When people think of “celebrity art,” they usually conjure up images of Sylvester Stallone or Anthony Quinn striking hammy poses in front of their garish self-indulgences. To most artists, they’re trespassers — spoiled dilettantes who use the leverage of their wealth and fame to elbow themselves an undeserved portion of the scarce market shares, gallery space and media coverage. It‘s a small trough, and it’s easier to generate interest for art made by famous people than it is to generate fame for art made by artists. Much, much easier. When the media isn‘t making one of its embarrassing occasional forays into “Sensation” bashing or unleashing Morley Safer’s analysis of the Whitney Biennial, it‘s fawning over some soap-opera hunk who keeps a studio loft in Manhattan.
Conversely, for much of the public, celebrity artists are the only ones they ever hear of or, frankly, care about: A third-rate actor from one of the lesser Star Trek franchises can sell more art than most who try to make a living at it. And, if you’re not Picasso or Dali (or, in a pinch, Warhol), your recognition factor with the masses as a 20th-century historical figure is zero. Celebrity art makes for strong copy; it attracts attention. Of course artists know this, and much of the art world turns on precipitating competitive publicity. Far too much “successful” work is designed solely to generate a soundbite that plays off the general ignorance of art‘s history of expanded possibilities — “A shark in a tank of formaldehyde is a work of art! What will they think of next?”
In this light, artists’ complaints about celebrity Sunday painters come off as sour grapes, but this interpretation is unfair both to working artists, most of whom live for the deep solitude of art making that is the antithesis of celebrity culture, and to celebrity artists, who seldom get a fair shake (or any shake at all) from the serious art press. Three current shows in L.A. represent a cross section of celebrity artists who, for a variety of reasons, deserve more than our cursory attention: singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell as the artist-subject of the second installment of LACE‘s (Tri)-Annuale; comedic actor and musician Martin Mull in the backroom at Patricia Faure; and trumpeter Herb Alpert’s solo exhibit, at Molly Barnes Gallery in Santa Monica.
Of these, Mitchell‘s work has been the most visible. She attended the Alberta College of Art and changed her name to avoid being confused with New York abstractionist Joan Mitchell, but her rapid success on the folk-music circuit of the mid-’60s pushed her art practice to the background. She created an outlet for her work, however, starting with Joni Mitchell, her first album cover: a swirling psychedelic watercolor surrounding a fish-eye photograph. Through the accomplished colored-marker-drawings period (like the lovely, economical portrait of Judy Collins on the inside sleeve of Mitchell‘s For the Roses); her period of self-conscious album-cover design, including the hip and funny landscape photo collages on Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; and my favorite Mitchell, the Malibu snake hunt gracing the cover of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, she took advantage of the distribution network of the record industry to piggyback her artwork to the masses. Through the ‘80s, as Mitchell withdrew from the public eye, her vision became more conservative, settling into a very un-courant mode of expressionist pictorialism, typified by the van Gogh self-portrait homage of Turbulent Indigo. Her attitude toward the art world was pithily summarized in a 1993 interview in which she characterized contemporary painting as “chenille toilet seats with embroidered bunnies” and admirably advised, “Paint what you like, and fuck ’em!”
Given this, it‘s somewhat surprising that Mitchell has allowed herself to be curated into a space as heavily connotative as Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, whose baggage includes both its role as the focal point of much of L.A.’s groundbreaking ‘80s performance art, as well as the less welcome burden of its many years as a confused not-for-profit mediocracy. Added to this is guest curator Amy Adler’s ongoing adolescent fixation with adolescent fixations, resulting in a show which, in spite of thin press-release avowals to “recontextualize and bring form to Mitchell‘s work . . . questioning our understanding of a very public image when presented a posteriori with the very private object it mimics,” winds up ironically and deceptively reframing Mitchell’s celebrity persona as some sort of amorphous critique of gender, fame, whatever. The work itself has, in fact, nothing to do with Mitchell‘s public image, but is an almost patrician presentation of her private explorations in oil — a combination of affectionate self-portraits and Emily CarrGroup of Seven–derived landscapes. But, as anyone familiar with her work knows, Mitchell is one smart cookie and fully capable of making her own decisions about how her art will be presented. Perhaps funneling her conventional art objects through established if ill-fitting art-world channels is as straightforward a take as possible without pulling a Doris Lessing and putting out work under another name.
