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SAY LESS AND SAY YES
by Ilka Scobie
 
Provoke thought and your work will be bought.
-- Mark Kostabi

After 160 solo shows and 25 years of solid work, Mark Kostabi enjoys an internationally acclaimed career. His recent exhibition at Adam Baumgold Gallery is a meticulously curated ticket straight to the Kingdom of Kostabi, as opposed to Kostabi World itself, where most of the canvases are painted by assistants operating under Kostabiís direction. In speaking with the debonair artist, I asked how he became so notorious in the 1980s for his use of assistants, which many other artists also employed.

"In 1986, I had just done a painting show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. I had painted the pictures myself, big and ambitious. Donald Kuspit wrote about me in Artforum and said, ĎHis paintings are so bad they even subvert the name of bad painting.í It was a nasty review and I felt a bit disillusioned and it actually hurt my feelings and kind of hardened me.

"The review made me realize I canít get so personally involved. Iím just going to do what everyone else does, I thought, Iím going to follow the lead of Ross Bleckner, Gary Stephen and David Salle -- and use assistants. At that point, having a studio full of assistants proved that you were a success."

I told Mark that he may in fact owe Kuspit a note of thanks for spurring him onto what has been a very successful methodology. Kostabi agreed, continuing, "Conversely, other critics have praised me, and now, the fact that so many art critics appear on my television show, Name That Painting, must mean I have fewer enemies."

In regards to the exhibition at Baumgold Gallery, Mark explained, "We selected the works for the show in consultation. Adamís influence was significant, and the large number of black-and-white canvases reflects his personal taste. He gravitated towards content and narrative; thatís what his gallery is known for. We both wanted to have social commentary and statements about things going on right now."

Despite Kostabiís reputation for making immediately accessible if allegorical paintings -- they do star a faceless "everyman" character, after all -- the paintings at Baumgold Gallery represent a significant step forward, with lots of witty new imagery and themes. The Age of Useless Information (2005) is a multi-figure composition showing a bucolic nuclear family in its living room, complete with a kitty curled up under an armchair, with inset images of spies listening in -- a painting that predates by a year the front-page news that our phone conversations are being monitored by the government.

The painting may seem prescient, but in fact it represents a new variation on classic Kostabi themes -- alienation, rampant technology, information overload, the corporate conquest of everyday life, the individual beset by modern society.

Art history and references abound in Kostabiís iconography, as can be seen in one of the showís more amusing paintings, Suicide by Modernism (2005), which was titled by the brilliant writer and critic Gary Indiana. A guy is hanging himself from the arm of a Calder mobile that has as a counterweight several artworks that are literally light but metaphorically "heavy" -- a Picasso, a Warhol, a Duchamp. "The weight of art history can depress as well as inspire," Kostabi notes.

A personal favorite of mine is They Have Everything at Tiffanyís (2005), where a miniature Kostabi businessman, painted in color, jauntily perches in one of the jewelerís signature turquoise shopping bags, which is carried by a young hipster painted in black-and-white.

More art-historical is La fiera della vanita (2005), a version of Las Meninas by Velazquez that has been updated in Kostabiís trademark way. The young princess wears a pony tail and a Discman, the boy with the mastiff is replaced by a young skateboarder, and a new figure appears in the foreground, holding a finger to his lips. Itís a fairy tale grisaille, shadowed by monolitihic urbanity.

The show includes still another version of Las Meninas with different figures (and including a giant ketchup bottle replacing a lady in waiting), suggesting that this is a series whose multiple possibilities are far from being exhausted.

Touring Kostabi World, the SoHo studio where 25 assistants create paintings and help produce Kostabiís TV game show, I saw Kostabiís detailed cartoons for finished paintings, with explicit instructions as to the color and content.

Living most of the year in Rome, he travels to New York in the spring and fall. "I love New York, but Italy is extremely welcoming. The Italians were buying my works feverishly in the 1990s. My first big Italian client, back in Ď85 and í86, was Paolo Corti, a Milanese dealer who introduced my work to Italy. My first shows were in Terento in Northern Italy, then Torino, and every time I went to my shows there, I fell more in love with the country."

"In Italy, there are two artistic extremes, Old Master painting, which of course has a lot to do with technique, and Conceptual Art, like that of Manzoni and Fontana, which has little to do with technique," Kostabi says. He figures that his work hovers right in the middle, with both conceptual content and painterly appeal.

Kostabi is nothing if not prolific, and has long solicited titles for his works from critics who visit his studio. The freelance writer and art historian Robert C. Morgan was an early contributor. More recently, Kostabi has launched a weekly game show, Name that Painting, which has occupied more and more of his energies. The show, which currently airs on Manhattan public access cable television on Wednesday nights, has become quite a production, featuring a panel of three critics and a jury of 12 or 15 judges.

The show opens with a live rock band playing its theme song, Distorted Mirror -- written by Kostabi, who is an accomplished pianist and composer as well as a painter -- with Kostabi himself on piano. Paintings are brought out in quick succession and submitted to the panel of critics, who propose titles. The jury votes on a winner, and the successful critic receives an immediate cash prize -- usually $20.

Having appeared on Name That Painting myself, I can attest to the mercurial competition. The studio audience and the panel have included art-world luminaries Max Blagg, Taylor Mead, Lilly Wei and Nick Zedd. The show even continues while Kostabi is in Rome, with the artist playing master of ceremonies via a videoscreen linkup. Name That Painting adds a significant chapter to the long and intricate history of methods that artists have used to title their works.

Many works that have appeared on Name That Painting are premiering in Kostabiís forthcoming show in Rome, triumphantly located in the cityís famous public gallery, Chiostro del Bramante, June 22-Aug. 27, 2006. Warhol, Basquiat and Haring are the only other American artists who have previously exhibited works there. With 150 paintings, many with references to Italian art and architecture, the show is Kostabiís largest to date. The senior Italian critic Vittorio Sgarbi -- noted for his radio broadcasts on art marked by controversial pronouncements -- has organized the show along with the radical young art critic Luca Beatrice.

"My plan over the next few years is to embrace my love of Italy," Kostabi remarks. "I really believe in Italy, itís so important. If I could be equally prominent in the rest of Europe, I would still rather have conquered Italy."

Mark Kostabi, "Paintings," May 4-June 10, 2006, at Adam Baumgold Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021

ILKA SCOBIE is a New York poet.



 



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