Michael Gittes’ portrait of Michael Jackson, on view through January 2020 at Espoo Museum of Modern Art in Helsinki, Finland, is his latest attempt to reconcile the ephemeral with the eternal. Los Angeles-born and bred, Gittes, 31, toggles between rendering current the long forgotten and filling centuries of feelings into an evanescent moment. Gittes’ first solo show was his 2013 Civil War-themed “Moments in the Bellum” at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, part of his Syringe Series. Painting with Pointillist precision using a medical syringe, he asks us to look anew at one-time heroes whose identity transcended their own humanity. Later, he fed other syringe pieces into a blender and turned bits of those former works into new abstractions known as his Blender Series.

In 2014 Gittes exhibited his work in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Gittes’ great grandfather was Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, perhaps the preeminent Korean independence activist and poet of his day, who fled to America vowing to return with a flag of independence. Dosan was captured and died before he could do so. Gittes (a Wesleyan University graduate descended on the other side from East European Jews) painted a pre-1910 flag of a unified Korea and raised it at the DMZ after securing permission from both Koreas and the UN. It was over in the blink of an eye.

He turned to science the following year working with fire. He imported pigment from a robotics company in Scotland and a slew of other chemicals to create works that reveal themselves when set alight. The pieces don’t burn but become transformed, returning later to blank screens ready to be lit again. Gittes loves the idea of interaction, the sense of working together with his audience. He said once it was like making music: “Artists lecture you while musicians dance with you. I want to dance with my viewers.”

Last year he went further down that road in his Mirror series, luring the viewer into sharing the creative moment. The pieces insert the man-made – a bridge, a lighthouse, a statue – into vibrant backdrops of unspoiled Nature. The unnatural, colorless objects act as mirrors. Each angle presents a distinct moment for the viewer to assemble. Like that moment at the DMZ, its impact is drawn largely from its impermanence.

Los Angeles Times Q&A:


National Portrait Gallery Exhibition:


Korea Herald interview:


Park Avenue Armory short documentary: