Want to know the last thing Chris Rock saw, at the Oscars, before Will Smith slapped him into next week?
Mixed media: acrylic, oil, collage, grout. Suitable for dining room, living room or gallery display.
The 30-inch by 40-inch canvas shows the star of “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” face contorted with rage, about to deliver a knock-down blow right at the viewer.
So how did Hackensack artist Joe LaMattina get that piece done so quickly — just days after Will Smith, in that unbelievable moment, decked comedian Chris Rock in front of 15.4 million viewers at the March 27 Academy Awards?
The answer is, he didn’t.
That image of Will Smith was painted 14 years ago. In 2008, LaMattina thinks it was.
Like the “Twilight Zone” character whose camera takes pictures of the future, LaMattina seems to have gotten a mysterious, early heads-up of an event few of us could have anticipated.
“Call it psychic,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s pretty synchronistic. When that happened at the Oscars, the next day I went ‘Holy [expletive].’ “
His first impulse, he said, was to contact his friend Randy Glover, the Hackensack resident who purchased the painting back in 2010.
“I thought, ‘I gotta send Randy a text, saying your painting just went up in value.'”
Meanwhile Glover, who recalls paying between $800 and $1,200 for the piece 12 years ago, hadn’t even thought through the implications of his far-sighted purchase. He just likes the painting.
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“You can interpret the expression as angry, or that he’s rapping and having fun,” he said. “But it’s interesting that the name of the portrait is ‘Pow!’ That would mean he’s really punching someone out.”
LaMattina is an established artist. His work has been seen in juried shows and solo shows from Orangeburg, New York, to Anchorage, Alaska. But he’s also an educator, who taught art in Hackensack elementary and secondary schools for many years before his retirement in 2010.
In his classroom at Hackensack High School, he kept boxes of images — old photos, clips from magazines, newspapers, advertisements — that might be inspirational for his students, and perhaps for himself. That’s where, back in 2008, he found a photo of a young man, striking a pugilistic pose.
He didn’t know he was Will Smith. Unlike Andy Warhol, he doesn’t gravitate toward celebrities. “I’m not really a big movie buff, I’m kind of missing that gene,” he said. A student had to tell him that the belligerent young man in the picture was none other than The Fresh Prince himself. Whatever. LaMattina just liked the image.
“I don’t remember what I was thinking,” he said. “There was something about the expression, the motion of the punching in the picture, that I really liked.”
He worked on the piece in class, he recalls. Or rather, one of his former pupils remembered it for him, on Facebook, when he posted the image the day after the Oscars. Needless to say, his account blew up.
“I got a million reactions right away,” he said. “Like ‘OMG, you work really fast.’ ‘OMG, you did that in one night?’ And I’m saying, ‘No, no, I did that years ago.’ People were saying you’re a psychic, you’re an empath.”
The thing that seems uncanny about that image — in retrospect — is that most people would not have thought of Will Smith as an angry, confrontational guy before last Sunday.
True, he did play Muhammad Ali in 2001. We knew that he could throw a punch. But in terms of his screen persona, he’s typically more at the Tom Hanks end of the spectrum. “He’s warm and fuzzy,” LaMattina said.
That this one bellicose image of Smith was floating around decades earlier — and that this, of all images, was the one LaMattina seized upon without even knowing who it was — is the kind of thing you can’t make up.
“I was actually painting that night, late, maybe 10:30, and someone called me up and said, ‘Did you see Will Smith?’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve been painting.’ And they said, ‘Put on the news.’ And I thought, oh my God: ‘Pow!’ It’s like, there’s a fortune-teller thing going on.”
His own reaction to the Will Smith crash? Complicated.
“It was kind of, ‘Whose side am I on?’ Kind of what everybody was thinking. Who was right and who was wrong?”
Rich and famous
On the other hand, Glover, a community activist and events promoter who has worked with many stars, sees the Sunday slap-down as a celebrity thing. For him, it was a reminder that the very famous, like the very rich, are different from you and me. “They see things in a different way than regular people,” Glover said.
No doubt Smith was in a towering rage when he slapped Chris Rock. But there was also, Glover suspects, something performative about it.
“He smacked him,” Glover said. “Then he literally adjusted his jacket, shifted his shoulders up, with a smug look on his face, like, ‘I showed the [expletive].’ Like he was in a scene.”
The other thing that occurred to Glover, as it did to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and — probably — some other Black viewers, is that this one TV moment could negatively, and unfairly, affect perceptions about the African American community.
“With a single petulant blow, he advocated violence, diminished women, insulted the entertainment industry, and perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in a column Tuesday. It’s something no white viewer has to think about, when they see one white dude clobber another on Jerry Springer.
Thank heavens, Glover said, that Chris Rock kept his cool — and his class.
“What if Chris Rock was a Black Belt, unbeknownst to anybody, and his reaction was to mess Will Smith up with one swift kick? That would have devolved into some negative [expletive].”
Meanwhile—Will Smith or no Will Smith—”Pow!” is going to keep its pride of place in Glover’s dining room. He’s an art collector: he has at least six of LaMattina’s pieces. And he likes this one.
“I’m happy to have all of Joe LaMattina’s paintings,” he said. “I just enjoy what he does.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.