Martin Mull has always maintained that comedy was a day job to pay for his oil paint and linen (not to mention his house and studio in Brentwood), with Dueling Tubas and The History of White People in America as mere asides in the annals of his creative expression. Of these three celebrities, Mull is clearly the most concerned about being taken seriously as an artist, preserving strict separation between his two careers to the extent that many art-worlders are initially unaware that the painter and actor are the same person. With a master’s degree from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, he is also, by far, the most formally schooled. Mull came of age as an artist in the late ‘60s and early ’70s — the absolute nadir of painting‘s acceptability as a viable medium — and adapted with trends on into the ’80s, when he found the bittersweet and lyrical imagism that characterizes his work today. Owing something to the compositional tactics of painters like Georg Baselitz, Donald Baechler and David “Polkenquist” Salle, Mull‘s work lacks the historical angst of the first and the cold postmodern detachment of the last two. Mull’s shredded, nostalgia-tinged poeticism is in striking variance to the biting, somewhat defensive irony of his comedic persona, and his fragmentary vision of suburban idylls raises suspicions of sardonic appropriations of white-bread Dick-and-Jane anachronisms, but such compunctions are laid to rest by the sheer painterly loveliness of the work, the obvious outcome of a gifted eye, tempered by many hours with brush in hand.
Herb Alpert has dedicated a great deal of attention and money to art since the gazillion-dollar buyout of his and Jerry Moss‘ A&M Records in the early ’90s, endowing several awards through CalArts (among other art-related philanthropic gestures) and escalating his previous hobby of painting and sculpture into a major creative outlet. Located on the main floor of the Herb Alpert Foundation Building, next to the Pep Boys in Santa Monica, the Molly Barnes Gallery is the latest reincarnation for the fabled gallerist who first exhibited John Baldessari and Mark Kostabi (and, by coincidence, Martin Mull). The leader of the hugely influential mega-selling swinging-‘60s instrumental combo the Tijuana Brass, Alpert began painting in the early ’70s, gradually evolving his own version of gestural biomorphic abstraction, the transitional style between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Alpert‘s adoption of a discarded style stands in marked contrast to similar current aesthetic strategies in that it displays an earnest commitment to unforced individual artistic evolution. Alpert’s ingenuous canvasses occasionally deliver on par with the Latin modernists he clearly emulates, and the totem sculptures slated for the upcoming show at Molly Barnes are particularly convincing.
Art is supposed to be an area in which people can re-create the world as they would like it to be. Most people initially get involved in art making because of the freedom it affords them. But, as anyone who has tried and failed to make it in the art world can attest, sleazy market forces, bitter professional opinion mongers and sociopathic, ax-grinding academics conspire to rein that freedom in, and soon enough the artists find themselves jumping through hoops trying to stay in the game.
In contrast, celebrities are already rich and famous, and can basically do whatever they want. Whether their work stands up to the baroque and chimerical criteria of the art world (and I‘d rather see a Mull than a Salle, an Alpert than a Michelle Fierro, Mitchell’s Hejira as a wall mural than another Moriko Mori) is not the point. The point is that in their refreshing naivete regarding (or refusal to acknowledge) the chasm — indeed, fundamental discontinuity — between the rules of art and the rules of the art world, they are empowered to create small pockets of a less histrionically dismissive art world, one that actually creates an opening for deep individual creativity in a cutthroat world of cheap filler.
NOTE: In Doug Harvey‘s review (November 2 –December 2) of the Colin Cook show at Lemon Sky, we failed to mention that the gallery is open by appointment only. For information, call (323) 467-5702.Joni Mitchell,Martin Mull, Herb Alpert