"...there’s some irony in the fact that Nesgoda’s project was inspired in part by a 17th-century scandal involving a sex worker. Nesgoda became fascinated by the backstory of one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, The Death of the Virgin. The work caused an uproar in 1606 because the Italian master reportedly used his mistress, a prostitute, as a model. The Roman parish for which the painting had been commissioned rejected it, and for decades it was rarely shown in public. Raised a Catholic, Nesgoda chose the Virgin Mary masterpieces she wanted to recreate in larger-than-life prints after obsessively researching their history — the painters’ lives, the models they used, the Christian iconography. She set up her shoot in an old penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, adjacent to the cemetery where Marilyn Monroe is interred. Using porn film actors to portray Mary seemed fitting to her for a lot of reasons. 'The models in my pictures are both marginalized and glorified,” she explains. “Like the Virgin, they are untouchable and misunderstood'." Susanna Schrobsdorff, TIME magazine 2018
"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. 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...[f]or 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." Taylor Dafoe, Artnet News, August 2018
"Nesgoda told me...that Virgin is more about how society categorizes women as virgins and whores than it is about skewering Christianity. But religious texts are rife with these archetypes. 'There’s very little of Mary in the Bible...she was just a vessel for the birth of the savior, but she doesn’t have anything to say? She has so much meaning to so many. It’s curious that she doesn’t have more to say,' Nesgoda said. She added, 'The idea of the virgin is just a way to categorize and control women, in my opinion. Did it really matter if Mary was a virgin? [...] I see the Virgin and cultural icons [like porn stars] as both untouchable, in a way, and not really human.' Nesgoda cast adult film stars as the Madonna as a way of zeroing in on the complexity and humanity of both. In a way, she’s asking who is worthy of being idolized." Kara Weisenstein, Vice News 2018
VIRGIN is a photographic compendium series that brings elements of church-commissioned paintings to large-format, color slide film Cibachrome prints. The photo session was shot with bold, larger than life photo collages in mind, using imagery of artists Caravaggio, Martini & Memmi, Rubens, Botticelli, Goya, and others. Saturated colors, chiaroscuro lighting, and careful attention to skin and fabrics are the trademarks.My prints share something else with these artists: all the models are women whose profession is in sex performance. It’s no secret that many of our most cherished artistic masterpieces feature prostitutes and other marginalized women as models. Artists and their models often lived on the fringes of society. The mainstream eventually came to accept their art. But their lifestyles are often romanticized or scorned.
Art often serves as an alibi for pornography. Or else pornography is a name for art we find excessive. Like the Virgin Mary, porn stars are icons. 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. The Virgin Mary and porn stars serve as “perfect” reflective surfaces for fantasy, redemption, or both. One of the models, the entrepreneurial Dee [Noli Me Tangere], says that a porn star is “placed on a pedestal of trashiness, while the Virgin is placed on a pedestal of innocence." They are both untouchable and misunderstood. Both have enormous followings of devotees. There is a backstage to the Virgin in the Masters’ work, but it gets to the same root. There is something both primal and cultural about iconography and pornography, virgin and whore. The artist’s success lies in the shadows of blurred distinction. Throughout history, women as artistic muses were expected to be one or the other or both. Depending on the backdrop, the time of day, and the talent of the artist.
VIRGIN is an interpretation of these classic works in the light of the present. It challenges contemporary and historical notions of celebritydom, class, identity, and divinity. The series starts with the Immaculate Conception and follows the narrative of her life, death, and Assumption into heaven. Attention is given to the use of classic Catholic iconography, such as the exposed breast (humanity) and feet (humility). In any time period, iconic portraiture is subject to the laws of social and political life, but every work of art functions and has meaning on many levels. It’s the secret intermediary between human beings and divinity.