“Are you really ready to live in this world?” One character asks this of another during a precious crisis of conscience, and it’s unclear if she means the art world or the world in general, but either way, it’s a good question. And in a sense it’s at the heart of Michael Walker’s new film PAINT, which tracks the progress of a small group of recent MFA grads trying to make it in the New York City gallery scene.
Dan, feeling creatively stymied by his own happy childhood and privileged background, sets out to make his paintings “darker” by convincing his mother to pose nude. He gets his dark, handsome, old-school bohemian friend Quinn (who lives in the most cold-water garrett imaginable) to take the pictures. That does not go as planned. Meanwhile Kelsey stumbles into a situation where she blackmails an art dealer into supporting her, gets a makeover, and has some memorable sexual misadventures of her own.
A story like this, set in Brooklyn and Chelsea, inevitably flirts with cliche, but this film proceeds with a suitably dry sense of humor and an empathetic, if snarky, affection for its characters’ foibles. A fourth friend, Austin, whose career has already taken off, a hip but upscale gallery at the center of their scene, the extended art world scrum of collectors and consultants — all of this is treated with insightful accuracy. It’s just the tiniest bit campy but/and thus ultimately quite true to life.
Most effectively, every time you see anyone’s art, it matches their personality, meshes perfectly with its and their role in the story, is believably contemporary, and is objectively quite good. The artwork shown is not a punchline, it all moves the story and sparks its own level of communication with the audience. Dan’s paintings especially are exquisite.
“Life as an artist is a constant battle between finding your voice and trying to figure out how to exist in the world,” says Walker. “The world takes artists and grinds them into content makers, and it’s important to fight that by putting your deepest, most personal thoughts on display. And that’s what I tried to do making this film.”