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J. Shane Mercer, Published August 03 2009

Fargo artist draws inspiration from contrasts seen in Saberi news photos

When you see Matt Mastrud’s red, white and blue spray-painted images of Roxana Saberi, you might think he was looking to make some sort of social commentary on oppression or the commodification of the individual.

You’d be wrong.

“I leave the political twists to the smarter folks. I just love that smile,” says Mastrud, who goes by the moniker “Punchgut” when it comes to his art.

The two pieces, titled “Rox In” and “Rox Out,” are on display through Aug. 15 at the Upfront Gallery, 512 Broadway in Fargo. They’re part of a dual show featuring Mastrud and another pseudonym-bearing artist, Bill Harbort, aka Billy Chuck.

Inspiration for the pieces came to Mastrud at a level separate from politics.

“It was pretty much just a nod to a fellow northside Fargoan, you know?” he says.

He was intrigued by the “brilliant” smile on Saberi’s face after she was released from an Iranian prison and the contrast with the somber expression in a photo distributed during her imprisonment. Saberi was arrested Jan. 31 and charged with spying. She was released on May 11.

“And it was just the high contrast of both of the images,” says the 37-year-old. “I mean, she looks like two different people.”

Mastrud, a Fargo native well-known for the concert posters he creates, used a stenciling technique to create the simplified, close-up, portrait-style images of Saberi on boards taken from crate boxes.

The effect of those efforts and the fact that the work is focused on the image of a prominent figure harkens to the pop art of Andy Warhol. Warhol was known, among other things, for his reproductions of images of famous individuals such as Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Harbort and James Wolberg, director of the Upfront, both see reflections of Warhol in the Saberi pieces.

“It’s nearly impossible to work in the pop arena without somehow calling on Warhol,” says Harbort, who is a professor of art at Minot (N.D.) State University. “It’s sort of like what the Beatles are to music in a way.”

Mastrud acknowledges a Warhol connection, saying the pieces do “kind of fall into the pop art because she’s kind of an icon of the moment.”

The jury is still out on whether Saberi could reach the status of art icon, one of those individuals whose image becomes a fixture as a subject of the arts.

Wolberg says that because of what she has gone through, Saberi has the potential to become “a symbol of government taking its liberties with our liberties.”

David Boggs, a professor of art at Concordia College, says he believes that to achieve the art icon status the individual needs to have something “visually intriguing” about them.

And he believes uniqueness counts.

“I think nowadays especially … you have to have a little touch of difference from what has gone before,” Boggs says. “If you’re just a tall, handsome guy, there’s lots of tall, handsome guys.”

He says he “definitely” believes Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota, has the potential to become a fixture as a subject in the fine arts.

“And a lot of that will depend upon what happens in the future,” adds Boggs who says he’s known the Saberi family for about 15 years. Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy “were great subjects but only since they were well-known all over. And Roxana is somewhat known, but for a lot of people, you get outside this area and things really taper off … I think to be a longer-lasting figure than just for right now, she would need to be more widely known.”

For those convinced that Saberi is the next pop art icon, you can beat the rush. Mastrud’s images are on sale for $275 a pop. Proceeds go to Amnesty International.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734