Justin Aversano set the standard for NFT-based photography projects with “Twin Flames,” a collection of 100 photos of twin siblings tokenized on the Ethereum blockchain. The project has captivated collectors, racked up millions of dollars’ worth of sales, and made it to auction house Christie’s and the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
On Saturday, Aversano will showcase his follow-up collection, “Smoke and Mirrors,” at Gabba Gallery in Los Angeles.
First launched last year as Ethereum NFTs, “Smoke and Mirrors” is Aversano’s interpretation of a tarot card deck, with a different portrait to represent each individual card. Aversano shot the photos in a three-year period between 2018 and 2021, following the creation of “Twin Flames.”
Aversano told Decrypt the idea for the new series came to him when he was sitting in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village, when a man wandered into view with a tarot deck in hand, angrily ranting about black magic. Aversano had recently been noticing a rising interest in tarot cards, and it aligned with his own interest in mysticism and magic.
“He comes right in front of me and he throws the tarot cards in the air,” Aversano recalled. “They’re all raining down in front of me, and I’m like: What is going on right now? And I looked at him, and I looked at the cards, and I asked him: ‘Hey, can I have these? Are you throwing these away?’ And he’s like: ‘Yeah, fuck that black magic shit. I don’t want this.’”
The interaction provided him with a physical tarot deck—and more importantly, the inspiration to create his own “deck” of photos.
Aversano took on the “Knight of Staffs” role himself, as it was the sole card missing from the set that rained down on him in front of him. He then shot other artists, mystics, and Web3 builders from around the world, including author Neil Gaiman, musician Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, and even the Winklevoss twins.
“Smoke and Mirrors” consists of 78 black-and-white photos, each of which were minted as Ethereum NFTs and sold last year. The original images were also turned into silkscreen prints on papyrus, which will be exhibited at Gabba from March 25 through April 8.
They’re all eye-catching black-and-white portraits, but one especially stands out from the pack: a photo of Aversano’s father standing next to the gravestone of the photographer’s mother.
“There’s a lot of confrontation of fear and death in this [collection], and I honor this project towards my father,” he said. “There’s no coincidence why the death card is of my father next to my mother’s grave. It’s, to me, the purest and best image I’ve ever taken, because it’s the most honest and true. […] It stops you in your tracks when you see it.”
Aversano initially planned to hold four shows for “Smoke and Mirrors,” but pared it down to two: the initial Los Angeles exhibition and a follow-up at Expanded.Art in Berlin from April 25 to May 14, curated by Anika Meier.
He’s displayed his art in major venues, but described the Gabba show as “the one that matters the most” because it’s his first L.A. exhibition. He’s spent the last two years making the silkscreens in the back of Gabba Gallery with owner and curator Jason Ostro. “I’ve never seen a gallerist show up for me like Jason has at Gabba, in my life,” Aversano said.
Given his rising profile and name recognition over the last two years, Aversano could have shown “Smoke and Mirrors” at a bigger-name gallery. But Gabba feels like home for the project, and he said it was the “most honorable thing to do.”
“It’s not Gagosian, it’s not Pace—it’s actually real. It’s not a fancy gallery, it’s a community gallery,” Aversano said. “What we have here is the truth, and down to earth, and the reality is: you just need a space to exhibit, and it doesn’t need to be the best space in the world. It just needs to be what feels right.”
After the shows are done, the accompanying book is released (via NFT redemption tickets), and the project is finished, what’s Aversano up to next?
“I’m gonna disappear,” he told Decrypt. “That’s my final magic trick after ‘Smoke and Mirrors’—I’m gonna do a disappearing act.”