Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Attention-Seeking Behavior: Con Artist

Mark Kostabi is an artist you can make money selling. That is high praise indeed coming from an especially commercial gallery owner. However, he never calls Kostabi a great artist—quite the contrary. Such is the nature of self-styled “celebrity artist” Mark Kostabi’s career, which director Michael Sládek shrewdly documents in Con Artist (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

Opinions of Kostabi’s art vary widely. He does have his brave defenders, including the California gallery owner who mounted his first unheralded show. However, they are usually referring to his early work. Kostabi now operates more as a factory manager than an artist. While he approves conceptual designs, the actual art is carried out by his staff. Typically, Kostabi’s only hands-on work comes when he signs his name.

Andy Warhol was undeniably a formative influence on Kostabi, certainly through his work, but particularly for the way the pop artist cultivated his celebrity status. However, the student has arguably surpassed the teacher in elevating the pursuit of fame to an art form in itself. Essentially, Kostabi argues his entire public persona and artistic business constitute an ongoing performance art piece, much in the spirit of Andy Kaufman. Of course, he is still making sales and maximizing profits, while utilizing the labor of others. Individually, his pieces are not outrageously expensive, but you know what they say about volume. Ka-ching.

As the title indicates, Sládek maintains a healthy skepticism regarding Kostabi’s artistic legitimacy. His approach is subversive rather than reverential, often undercutting Kostabi’s credibility with unflattering footage of the unrestrained egomaniac (the public access game show is particularly discrediting). Though evidence of Kostabi’s preoccupation with his provocateur image might seem embarrassing, it seems as long as you are pointing a camera at him, Kostabi will happily be your best friend.

Obviously, access to the publicity hungry Kostabi was not a problem for Sládek. However, he gets credit for presenting an unusually balanced portrait of his subject. In fact, his talking head segments are often absolutely withering in their appraisal of Kostabi, both as an artist and a person. Indeed, Con sometimes feels more like a satire than a documentary.

Con is a highly watchable, level-headed accomplishment in documentary filmmaking. Since Sládek never buys into Kostabi completely, he is not compelled to minimize or defend the artist’s excesses. As a result, the audience can watch his frequently crazy antics and come to their own conclusions. Con is a surprisingly funny film with a rebel spirit and a hardcore punk soundtrack to match. One of the highlights of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Con kicks off its theatrical run this Friday (11/12) in Brooklyn at the ReRun Gastropub.