The Oscars, through the lens of art at the MIA

If you’re watching the Academy Awards this Sunday and find your mind wandering—as it likely will over the course of four hours—consider these connections between several of the nominees for Best Picture and artworks from the MIA collection. The movies, after all, trade in established iconography, visual shorthand. (Earlier this year on MIA Stories, John Waters protege George Figgs similarly juxtaposed great movies with great art at the MIA.) So here’s another way of seeing moving pictures for what they are—still pictures, one after another.

MuxterMaeamericanhustle1. American Hustle, paired with Mae, plate 29, from “Fun, Friends, and Relatives”

This fast-moving flick about disco-era con men, co-starring Christian Bale’s un-aerobicized belly, is probably the most fun of any Oscar-nominated movie this time around. There’s just something about that louche time, innocent in its own way. And it’s reflected, too, in this image from Ramon Muxter, a former MIA employee who captured the anything-goes underground of the 1970s as it was bubbling to the surface. Here, he poses with Mae West, the faded film star whose overt sexuality fit right into the times, forty years after her screen life.

medium-3012-years-a-slave-poster2. 12 Years a Slave, paired with African/American

Steve McQueen’s fresh take on the horrors of slavery, in this case the story of a freeman kidnapped and taken to a plantation, resonates in its sincerity and edginess with Kara Walker’s contemporary work. Her 1990s paper cutouts put a new spin on a 19th-century medium, an appropriation owing something to Pop Art (she was a big Andy Warhol fan growing up). And they have a cinematic feel, suggesting a narrative—the unfinished story of the antebellum South. Here, a female slave tumbles down in an elegant yet disturbing composition, at once harmonious and horrifying.

HelmetGRAVITY3. Gravity, paired with “Discoverer” table television

An intense, near-wordless exercise in suspense, Gravity puts the fear back in space, casting it as a heartless, airless field of dangerous debris. Which it is. Half a century ago, we were more optimistic. This Philips TV channeled the enthusiasm for space fueled by the moon landings and, later, the Star Wars movies. Who wouldn’t want to watch the space shuttle takeoffs on a TV like this, and imagine ourselves up there someday soon.

Old ManNEBRASKA4. Nebraska, paired with Two Studies of the Head of an Old Man

A cantankerous old man insists he’s won a magazine sweepstakes. His son, in a hard-won compromise, agrees to take him across the Plains to Nebraska to claim his prize. A study of a life not-so-well-lived, it’s a dark comedy in the manner of Sideways. On the other hand, the character Jacob Jordaens was trying to depict with his study of an old man, around 1630, was likely more redeeming: a man beseeching the heavens and bowing his head, as though to pray. Both men will meet their maker, one will just have to be dragged, kicking and screaming.

MapplethorpeA disheveled Matthew McConaughey gets arrested in scenes for 'The Dallas Buyers Club' in New Orleans5. Dallas Buyers Club, paired with Paul Wadina, from the suite America.

A homophobic Texan finds out he’s HIV positive, bonding him in unexpected ways with gay men. This being the early 1980s, his prognosis isn’t great—until he he organizes an end run around government and big pharm to obtain a promising drug cocktail. Robert Mapplethorpe, at the time, was feverishly documenting the gay underworld even as he indulged it it, his homoerotic photographs embodying everything the homophobes feared. Mapplethorpe and several of his lovers died of AIDS, Mapplethorpe in 1989. Paul Wadina was among the many muscly men in the Arnold Schwarzenegger mode, gay and straight, who doffed their clothes for Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, and other photographers of the era, their robust physiques in stark contrast to the ravages of a new, unfettered disease.