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Bodies of Work

Artist Joanne Gair's skill at turning a person into an elaborate canvas is the flowering of a unique sensibility

October 09, 2002|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Artist Joanne Gair apologizes to a guest who complains of sensory overload in her presence. "I have that effect on people," she says. She is a ball of fire in Chinese pajama pants; she is a whirling dervish, a Nepalese tonka with a million faces, a human mandala.

Heidi Klum, Naomi Campbell, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Demi Moore, Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford (shall we go on?)--she's painted them all. Their bodies are Gair's canvas. "I'm an illusionist," she demurs of her body painting, revered in the world of makeup artists.

On Moore, she painted a man's suit for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1992. Her work on a Madonna video was award-winning. She can command $5,000 a day. Her most famous work, "Disappearing Model," was in "Ripley's Believe It or Not in 2000." It is an astonishing piece of trompe l'oeil in which it is barely possible to pick out the face and body of the model from the red and blue and yellow flowers of the wallpaper. In this, it has, like much of Gair's work, an eerie beauty. It is the ghost in the machine, the human inside the art, the ultimate self-expression completely erasing the personality of its canvas.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 197 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong organization--A story about body artist Joanne Gair in Wednesday's Southern California Living section incorrectly identified Frankie Lee Slater as the founder of the Art of Living Foundation. She is the founder of the Art of Living Coalition.

At Smashbox studio on a recent day in Culver City, she is painting roses on a 22-year-old model, Cassie Lane from Australia, for the opening of an exhibit of her work at PhotoImpact gallery in Hollywood that night. The exhibit of Gair's work (shot by such photographers as Annie Leibovitz, Eva Mueller, Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber) will run through the month, and Gair is working hard to make the opening unforgettable.

Lane sits half-naked in a chair she will occupy for eight hours while Gair, with her team of six artists, paints roses and tattoos and jeweled boots on her legs. "I've never felt so comfortable topless," says Lane, who with Gair, will be escorted by three bikers to the show. Gair uses her favorite tool of the trade to decorate Lane: a Sharpie marker. Lane, in curlers and roses, is sucking a cigarette and drinking a glass of chardonnay while Mark Garbarino, a prosthetics artist and special effects man, studiously paints her breasts.

That night, the street in front of PhotoImpact is crowded. A bartender has set up shop on the sidewalk. The dramatically beautiful Ford model Jana, the first model Gair ever painted, towers above the crowd. She appears twice in the collection. Inside, people of all ages walk the halls and admire the photos. It's one big fashion family.

It's a marvelous evening for fashion gossip. "She's gotten huge!" someone whispers to hairstylist Peter Savic, about a colleague who has recently been seen in a size 16. "A real heifer-model." A Hells Angel biker drinks bottled water and makes a call on his cell phone. Call so-and-so at Ford Classic models, someone advises Frankie Lee Slater, founder of the Art of Living Foundation in Los Angeles.

"I want to model what's possible," a woman says obliquely. Meanwhile, the bartender breaks into a flailing fit. "I can't stand still in front of a naked woman!" he shouts, abandoning his post to watch the entourage arrive on their Harleys.

In the world of body decoration, which includes piercings, elongated ear lobes, ritual scarring and foot binding, body painting is pretty tame. White-faced geishas, glam rockers like David Bowie, heavy-metal rockers, New Guinea tribesmen made up to look like birds of paradise, Native Americans, Indian mehndi designs--these are the forebears of the look Moore and, now, Lane have sported. Lane is not unfamiliar with the world of tattoos. She has a few herself, not to mention a pierced tongue. In fact, she likes her body painting so much that she keeps it on for two days after the opening.

What was it like living as an artwork? She went to a few clubs, staying pretty much in the Hollywood area. "It's been fun being the center of attention," she says, but not as much of a crowd-stopper as you might expect. She went to a supermarket "but no one stared. You know L.A."

Gair, 44, lives behind the Chateau Marmont in a house that makes the word "eclectic" an understatement. Her house has so much iconography from around the world that if someone was the slightest bit religious he'd feel immediately guilty. Ganesh at one end of the room and Jesus on the other. Votive candles everywhere, a painting of the feet of Christ, a Hopi necklace draped on the shoulders of Shiva; Mexican tiles and Moroccan lamps. It's a tattooed house, every alcove occupied by a prayer to someone's god.

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