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by Martha Buskirk
|Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, edited by JoAnn Wypijewski, University of California Press, 1999, 205 pages, $24.95 paper.
Just what is it that makes this project -- Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid's tongue-in-cheek research into middle-brow taste in fine art -- so popular, so appealing? The current book is only the latest installment in a cycle that has included a public opinion poll sponsored and first published by The Nation, a show at the Alternative Museum in New York, a web site hosted by the Dia Center with support from the Chase Manhattan Bank, a hardcover book with extensive documentation and essays by JoAnn Wypijewski and Arthur Danto, and now this paperback edition that also serves as the catalogue for a traveling exhibition.
The project is most interesting when viewed as an extended performance with a decidedly conceptual basis. But the hook is provided by Komar and Melamid's actual paintings interpreting the results of their polls, which sought to discover the "most wanted" and "most unwanted" qualities in art in each of several countries. All too frequently the "most wanted" turned out to be blue landscapes, whose aggressive kitchiness led many commentators to assume, with a nudge and a wink, that they are sharing the artists' joke about public discrimination (or lack of it).
So what, then, are we to make of the book's extended interview, where the artists, who are Soviet émigrés, insist on their genuine interest in making work that will "serve the people"? They critique the museum as a playground for the privileged, contrasting the ideal art found there to the more modest scale and expectations surrounding art forms that people live with in their homes. But Komar and Melamid have retained their ties to the museum world. And the irony is that museums do their own audience studies, seeking to maximize tourist revenues, among other goals.
Some observers might consider Komar and Melamid's project as a made-to-order assault on traditional notions of artistic creativity and genius -- and respond with a certain amount of anger. Others who logged onto The Most Wanted Paintings were irritated not by the poll itself but by its limitations and hidden biases, which arguably promoted know-nothing responses. Here the joke is on the critics, who are betraying a belief that polls can actually uncover the truth.
Polls are not about finding out what people want, but about figuring out how to sell them whatever it is that companies or politicians are peddling. Melamid compares their use of polls to President Clinton's, and the two artists' town meetings also seem pseudo-political -- serving as media events disguised as direct communication.
In Painting by Numbers a line of text running continuously through the book along the bottom of every page gives the quirky and bizarre ideas individuals from focus groups and town meetings wanted to see realized. There are superficial similarities to the eccentric works Jim Shaw assembled in his Thrift Store Paintings, but Komar and Melamid's 1995 Ithaca's Most Wanted seems to be the only painting that incorporates individual fantasies.
Certain of the paradoxes in Painting by Numbers emanate from contradictions that these former Soviet dissidents find in the freedom of expression supposedly promoted by our international, media-based consumer society. But the paintings illustrate a further leveling of taste enacted by the artists themselves.
These days, increasingly sophisticated polling and other forms of data collection allow users to separate and track specific market segments. Yet Komar and Melamid insist on capturing the composite of an entire country. The resulting paintings are therefore necessarily homogeneous and banal, while the numbers on which they are based remain the more intriguing part of the project.
MARTHA BUSKIRK teaches art history and criticism at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass.
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