Crappy art—this Sunday only!!

You’ve seen those ads. “Starving artists sale! Everything must go! Sofa-size paintings only $59! Paintings as cheap as $9! This Sunday only at the [airport-area hotel]!” I remember seeing them when I was growing up, thinking, “Wow, even I could afford that—but who wants to buy art at a half-rate hotel?”

This week the curiosity hit harder than usual. Who does buy art at an airport hotel? And how in the world are they producing this art so cheaply to begin with? I have to admit, I entertained some fantasies of how this would be groundbreaking investigative journalism and I would win a blogging Pulitzer for freeing the poor artists shackled to their sofa-size paintings.

What I found at the airport-area hotel was a room full of shoddy canvases propped up on tables and chairs. There were a lot of families and middle-aged couples picking through the selection. By “selection” I mean vaguely impressionist images of Parisian-like streets, Italian-esque villas, cozy disproportionate cottages and completely bizarre abstract art.

It was quickly no longer a mystery as to how they sold art so cheaply. Exhibit A:

Most of the paintings looked like prints that had been touched up with acrylic gel medium or some random daubs of paint to give them some texture. The plasticky canvas was harshly stapled to half-inch-thick frames, and the images usually carried well over the edges. I spotted a few pictures that were available in both the sofa size and a smaller size. I think one was of a roly-poly French chef on a unicycle. He may have been juggling baguettes, but that might just be wishful thinking on my part. Another popular style was Kinkade-esque:

I had kind of been hoping to find shady-looking men in overcoats with pencil mustaches. But I guess I found just what was advertised: cheap art for undiscerning audiences. There was no promise made of high-quality originals. Just art big enough to put over your couch.

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5 thoughts on “Crappy art—this Sunday only!!

  1. Deborah Secor

    I’m sure you’re right, Grace. This was a long time ago and was probably an exception to the rule even in that day. I don’t think anyone was getting rich on those paintings, but at least it was a means to an end for this one man at the time.

  2. Grace Dobush

    Deborah, what an incredible story! I have to say, though, that these paintings didn’t really look as if they were painted by hand for the most part. I hope that they were cheap prints and not forced labor!

  3. Deborah Secor

    Grace, as to investigative reporting, many years ago when I was visiting Manila, Phillipines, I was treated to a trip to the ‘studio’ of one of these starving artists. He lived in a warehouse that was divided into dozens of spaces and peopled with no less than hundreds of folks. He had a window, which was rare and precious, but lived in a fifth floor walk-up. On one wall was his most ambitious painting–a lovely portrait of a woman. He must have been in love with her! It was really good, a well-painted, credible painting, but he had ticky-tack paintings stacked all over the two rooms–the stylized ‘oriental’ paintings of the harbor, or the ‘Impressionist’ paintings of city streets in the rain, that kind of thing. He produced these paintings for a guy who paid him pennies, and shipped them to the US for just such sales as you attended. I’m sure that times have changed and things are different now, and I have no way to know if that was an ‘industry standard’ back in the 70s, but I still have a lot of compassion for the people who are being used to ‘paint’ these kinds of tacky paintings.

  4. Alan G

    That’s interesting….

    They were here this weekend also in the Little Rock, Arkansas area. The smaller sizes are always more popular here however. We can’t get those large through our out-house doors!