A 7-by-4-foot American flag comprised of hand grenades and M-14 rifles cast in rubber. A monolithic Chanel logo constructed from more than 5,000 Lego pieces — in Gucci colors. Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” remade with the apostles apparently questioning the authenticity of Jesus’ Louis Vuitton robe.
Artist Jason Alper, the co-creator of Sacha Baron Cohen’s infamous characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno, is obviously not interested in playing it straight.
This sharp juxtaposition of iconic logos and pop cultural references with sometimes biting satirical wit is the hallmark of Alper’s debut Los Angeles art exhibit, “It’s All Back On,” opening Saturday at the Guy Hepner Gallery in West Hollywood.
The exhibit includes 20 eyebrow-raising, chuckle-inducing paintings and sculptures that are all inherently lowbrow. And Alper wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, the 41½-year-old (an age he insists upon) is the man who defined Cohen’s career by creating all his costumes, from the dead-accurate international hip-hop look of Ali G to the dizzying onslaught of fashion outrages worn by Bruno. The man who created Bruno’s anatomically correct bull costume is definitely going for laughs.
Having received no formal training, Alper was discovered by Bob Ringwood, the costume designer for the original “Batman” films, while working as a window dresser in a London clothing store in the 1980s. He was sent to work for Angels the Costumiers, the renowned London costume shop that has dressed films that include " Star Wars,” “Gandhi,” “Titanic” and “Shakespeare in Love.” Alper skillfully picked up the craft and worked for 20th Century Fox before going freelance.
His collaborations with Cohen, a friend and fellow Londoner, began in the late 1990s with the creation of Ali G. The duo was inspired by the “loads of white suburban kids that would talk with Jamaican accents and dress like extras in an MTV hip-hop video,” says Alper, his wry sense of humor dangling on each word he speaks.
The success of “Da Ali G Show” on HBO launched Alper’s career, allowing him to create iconic costumes such as Borat’s scandalous neon-green mankini and Bruno’s flamboyant Velcro suit — costumes that merit consideration as art pieces rather than clothing.
“I love having the freedom to create stuff without pretty much any boundaries,” Alper acknowledges. “The costume design allowed me to do that and it unleashed a beast.”
A beast now reflected in Alper’s newest creations. “My America,” one of the exhibit’s signature pieces, is especially provocative. Gleaming red and white cast rubber rifles serve as the bars on the American flag while glossy white grenades shine as stars. Unsubtle, yes, but not meant purely as social critique. It’s also meant to be beautiful.
“I love the American flag. It has a brilliant design,” Alper explains. As for his choice of material: “I wanted to take something construed as ugly and transform it into a thing of beauty.”
Some of the other mash-ups imply critique without being nearly as overt. For instance, another arresting piece, “Mr. Pink,” melds a sinister “Star Wars” stormtrooper helmet with the unmistakable ears and bowtie of the Playboy bunny. The wall-mounted foam and acrylic piece is painted a bright pink, set against glossy black plexiglass, and can easily double as an appropriate sign for a gentleman’s club in another galaxy.
But perhaps the funniest elements of Alper’s work lie in his tongue-in-cheek remakes of well-known oil paintings by masters such as Eugene Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David. In his reproduction of David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” Alper has altered the French leader’s horse by covering its brown coat with the Louis Vuitton logo, bringing the Little Corporal and his steed up to today’s fashion standards.
So what does Alper expect people to take from his art?
“I want it to be fun. I don’t want people standing around pondering what things mean. I want people to be part of the joke, to walk in and get it.”