Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Mind-blowing portraits made of test tubes and pushpins

By Liz Stinson, Wired
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
Michael Mapes recreated some of the Dutch Masters' most famous portraits. Michael Mapes recreated some of the Dutch Masters' most famous portraits.
HIDE CAPTION
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
Pictures made of 'biographical DNA'
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Mapes reconstructed some of the most famous Dutch Masters' portraits from 17th century.
  • The New York-based artist used test tubes, pushpins strewn, or locks of hair to create the highly elaborate sculptural portraits.
  • Mapes countered the Dutch Masters' puritanical rigidity by including photographs of bare legs and bits of cleavage filling out skin tones.

(Wired) -- It's fun to imagine what Michael Mapes' studio must look like: You would assume that the New York-based artist's workspace has to resemble the lab of a harebrained entomologist, with test tubes, specimen bags and pushpins strewn about.

In reality, of course, to create the startlingly elaborate sculptural portraits Mapes is known for, he has to be much more organized than that. "It does take a fairly high degree of organization," assures me. "But that's not the hardest part."

Take a glance through Mapes' work, and you'll understand what he means. Technically, Mapes is a portraitist, though he rarely uses paint. Instead, the artist recreates the human visage by arranging fragments of a person's life—photographs, locks of hair, handwriting samples, jewelry—into highly detailed works of art.

Read more: Seven hand gestures that make you look like a real intellectual

Mapes has been making these pieces for years, generally working with subjects intimately close to him. But in his newest project, he's decided to deconstruct (then reconstruct) some of the Dutch Masters' most famous 17th century portraits, rendering classics like Bartholomeus van der Helst's painting of Geertruida den Dubbelde into startling franken-portraits.

My hope is that it encourages different ways of processing and interpreting what and how we look at things—art, science or anything.
Michael Mapes

Each of Mapes' pieces are constructed from what he describes as "biographical DNA," the little pieces of physical information he pieces together to create a finished portrait. Typically, this is a fairly simple process with Mapes gathering his photos, bits of hair, and handwriting samples from his living subject's home and then organizing them into a portrait using test tubes, little baggies or pushpins. With the Dutch Masters series, he had to be a bit more resourceful.

Mapes begins each portrait by downloading copyright-free images from various museums' websites. From there, he crops each image, zeroing in on certain features like an eyeball, fingertip or face before printing out dozens of each. "I'm occasionally reminded that I'm not a typical customer when the manager walks the envelope of prints out to me personally with a curious eye," he says.

Read more: Ever seen these pics of MDMA and LSD? They're Intense

He considers each subject as a collection of individual parts. "I tend to produce hundreds and hundreds of samples before I start working with the actual composition," he explains. "In this way, I can work more intuitively in the composition, again, with the spirit of a painter—in a lab coat, so to speak." The process of gathering these bits of biographical DNA is an attempt to form some sort of cohesive picture about what the final portrait should look like. "I generally tape a number of photos on the wall and ponder where to go from there," he says.

Of course, Mapes' final portrait is going to look a lot like the original, only with a much more of an artistically rendered shrine vibe. There are clever and nuanced departures from the 17th-century versions. For example, one thing you notice about the Dutch Masters' portraits is how utterly PG they are. Women are shrouded in black, their necks even fully covered. "These subjects were surely well known to the artists who painted them," says Mapes. "Imagine the restraint required of van der Helst in not including a bit of Geertruida's legs."

Read more: Wildly detailed drawings that combine math and butterflies

At a distance, Mapes' work echoes the puritanical rigidity of the Dutch Masters, but when you get up close and really examine what his sculptural paintings are made of you'll notice photographs of bare legs and bits of cleavage filling out the skin tone of the Dutch Masters' subjects. Mapes has even incorporated locks of hair.

All this is an attempt to shift our perspectives, and hopefully inspire us to re-examine how we perceive what's around us. "My hope," he says. "Is that it encourages different ways of processing and interpreting what and how we look at things—art, science or anything."

Read more from WIRED:

Could a Mix of Sand and Pee Be a Super-Green Replacement for Concrete?

Watch: This High-Tech 3-D Cardboard Could Make Bubble Wrap Obsolete

A Genius Design for Airplane Seats as Comfy as Aeron Chairs

Subscribe to WIRED magazine for less than $1 an issue and get a FREE GIFT! Click here!

Copyright 2011 Wired.com.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Style
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 1536 GMT (2336 HKT)
Every June, 200,000 perfectly styled people attend the Glastonbury Festival, known as much for the music as the glamor on its muddy fields.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2324 GMT (0724 HKT)
What does an acclaimed chef do for an encore after he's closed the best restaurant in the world? Starts looking for the key to all creativity.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
French photographer takes us on a nostalgic trip to the golden age of Hollywood with images of glamorous movie palaces of the art deco era.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 0854 GMT (1654 HKT)
BASEL, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 17: Visitor walk next to the artwork 'Continuel Mobile - Sphere rouge' by Michelangelo Pistoletto in the Unlimited section of Art Basel on June 17, 2014 in Basel, Switzerland. Art Basel one of the most prestigious art fair in the world, which runs until the 22nd of June 2014 will showcase the work of more than 4,000 artists selected by 300 leading galleries. (Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)
Over 92,000 people flocked to Art Basel, a top international contemporary art fair, to see works by the likes of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 0941 GMT (1741 HKT)
CNN bring you the latest from the Olympics of architecture, this year directed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 1130 GMT (1930 HKT)
After years of research art experts and scientists have found a painting hidden underneath Picasso's 1901 masterpiece "The Blue Room."
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
A convoy of the world's most luxurious supercars drives from England to the Monaco Grand Prix, causing a stir along the way.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
This is what happens when seven world-class architects design bus stops in a tiny Austrian village.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1120 GMT (1920 HKT)
A new exhibition in New York shows that when it comes to the art of origami, it takes a lot more than just folding paper.
May 26, 2014 -- Updated 0607 GMT (1407 HKT)
Vivid Sydney, a festival of light, music, and ideas, sets the sails of the iconic Sydney Opera House alight.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Atlanta's High Museum of Art is showcasing 17 visionary concept cars worth millions.
May 12, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
Flamboyant gowns, sparkling jewels and A-list celebrities.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
Wealthy Asian collectors propel sales sky-high at the annual art extravaganza.
May 16, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
The Christian Dior Museum in Granville is showcasing the designer's glamorous gowns captured through the lenses of iconic photographers.
May 13, 2014 -- Updated 0502 GMT (1302 HKT)
Proving once again that anything goes in China when it comes to design, the country's latest hotels are nothing short of incredible.
ADVERTISEMENT