Thursday, November 11, 2010

Michael Sládek's CON ARTIST opens. Yikes --it's Mark Kostabi--better run for the hills!

Mark Kostabi, "artist" extraordinaire, has got to be one of the creepiest subjects of a documentary that I have ever seen. So creepy does he come off that my companion (who watched, along with me) found the new movie CON ARTIST -- devoted to Kostabi's life and work -- so distasteful that I suspect he is blaming the filmmaker, one Michael Sládek, for his subject's extraordinarily high "creep quotient." This is tricky, as the documentary and its subject do at times seem to be almost "at one" with each other. How close is director Sládek to Mr. Kostabi? Otherwise, why on earth would the artist have given the movie-maker carte blanche?  It's enough to make the viewer blanch.

So bizarre, so fascinating (like watching a cobra) is this film that, upon finishing it, TrustMovies realized that he had taken almost no notes. So he's working, more than usual, from memory here. Director Sládek, shown at right, gives us a number of talking heads early on, each one either reaming a new asshole onto the artist or telling us how amazing he truly is. We get a somewhat fractured history of the guy, we see his studio, meet a satisfied client and some of his "artists/workers" -- who appear to be taking his instructions and then painting the canvases themselves.  Well, Michelangelo and other of the world's great artists did something similar and, as Kostabi is quick to point out, he so belongs in their company.  (Note: a very good friend of mine once labored for Kostabi as one of these "artists" and, according to him, this in indeed how things worked at the Soho-based factory.)

Regarding the artist's "history," we see Kostabi as a talented kid from Whittier, California, with his family, and later, as he becomes successful -- palling around with Warhol (above, left) with whom he shared an ability for self-promotion far greater than artistic talent, and Basquiat (above right) -- and ever more resourceful in terms of his own constant self-promotion. One of his early art dealers shows us some of his popular line drawings which, when she first marketed them, sold out immediately. They are indeed pretty good, and Kostabi (above, center, and in all the photos below) seems to have stuck with their main figurative symbol well into his career.

His ability to make reams of money (and then lose it all) appears to annoy other artists, but for me it's his uber-creep personality and almost total narcissism that combine into the biggest turn-off.  His art?  Reminiscent of de Chirico, Dalí and others -- and relatively run-of-the-mill. How he deals with his workers, clients and servants (what else can you call these people?) -- everyone in his life --  is so far afield from reality (as I understand it) that I can only say he makes Leona Helmsley look like a model of unselfish tact.

While Kostabi is on record in an earlier incarnation as declaring modern art the ultimate con, and he the world's greatest con artist, there's more than a little truth to that claim (about both art and him). At one time he and his stable were churning out so many pieces of "art" that his partner, in tandem with one of those artists, took to signing and selling a bunch of totally non-Kostabi paintings as "the real thing" and pocketing the proceeds. (Not that "the real thing" has much meaning where this artist is concerned.)

Kostabi certainly gives us gays a bad name. What? You say he isn't gay? You could have fooled me -- for whom he reads "not gay" in the same way Warhol "wasn't gay." Homosexuality is never brought up during the documentary, but if this guy isn't actually homosexual, then he's doing the best impersonation of a not-very-closeted gay man that I've ever seen.  Which is fine, of course.  I'm hardly one to throw stones.  But then, WTF is the guy doing, coming on -- embarrassingly, sleazily -- to his seemingly very smart and very cute, female make-up artist?  Well, maybe he's just demonstrating that Kinsey scale that I'm often "on" about....

From his bizarre "talk" to a student group at (I think it was) Yale University to his interaction with the current Pope, things move from the bizarre to the brassiere. "How much crazier can this guy get?" you want to scream. But you don't -- because you're afraid you'll find out. You might call this film a labor of hate, but I'm not sure even that is true. There may well be a level of admiration by Sládek toward Kostabi. Or not.  Whatever: the filmmaker has turned out one of the stranger documentaries of recent times. After viewing it, you'll probably sit there, dumbfounded. And then you'll want to take a bath.

Con Artist, from Plug Ugly Films, in association with Ovation, The Group entertainment, ACME Pictures and Room5Films, makes its NY theatrical debut at the increasingly popular reRun Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, debuting this Friday, November 12 and playing through November 18.

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