Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Con Artist

Mark Kostabi is an artist you can make money selling. That is high praise indeed coming from a particularly commercial gallery owner. However, he never calls Kostabi a great artist—quite the contrary. Such is the career of self-styled “celebrity artist” Mark Kostabi, which director Michael Sládek shrewdly documents in Con Artist (trailer here), now screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

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 of artists. 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 celebrated 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. Though evidence of Kostabi’s preoccupation with his 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 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, at times Con seems 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 never 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. It screens again at Tribeca on May 2nd.