Want to know the last thing Chris Rock saw at the Oscars before Will Smith slapped him next week?
Mixed media: acrylic, oil, collage, grout. Suitable for dining room, living room or gallery.
The 30″ x 40″ canvas shows the ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Men in Black’ star, face contorted with anger, about to deliver a devastating blow to the viewer.
So how did Hackensack artist Joe LaMattina finish this piece so quickly — just days after Will Smith graced comedian Chris Rock in that incredible moment in front of 15.4 million viewers at the March 27 Academy Awards?
The answer is he didn’t.
This picture of Will Smith was painted 14 years ago. in 2008, LaMattina thinks it was.
Like the “Twilight Zone” character, whose camera captures images of the future, LaMattina seems to have received a mysterious, early hint of an event that few of us could have anticipated.
“Call it psychic,” he said. “I do not know. It’s pretty much in sync. When that happened at the Oscars, I was ‘holy’ the next day [expletive].’ “
His first impulse, he said, was to contact his friend Randy Glover, the Hackensacker who bought the painting in 2010.
“I was like, ‘I have to text Randy and say your picture 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 about the implications of his far-sighted purchase. He just likes the picture.
“You can interpret the expression as angry or that he’s rapping and having fun,” he said. “But it’s interesting that the portrait ‘Pow!’ called. That would mean he’s actually hitting someone.”
LaMattina is an established artist. His work has been featured in juried exhibitions and solo shows from Orangeburg, New York to Anchorage, Alaska. But he is also a teacher, who taught art at primary and secondary schools in Hackensacker for many years until his retirement in 2010.
In his classroom at Hackensack High School, he kept boxes of images—old photos, magazine clippings, newspaper clippings, advertisements—that might be inspirational to his students, and perhaps to himself. There, in 2008, he found a photo of a young man striking a combative pose.
He didn’t know it was Will Smith. Unlike Andy Warhol, he is not attracted to celebrities. “I’m not really a big movie fan, I kind of lack that gene,” he said. A student had to tell him that the warlike young man in the picture was none other than the fresh prince himself. However. LaMattina just liked the picture.
“I don’t remember what I was thinking,” he said. “There was something about the expression, the movement of the beating in the picture, that really appealed to me.”
He worked on the piece in class, he recalls. Or rather, one of his former students remembered it on Facebook when he posted the picture the day after the Oscars. Needless to say, his account exploded.
“I got a million reactions straight away,” he said. “Like ‘OMG, you work really fast.’ ‘OMG, did you do that in one night?’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, I did that years ago.’ People said you’re a psychic, you’re an empath.”
The thing that seems eerie about this picture – in hindsight – is that most people wouldn’t have thought of Will Smith as an angry, confrontational guy until last Sunday.
True, he played Muhammad Ali in 2001. We knew he could strike. But in terms of his screen persona, he’s usually more on the Tom Hanks end of the spectrum. “It’s warm and fuzzy,” LaMattina said.
That this one martial image of Smith had been circulating decades earlier – and that this, of all things, was the one that LaMattina picked up without knowing who it was – is inconceivable.
“I was actually painting that night, late, maybe 10:30 p.m., and someone called me and said, ‘Have you seen Will Smith?’ And I said: ‘No, I painted.’ And they said, ‘Turn on the news.’ And I was like, oh my god, ‘Pow!’ It’s like there’s a fortune teller thing going on.”
His own reaction to the Will Smith dispute? Complicated.
“It was kind of like ‘Whose side am I on?’ Somehow everyone thought so. Who was right and who was wrong?”
rich and famous
On the other hand, Glover, a community activist and event promoter who has worked with many stars, sees Sunday’s brawl 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 differently than normal people,” Glover said.
There is no doubt that Smith was in a rage when he slapped Chris Rock. But there was also something performative about it, Glover suspects.
“He hit him,” Glover said. “Then he literally straightened his jacket, shrugged his shoulders, with a smug look on his face, like, ‘I showed that [expletive].’ Like he’s in a scene.”
The other thing on Glover’s mind, as did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and – probably – some other black viewers was that this one TV moment could negatively and unfairly impact perceptions of the African American community.
“In a single stubborn swipe, he has advocated violence, belittled women, insulted the entertainment industry and perpetuated stereotypes about the black community,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in a column Tuesday. That’s not something a white viewer needs to think about when they see a white man punching another at Jerry Springer.
Thank heavens, Glover said Chris Rock stayed cool — and his class.
“What if Chris Rock was a black belt unbeknownst to anyone and his reaction was to mess up Will Smith with a quick kick? That would have turned into something negative [expletive].”
In the meantime, Will Smith or not Will Smith, “Pow!” will keep its place of honor in Glover’s dining room. He is an art collector: he owns at least six of LaMattina’s works. And he likes this one.
“I’m glad to have all of Joe LaMattina’s pictures,” 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 accounts of how you spend your free time, subscribe or activate your digital account today.