The look-alikes were lounging behind the orchestra pit in El Museo del Barrio’s Teatro Heckscher, waiting for the contest that would select one of them as most like “JP.”

Ankur Shah griped good-naturedly that he’d endured a perm that morning to give his straight hair the look of a tousled ‘fro—which was more like JP. “I can’t say enough how horrible this experience was.” On top of that, he’d had his eyebrows waxed and “that was like crossing a fear barrier.” Of course, all the beauty shop agony would pay off if he won the deluxe trip for two to Spain.

Do You Look Like JP? is artist Paco Cao’s contribution to El Museo’s Bienal (running through February 16). Cao created the fictional character of JP by shooting digital images of 40 black and Latino men (and one woman) in Washington Heights last summer and blending them into a composite. It wasn’t a random process. He selected features that would make JP resemble, as much as possible, the acclaimed Diego Velásquez portrait of Juan de Pareja (ca. 1650) that hangs at the Met. Pareja was a slave of North African descent who worked as Velásquez’s studio assistant and became a respected painter himself once he was freed.

Cao mounted a massive publicity campaign to find JP’s twin, distributing 10-to-12,000 brochures, putting up hundreds of posters, and aspiring to billboards. He couldn’t afford any, but his digital composite of a JP billboard on Lafayette Street ran in a recent New York Times as if it were real—which is almost as good. Cao’s brochures urged contestants to use fakery of all kinds themselves, including “make-up, implants, wigs, or surgery.”

Eighteen people showed up to compete last Saturday night, sans surgery but with wigs rampant. Sandra Ruiz seemed surprised to find herself the only woman among them. Cao had assured her that gender didn’t matter. Ruiz had decided against “the whole man thing,” becoming JP only from the neck up. She’d applied some kind of black paint to approximate facial hair. “They were out of goatees,” she explained.

Three would-be JPs in rather massive Afro wigs sat around a table playing VC poker. “We’re the funky hair crew,” said Dalkiris Benjamin Gil. Their full score sheet indicated that they’d been playing for awhile, no doubt honing their competitive edges. Gil pointed across the table to the name tag—Anthony Thambynayagam—on his friend’s shirt. “You win a prize if you can say it.”

“Sometimes I can’t even say it,”said a droll Thambynayagam. And it was interesting to note later—when contestants announced their ethnic backgrounds onstage—that JP had “brothers”among the Sri Lankan (Thambynayagam) and the Indian (Shah) along with the Puerto Rican, Columbian, Jamaican, Haitian, and Dominican. He was everywhere.

For these were the lessons of JP: What’s in a name? What’s in an identity? And what truth can one find in a portrait?

Much of Paco Cao’s past work has been about separating his own identity or individuality from his physical presence.
For example, he declared his body a work of art in 1995 and signed it over to the Museum of Fine Arts of Asturias in his hometown, Oviedo, Spain. The piece, Border, wasn’t fully realized until 2000, however, when a museum in Sweden solicited a loan of the work. Cao looked forward to his encounter with customs, declaring, “If the body is a work of art, the body doesn’t need a passport.” Customs didn’t quite see it that way. So “the body” sat for hours at the Stockholm airport holding Cao’s passport in a sealed envelope. Officials from the Swedish museum solved it by opening the envelope themselves, then declaring that the piece they had just received was a copy.

In the mid-90s, Cao did a piece called Rent A Body under the auspices of Creative Time. He set limits: No sexual contact; no criminal activity. He set prices: $35 an hour to use the body as a prop; $75 an hour for any physical task and certain intellectual ones; $150 an hour for “total mind function” including service as an alter ego.

“My goal always is to make art that interferes with reality and creates reality,” says Cao. So this piece unfolded outside the art world, where New Yorkers found uses for the artist’s body that were quite creative. A divorcee who missed insulting her husband took Cao to a street corner and yelled at him for an hour. A church in Brooklyn hired him to re-enact the crucifixion during Lent. A class put him “on trial” for the Spanish Inquisition and the genocidal activities of conquistadors.

These days, Cao is less interested in using himself as material. In 2001, he did his first look-alike contest in Sardinia. There he found his subject in a 17th century painting of a bishop by an anonymous artist. He was able to buy billboard space, and even toured the island on a bus with a huge face of the bishop painted on it. He had 15 contestants and a packed Museo d’Arte Nuoro. The only prize was the winner’s photo going up on all the billboards where the bishop’s face had been. But Cao decided that in New York, he would not be able to do such a piece without offering a serious prize.

Cao planned the look-alike contest as a variety show—singers, dancers, two mini-lectures on Juan de Pareja, and slides of all 40 portraits used to create the digital JP. One salient point from the talk by art historian Francisco Prado Vilar: When Juan de Pareja painted his own self-portrait (now at the Prado in Madrid), “he smoothed out his nonwhite features as if to seek a neutral mask through which his identity as an artist could be perceived without interference of racial profiling. In doing so, Pareja’s portrait eliminates the very tension that gives the one painted by Velásquez the effect of being true to life.”

It was time to find out who looked most like the fake JP (the one based on the true painting). Master of ceremonies Heriberto “The Boricua Kid” Quinones announced that the contest would run Apollo Theater-style, with the audience deciding the winner. But as the 18 contestants paraded by to almost identical levels of applause, The Boricua Kid looked apprehensive. We were one of those indecisive crowds. So here is the place to fast-forward through the call-and-response, the yessses shouted at the same time as nooooo, the entertaining exasperation, a couple of candidates sneaking back in after they were eliminated, and The Boricua Kid shrugging it off with, “Finally we’re down to five! Six? OK, Spanish math.”

The last two competitors happened to be the two who had dressed up, not just in JP’s undershirt but in a homemade Juan de Pareja costume. And they were tested with a question: what does JP mean to them?

“JP stands for all the people who had it rough but figured out a way, through their intelligence, to make it and move on and be free,” said Wilfredo Lopez.

A hard statement to improve upon. So Jason Scott Jones put the same thought into his own words and added his family—his Puerto Rican grandmother whose father was Spanish. Here the audience began to hoot. “And these are the ashes of my grandmother!” Jones announced. “I want to bring her back!” Later I learned that he was in fact carrying a narrow glass vase filled with ashes, some of them Grandma and some of them “cousin Sam,” along with dirt and pebbles from the pond where he’d scattered the rest of them.

Jones won. I guess, in art-theory language, he’d overwhelmed everyone with his signs and signifiers. And he did look eerily like JP as he stood in the aisle at Teatro Heckscher after the show, shouting into a cell phone: “I’ve got Grandma with me! I’m going to Spain!”