This Artist Took a Photo of Stormy Daniels as the Virgin Mary. Now the 16-Year-Old Work Is Having a Renaissance
Nika Nesgoda’s series “VIRGIN,” on view for the first time now, recreated religious scenes with adult film stars.
In 2002, Nika Nesgoda completed a series of photographs recreating hagiographic scenes from Old Master paintings with adult film stars cast as the Madonna. She sought to combine Christian iconography with contemporary pornography to draw attention to the fact that, from a certain perspective, both represented reductive, misogynistic views of women.
“Like the Virgin Mary, porn stars are icons,” Nesgoda explains in a description for the “VIRGIN” series on her website. “They are a cultural force, but they are rarely thought of as real people. They aren’t expected to have personality or humanity. If we look at them, we don’t really see them.”
Nesgoda re-envisioned episodes like the Immaculate Conception, the Pietà, and the Annunciation. In the latter, based off of a 1333 Italian altar painting by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, the Virgin Mary was portrayed by a woman named Stephanie Clifford, who at the time called herself Stormy Weathers. Today, we know her as Stormy Daniels.
More than a decade and a half later, Nesgoda’s series is being shown for the first time ever. And given Daniels’s place in the news, it is imbued with new meaning.
Presented by McNeill Art Group and curated by Eve Gianni Corio in collaboration with Laura Eisman and Sylvia Hommert, “Nika Nesgoda: VIRGIN” is on view through August 29, 2018 at the Spur in Southampton, New York. All profits from the large-scale prints on display will be donated to non-profit human rights organizations.
The series was inspired by Caravaggio’s early 17th century painting, Death of the Virgin, which now belongs to the Louvre. When the Italian old master unveiled the work in 1606, it was rejected by the Roman parish. It quickly became a source of controversy for both its treatment of the subject and the rumored accusation that Caravaggio modeled the virgin after his mistress, a prostitute.
After looking into more Old Master works—especially those commissioned by the church—Nesgoda found that when in need of models, many painters turned to sex workers, servants, and other marginalized women—the type of people who, as she puts it, “would not have been invited to the unveiling of the portraits.”
“For centuries, the treatment of women in artworks was dichotomous,” Nesgoda tells artnet News. “To be a muse, you were either a virgin or a whore.” And of course, the artist points out that, these labels still define women today.
When the work was originally created, though, no one could have predicted the sheer extent to which her photographs would capture that paradox.
Nesgoda set up shop in a penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. She describes her models as being punctual and extremely easy to work with. Most of them came from religious backgrounds, she discovered. Some still practiced. All of them believed in God in some capacity. They also understood the point of Nesgoda’s project immediately.
Daniels, 23 at the time, was far from a known name, even in the adult entertainment industry. She had just recently made the transition into adult pictures. The actress was recommended to Nesgoda by a makeup artist, based on her look.
The photos received mixed reviews from the few who saw them. The man Nesgoda usually went to for printing duties refused to print them. When she did get them printed, she put them away for many years.
“I had gotten the work out of my system,” recalls the artist. (Nesgoda’s work has also changed a great deal since then.)
In fact, even as news of Daniels’s alleged affair with president Trump broke and the controversy spiraled—inspiring many a punny headline along the way—Nesgoda didn’t fully realize that the actress was the same “Stormy” she had photographed in LA years earlier. When she did make the connection, she didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until a friend of hers convinced her to pull the pictures out again that she saw their prescience.
For her, Stormy Daniels, embroiled as she is in controversy that may determine the fate of the president’s career, is a Virgin Mary figure for the 21st century.
“Here we have a woman who is seen by many as a possible savior to our situation,” says Nesgoda. “She’s become an icon. But there are also many who despise her. I’ve heard horrible comments from people about her and what she does.”
Now, Nesgoda is facing some of those comments herself. Earlier this week, the President of the Catholic League Bill Donohue called the work the “latest expression of hate” against Christians, and offered up a suggestion for the artist’s next project: “Why doesn’t she do an exhibit called ‘Muhammad’ that features Harvey Weinstein and Anthony Weiner as the prophet? That might attract a crowd, but I’d make sure to call the bomb squad first.”
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