Mark Kostabi, Jan. 12-Feb. 9, 2002, at Stefan Stux Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
During a two-decade-long career, Mark Kostabi has tried to meld high culture and low by playing several roles at once -- marketing wiz, serious artist, media star.
His paintings of faceless mannequins engaged in all manner of everyday occupations are widely recognized and have a certain mass appeal. His works appear in waiting rooms, living rooms, museums, galleries and office spaces.
Like his heroes Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Kostabi manages a studio-factory in New York -- called Kostabi World -- where his paintings are made by assistants and shipped out to locations around the globe. Kostabi lives in Rome most of the year, but uses the internet to supervise his workers.
He's a master of the press, and manages to stay in the limelight via his effortless manipulation of gossip columns and their thirst for celebrity.
He champions the hardworking artist and offers practical advice to his followers in Ask Mark Kostabi, the advice column he writes for Artnet.com. He repeatedly tells his readers to bypass the gallery system and sell art on eBay (which he does himself).
And now, after a 10-year absence, Mark Kostabi is having his first solo show at a New York gallery, presenting nine new works at Stefan Stux in Manhattan's Chelsea art district. The question is, does the master still have the stuff?
Entering the gallery, visitors are seduced by the smell of fresh oil paint. Kostabi's emotional commitment to the art of painting is obvious. According to the artist, the paintings are new versions of earlier works. Kostabi says that they are "bigger and better."
The largest and most expensive painting in the show, at $60,000, is called The Last Supper and is, as one might expect, a version of Leonardo's masterpiece. The only evidence of Jesus in Kostabi's version, however, is a glowing cone at his place and a pair of multi-hued feet under the table. The disciples are the smooth-skinned, faceless mannequins we find throughout Kostabi's oeuvre. Abstract geometric forms, along with a laptop computer, a plunger and a cash register, are strewn about on the table. Four video monitors float above the scene, while the door and windows at the rear of the room open to blue sky.
Pieces of Eight is the most imaginative painting in the show. The pictorial space is compartmentalized. Hands and feet pop out of human heads. The surface is full of romping phallic symbols. All of the forms appear to be morphing into something else. Inspired by Tanguy, Mir and Dal, this is trippy Surrealism at its best.
Paul Kostabi, the artist's brother and a painter in his own right, makes a guest appearance in The Transfiguration, which is based on Vermeer's The Milkmaid. Kostabi uncharacteristically gives faint facial features to his maid-mannequin, who wears a red polka-dotted blouse and colorful donut-like bracelets, and seems to be inhabiting some Fisher-Price playland. On the wall behind the figure, Kostabi invited his brother to paint a picture within the picture, and Paul produced an image of two spike-haired, anthropomorphized flowers popping out of a planter. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition of two very different painting styles is disjointed and weakens the whole.
A Brush With Immortality is an engaging fantasy in black and white. We see a shirtless Picasso from the back, seated before his easel working on a large portrait of Kostabi, who wears sunglasses and looks very chic. Needless to say, Picasso did not actually paint any large-scale portraits of other artists. The clash of egos is amusing, but Kostabi does little more than plant his flag in Picasso's chest.
Like many artists, Kostabi loves to give himself a central role in a new art history. In Let That Be a Lesson, for instance, Kostabi transforms Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp into a picture of Dr. Kostabi at work on the corpse of Andy Warhol. Kostabi stares directly at the viewer with a slight grin on his face, as if to signal his self-consciousness. As for the great Pop artist, despite being prone on the slab he has his eyes open, and stares out at the world with his familiar deadpan expression. "Andy liked to watch," Kostabi explained.
Compliments are due to Kostabi's assistants for the sfumato technique in Kostabi's Mona Lisa parody, L.H.O.O.Q. Duchamp defaced the Mona Lisa by giving her a penciled mustache. Kostabi replaces the original model's face with his own. More sight gag than great art, this work is too beautiful to be a simple debunking of the aura surrounding the art object.
Abstraction and Empathy is another composition inspired by a masterpiece, this time Jan van Eyck's The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami. The placement of a giant television between the husband and wife is a provocative, tongue-in-cheek comment on the way the couple will be spending the rest of their lives together.
Work in Progress is an image of a faceless and sturdy female, clothed in a short dress, dredging up muck with a large shovel. The background is all blue green sky and sea. The towering female form resounds in the memory, and the way the ooze on the shovel starts to slide off the edge of the canvas generates a wonderful tension between the canvas and the space in front of it. This figure is allegorical, but its connotations are ambiguous.
It is not clear why Kostabi decides to emulate the painting style found in the original in some works but not in others. His own style is energetic and complex enough to stand on its own. The colors are loud and clear and the frontality of the figures charms the eyes.
Kostabi can be a classicizing modernist at times. This show brings to mind the series of paintings Picasso did late in life which were based on Velasquez's Las Meninas. Henry Geldzahler said that "Work in revival always grows larger." In his pungent new paintings, Kostabi helps pump life into the masters of the past.
ERIC GELBER is a New York art critic and assistant editor of Artcritical.com.