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Lie of the Land

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, Weekly contributor 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 Weekly critic 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.

The truth was far more bizarre. No one seemed to have actually met Tony Johnson, and attempts to arrange a press conference were curtly rebuffed. An AP reporter was allowed to make a brief visit with someone who appeared to be a sickly teenager, but Tony refused a single meeting with a screenwriter that would have netted him $100,000 for an HBO docudrama. Then, a couple of years ago, New Yorker reporter Tad Friend tried to track Tony down. Friend was given a five-star runaround — berated, bullied and threatened before finally concluding that “Tony” was, in fact, an overweight middle-aged woman from Union City, New Jersey, named Vicki Fraginals, who duped Monette, Armistead Maupin, Mr. Rogers, Jermaine Jackson and many other upright citizens with regular correspondence and lengthy phone calls in her own voice and a wheezy, higher-pitched “Tony” voice.

How is this an art hoax? If Ms. Fraginals were to declare herself an artist exploring the social construction of personality and the blurred boundaries between reality and fiction in the contemporary mediascape, she could be headlining the Whitney Biennial. Until then, the hoax-loving public will have to content itself, as I have, with an informed rereading of what must now be reconsidered as a signal piece — alongside Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the collected works of Dennis Cooper — of exploitative voyeuristic pedophilial postmodern experimental fiction.

Those Damned Frogs Finally Get Their Comeuppance

While French post-structuralist theory played an important role as a lever by which a generation of avowedly radical American scholars were able to unseat their deeply entrenched elders, by the early ’90s it was clear that the impenetrability of the Gallic thought-stylists had spawned an increasingly insular culture of tenure-whores playing “I’ll pretend to know what the hell you’re talking about if you pretend to know what the hell I’m talking about.” From out of the physics department at NYU rode Alan Sokal and his essay Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, which ostensibly sought to tear down the barriers that had sprung up between the swinging revolutionaries of the humanities and “soft sciences” and the white-coated cold warriors of the science labs.

In his essay, published in the spring 1996 issue of the influential academic journal Social Text, Sokal envisioned a “liberatory” science based on emancipatory mathematics that would further articulate the obvious parallels between the emerging science of quantum physics and the philosophical insights of Derrida, Lacan and Lyotard. The subjectivity of consensus reality would soon be empirically verified, and everyone would have tenure! Problem was, Sokal was making fun. As revealed in the somewhat less stuffy academic journal Lingua Franca, the physics professor had deliberately set out to foist a nonsensical article filled with authoritative doubletalk on unsuspecting editors. It worked so well that the story made the front page of The New York Times and Le Monde, and sparked a flurry of defensive recriminations from cultural-studies professionals.

I direct you to the excellently entertaining compendium The Sokal Hoax for the original essay and a broad selection of the fallout. The university art world, once a backwater of studio courses and art-history surveys, has been increasingly called upon in the last few decades to align itself with more traditional — i.e., verbal — academic criteria, and has relied heavily on cultural-studies departments to bolster its prattle quotient. The Sokal Hoax detonated a depth charge that is still reverberating through the halls and ivory towers of academe. It’s time for art schools to say, “Enough with the Deleuze, I’m trying to paint here.”

Thomas Kinkade — Heaven on Earth | At CSUF Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, through June 27; and at Main Art Gallery, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, through May 13. Opening reception, Saturday, April 3, 5-8 p.m. at Main Art Gallery, and 7-10 p.m. at Art Center, with a performance by Rev. Ethan Acres at 9 p.m. Shuttle available. For information, call (714) 567-7233.


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