of depth from what we only really know on the surface, trying to see meaning, or understanding, in something we are far removed from.

Other subjects of the Water World series include the Virgin Mary, Venus, and Buddha. I took home with me a lovely set of prints, one of which I tacked up on my wall, a picture of the Virgin Mary. I have enjoyed looking at this image, as it fills me with a sense of peace and calm. The act of looking and looking again, seeing distortion, and then seeing wholeness, is an ongoing process and something I look for as a sign of accomplishment in art. I look forward to continuing to watch Tao Dong Dong’s ideas progress.