By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Illustration by Rick Sealock|
Everybody loves a hoax (except for sometimes the victims), and everyone has his or her favorites — from Frank W. Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame to the 2000 presidential elections. But the art world, which is largely about establishing a consensus regarding the value of useless objects, has been home to the most, and most spectacular, wool-pullings. From the purely mercenary acts of forgery (“Of the 2,500 paintings by Corot, 7,800 are to be found in America,” according to Newsweek) to masterful pranks from the likes of Hugh Troy (who successfully snuck a display of a severed ear molded from chopped beef into MoMA’s 1935 van Gogh exhibit) and Orson Welles (whose 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and pseudo-documentary F for Fake were two of the last century’s great hoaxes), the art of the con continues to inspire some of the most creative minds in our culture.
Joey Skaggs, who has devoted his entire career to duping the media into reporting on such spurious enterprises as the Cathouse for Dogs and Gypsies Against Stereotypical Propaganda, will run his 19th annual New York April Fool’s Day Parade with grand marshal John Hinckley, released on a day pass for the occasion. Meanwhile, Weeklycontributor and prankster artist Jeffrey Vallance, who has managed to finesse art projects involving the Vatican, the Liberace Museum, the Richard Nixon Library and the King of Tonga, has organized an exhibition of the works of Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light,” at the Grand Central Art Center in Fullerton. The show includes a miniature chapel, a sermon by the Reverend Ethan Acres, and a full-color catalog with essays by yours truly and former Weeklycritic Ralph Rugoff. In the spirit of the season, here are a few favorite cultural discontinuities that have expanded my notion of art to whatever you can get away with.
How To Make It in the Art World
1960s abstract painter Jules Olitski has had something of an unfortunate reputation as critic Clement Greenberg’s lap dog during the period when Greenberg’s lap was getting less and less rigorous. That, combined with the inoffensiveness of Olitski’s pleasant Pop-era paintings of colorful blobs, led me to imagine him to be an unadventurous academic who had somehow drifted into art-world prominence with the usual mixture of charm and politics. I was happily surprised to find out how wrong I was.
In an autobiographical essay included in the recent book Writers on Artists, Olitski describes his hardscrabble years in Hell’s Kitchen, spending his small GI pension on coffee and peanuts while shoplifting cigarettes and art supplies. After several years of bored gallerists barely giving him the time of day, he gave up and cashed in his GI Bill to get a master’s degree and a teaching gig at a Long Island college. Olitski hadn’t given up on getting shown, however; he had simply come up with a new strategy: He created a completely fictitious alter ego called Jevel Demekov, a Soviet defector hiding from Stalin’s death squads in a Brooklyn basement. Demekov had been one of the most beloved social-realist painters in the USSR, but had been transformed by his exposure to abstract art on a trip to Paris, which is where he met Olitski. At first he painted in secret, but finally he could hide his Modernist light under a communist bushel no more. Coming to America, Demekov appealed to his only American friend, who hid him and tried to help him establish himself in the New York art scene. So Olitski’s tall tale went.
Having borrowed legit works from high-end Manhattan dealers, Olitski curated a group show of Paris-based painters including Dubuffet, Picasso and Matisse . . . and Demekov at his college gallery. When the show came down, he returned the legit art in person, the Demekov originals in tow. He didn’t have to go further than his first stop, the Alexander Iolas Gallery. When Iolas saw the fictional Russian expat’s canvases, he gushed, “You’re right. He’s a genius. We must have a show. When can I meet the artist?” Olitski hemmed and hawed, but Iolas was adamant. Ditching his backup plan of hiring a Russian actor to play Demekov, Olitski took a chance and fessed up. Soon thereafter, he had his first New York show at the Iolas Gallery.
Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?!
When I first saw a copy of Anthony Godby Johnson’s alleged memoir, A Rock & A Hard Place, I recognized it as sleazy and manipulative, and certainly not written by any 14-year-old AIDS-stricken ritual-abuse victim as it claimed. Dripping with maudlin cliché, it had the moralistic tone of one of Michael Landon’s lesser television vehicles, so I assumed that some literary agent had hooked up this ostensible autobiographer with a staff writer from Touched by an Angel to make the beleaguered tyke’s musings on racism and homophobia — not to mention memories of bartering his 8-year-old flesh to his mother’s male friend in return for a never-delivered cassette of Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” — more convincingly stilted and pious. In fact, rumors that the Book-of-the-Month Club selection had not only been touched by a ghostwriter but manufactured from whole cloth surfaced almost immediately when Newsweek accused go-between Paul Monette of the fabrication.