Loving the Lowbrow (It Has Its Own Hall of Fame)
Evan Sung for The New York Times
Published: September 2, 2010
Jodi Hilton for The New York Times
A BLUE woman and her red daughter smile with the hungry mouths of zombie maniacs. The hand of a Bigfoot grazes the breast of a topless unicorn mermaid. Faces decorate the pregnant belly of a pantsless man-boy.
It’s the wondrous, if not always wonderful, world of art so bad it’s good — or at least great fun to look at.
With its U.F.O.’s, suicidal clowns, smiling genitals and other shocking, humorous or bleakly sentimental imagery, “bad art” — or “vernacular painting” and “found art” in polite circles — has achieved the status of a genre, a tiny but devoted corner of the art world. It’s a place where the passion of an amateur is prized over the skill of a technician and where an artist’s identity is of little or no importance. It’s neither kitsch (too cheery) nor camp (too smart) nor outsider (way too good and way too expensive). The best bad art is anonymous, strange, clumsy and cheap (or free, if you’re lucky).
The paradox of placing these works within the art world at all has roots in the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Dada and Art Brut in past decades. It was a 1991 exhibition at the Chelsea gallery Metro Pictures, “Thrift Store Paintings,” that really put bad art on the map. The show of ugly children, distorted landscapes and other oddities, along with a book with the same title, were the brainchild of the artist Jim Shaw, a longtime collector of the horribly wonderful.
“Thrift store paintings was a nonjudgmental term,” Mr. Shaw said recently from his studio in Los Angeles. “I don’t think you should tell people what to think.”
Since that exhibition, not just thrift shops but also flea markets, yard sales, 99-cent stores, gas stations and sidewalk trash heaps have become go-to places for connoisseurs of the bad, among them Judah Friedlander, the comedian who can be seen regularly on the sitcom “30 Rock.”
“Certain things turn me on,” said Mr. Friedlander, whose book, “How to Beat Up Anybody,” a manual on how to pummel dinosaurs and other assailants, is to be released by It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in October. “If a painting, whether it’s at the Met or it’s something somebody threw away, gets a reaction out of me and gets me thinking, and gets me mentally and emotionally, I like it.”
Mr. Friedlander’s home in Queens is filled with paintings, sculptures and at least one laminated-wood image of women in thong bikinis astride motorcycles. (Most of his collection can be seen at his Web site, judahfriedlander.com.) As the title of his book suggests, Mr. Friedlander is especially enthusiastic about macho pieces that, like most found art, are given descriptions in lieu of titles: “Topless Chick” or “Bandanna Guy With Necklace.”
“Some people want to save the world or shed light on starvation,” he said. “But you give a junior high kid paint and canvas, and he’ll paint someone getting kicked in the face. No political connotations, just a guy kicking another guy in the face. I like simplistic testosterone passion.”
The designer Todd Oldham, another collector of unusual art, said a treasured shopping spot used to be the flea markets around the Avenue of the Americas in Chelsea.
“One of my favorites I found was a Martian having a drink with a real wistful wink in his eyes,” he said. “It looks like it was painted by Braque or Picasso.”
He said he had also had luck in Palm Beach and Miami Beach, “any place where there was a large elderly contingent,” adding, “Relatives will sometimes just dump stuff out.”
When browsing brick-and-mortar stores fails, Mr. Friedlander scours the Internet, where bargains and the strangest of the strange are available.
“I’ll go on eBay and just type in weird stuff like ‘alien abduction’ or ‘alien art,’ ” he said. “You surf, and your mind starts moving.”
No venture into the world of bad art is complete without a trip to the Museum of Bad Art (called MoBA for short), currently with three sites in the Boston area. All offer an art historical immersion in the movement. During a tour of one exhibition space, the basement of a movie theater in Somerville, Mass., the museum’s volunteer curator, Michael Frank, said most of the art on display was donated by patrons, genre enthusiasts and sometimes artists themselves. The roughly two dozen works on display are a fraction of the museum’s 500-piece collection.
“They were things that I’m convinced were created in all seriousness, but clearly something has gone wrong, either in the execution or in the concept,” said Mr. Frank, who pays the bills by working as a musician and balloon artist named Mike the Hatman. “Sometimes we’ll have poor technique that results in a compelling image. But a painting that shows poor technique isn’t necessarily bad art.”
A walk through the current exhibition, “Bigger, Better, Beautifuller,” offers oversize evidence of off-kilter paintings (and psyches). Still, some of the images bring to mind Klee, Botero, Klimt and other big names.
Comments in the museum’s guest book summed up the genre’s dark appeal. “This collection is disturbing, yet I can’t seem to look away,” wrote Voyeur From Canada. “Just like a hideous car accident.”
Another wrote: “Her nipples follow you around the room. Creepy!”
Like the worthiness of the genre itself, what to call the artwork is controversial. Some collectors and enthusiasts, including Mr. Friedlander and Mr. Oldham, dismiss the “bad art” label, saying it unfairly and incompletely describes a powerfully personal genre that would be better known as “found” or something similarly neutral.
“Bad art has nothing to do with it being produced by a naïf,” said Frank Maresca, an owner of the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York, which in 2003 organized an exhibition called “Sunday Painters: Discarded Paintings by Gifted Amateurs.” “There’s tons of bad art produced by people that went to the best academies.”
The filmmaker John Waters agreed. “I see plenty of really bad art in the galleries in Chelsea,” he said in a telephone interview. “But that just means I don’t like it.”
One man’s piece of trash is another man’s masterpiece of trash. Context is everything.
In June Mr. Waters was a curator, with Dian Hanson, of an exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery of sexually explicit portraits of ex-cons, hustlers and other men by the vintage pornography photographer David Hurles, whose nom-de-porn is Old Reliable. As his films do, Mr. Waters said, the show gave him a chance to marry the fine art of photography with the lowbrows of pornography, something the best “bad art” — or whatever it’s called — does well.
“David took erections and put them in the context that made them art,” he said. “You walked into that room and realized that an artist took these pictures.”
Referring to one contemporary American painter, Mr. Oldham said: “I’ve bought portraits that would make John Currin weep, they are so beautiful.” It’s not bad art. It’s just unschooled artists that create with unbridled, unique passion.”
With the bad-art genre still uncharted territory, what are the criteria for differentiating good-bad works from the bad-bad?
Mr. Friedlander has a suggestion: “I found one for 99 cents, and the shipping was three bucks,” he said. “That’s a good deal, when the painting is cheaper than the shipping.”
WHERE TO FIND THE WORST
MUSEUM OF BAD ART Somerville Theater, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. (other locations in Dedham and Brookline, Mass.); free with purchase of a movie ticket; (781) 444-6757, museumofbadart.org. Most of the collection can be viewed online.
BAD ART, BUT GOOD FOOD NEARBY Diesel Cafe, 257 Elm Street, Davis Square, Somerville; (617) 629-8717, diesel-cafe.com; Redbones Barbeque, 55 Chester Street, Somerville; (617) 628-2200, redbones.com; Rosebud Diner, 381 Summer Street, Somerville; (617) 666-6015, rosebuddiner.com.