In the economy of celebrity artists, Mark Kostabi has gone a few steps beyond Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami in terms of simultaneously parodying and participating in the art market's extremes. He's passed the prime-time talk show stage, and is now at the self-depracating reality TV level. The upstart 80s East Village scene star still runs a factory in West Chelsea (dubbed Kostabi World, naturally) to supply a mostly overseas market for his mid-price range paintings, all the while hosting a campy public access game show, Title This,in which well-known New York art critics compete to title his enterprise's output for petty cash prizes. His schtick, which has become increasingly indistinguishable from his genuine convictions, takes up the art fabrication techniques of famous artists with massive studios and armies of assistants, but goes further, hiring out the generation of concepts to "idea men." The artist is reduced to a signature and brand, but also elevated to a life-long performative act.
There are moments in Michael Sladek's excellent documentary Con Artist when we glimpse the blurry edges of Kostabi's performance, as in an account of his reaction upon discovering that two assistants had usurped his only semi-authentic function by signing "his" canvases for him, or, less convincingly, when he claims that his attacks on the about-to-collapse art market of the late 80s were good-natured jokes. After a drunken interview in which Kostabi stumbles around his studio destroying canvases, the artist sits down, exhausted: "Now you've got the insane artist angle to work with, right?" The filmmaker responds from behind the camera in unguarded disbelief: "Was that an angle?"
Taken straight-on, at face value, Kostabi's paintings are a terrible sort of kitsch. As one interviewee puts it: "This is Applebee's; Applebee's aspiring to be Olive Garden." Each painting, churned out at a rate of 1,500 per year at the height of Kostabi World's production, features an easily legible amalgamation of art historical referents, heavy on Giorgio de Chirico-inspired cityscapes and René Magritte-lite enigmas. Without the elaborate fame-obsessed narrative that led an L.A. art school-educated son of Estonian immigrants to New York, where aggressive scenesterism and strategic partnerships with critics looking to discover the next Warhol got him into more gallery shows and museum collections than most of his better-known peers—Koons, Julian Schnabel, Fred Tomaselli, Jean-Michel Basquiat—the coffee shop-caliber paintings are unremarkable if not downright offensive. Kostabi's career is one long joke at the art world's expense, though as he's well aware, at some point people started taking him seriously.
It becomes increasingly clear that he too has been duped by his semi-satiric art stardom. As though stepping right out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, Kostabi tries to take over Sladek's film, asking the director-cinematographer to re-stage certain scenes, warning his collaborators that they're about to have a creative argument for the camera, telling his studio manager what to say in an interview. He repeatedly claims that his insatiable thirst for fame comes from a need to be loved so deep-seated that only celebrity can satisfy it, but even this has the ring of a winking excerpt from his artist's statement. Whereas the materials of his oeuvre are manufactured goods that he signs off on, the mythology that sustains them is spectacularly elaborate and, in some tangled, self-doubting manner, genuine.
Sladek moves through Kostabi World's mirror maze agilely. He presents a history of the artist's SoCal youth and mid-80s rise in the doc's first half, only briefly addressing his fall to bankruptcy following the collapse of the art market in 1990. The years between 1990 and 1996 disappear, and the next thing we know, Kostabi's back on the rise, until in the late aughts he's moved his production facility to West 24th Street, found love, and unveiled a sculpture of Pope John Paul II commissioned by the Vatican for the present pope. The art world still gets the joke, but His Holiness swallows the hoax hook, line and sinker. In a cultural climate that increasingly champions savvy self-satrizing and the cult of personality diffused through ever more media channels—not to mention an art market now surpassing its pre-recession highs—slippery figures like Kostabi seem all the more important. It's hardly surprising he should occasionally mistake his shiny forgeries for the real thing.
Opens November 12 at rerun Gastropub Theater