Michael Sládek's entertaining profile of painter Mark Kostabi constitutes light fare, ideal for ingestion by bleary-eyed festival-goers who've been eagerly sampling it since its 2009 premiere at Tribeca. Sládek's inability to get behind Kostabi's façade suggests the artist's false front is in fact real, yet that doesn't let the filmmaker off the hook completely. As enjoyable as it may be, Con Artist is not an especially satiating piece. That's why noshing auds at Brooklyn's Gastropub movie theater will find it a nice-not too heavy or too taxing-accompaniment to their grub and libations.
A composite of Andy Warhol, Chuck Barris and James Spader, Kostabi made his mark on the art world in the late 1980s and early 1990s by mass-producing works that studio lackeys executed and which he signed and promoted. Oftentimes, he didn't even come up with the ideas. Adept at harnessing the mass media and society's fascination with celebrity, Manhattan-based Kostabi became rich and reviled as folks paid big bucks for his output. We hear from multiple talking heads with pro and con opinions. Many are friends and associates, past and present, others are observers of the art scene. The best slag-off comes from critic Donald Kuspit, who likens Kostabi's work to "Applebees aspiring to be Olive Garden."
According to Sládek, Kostabi's assembly-line approach and cultivated outrageousness eventually rubbed too many people the wrong way (not just snooty critics or his archrival Jeff Koons). He fell out of favor, sued his publicist Andy Behrman and filed for bankruptcy before moving to Rome in 1996. Sládek doesn't offer many details about this fall from grace. Other than a biographical stopover in Kostabi's (and Richard Nixon's) hometown of Whittier, California, where he was raised by Estonian émigrés, the focus is on how Kostabi has tried to regain his confidence and stature in recent years. And it's the now 50 year old's simultaneously manic and measured on camera reflections and whirlwind wanderings that dominate the film. A Public Access TV show he produces in which contestants are paid to think up titles for his paintings looks like the progeny of The Gong Show.
The movie's pejorative title doesn't represent a judgment on the part of the filmmaker. Rather, it's a label Kostabi gave himself. "Modern Art is a con and I am the world's greatest con artist." His sincerity about his career and persona is to be expected, as is his slyly disdainful attitude toward the art world more generally. Even more than Salvador Dali, to whom he's compared, and Warhol, whom he knew, Kostabi is first and foremost a performance artist. Sládek doesn't analyze Kostabi's output from an aesthetic perspective nor add much to what Kostabi himself projects. (The side we don't see is the mean conniver that a number of interviewees comment upon.) In essence, he lets Kostabi hang himself and the auto-execution is fully effected about halfway through.
As he reemerges onto the scene, it's obvious he's driven by emotional vulnerability; his obsession with fame is not sophisticated or intellectually nuanced (smart though he clearly his). "Fame is love and I need love," is how Kostabi sums himself up. One interviewee describes him "as a black hole of irony," which means any irony gets canceled out and what you see is what you get: a forlorn, depressive figure intent on micromanaging every aspect of his life and career. A few of his attempts to manipulate Sládek are caught on camera, and it's through the movie's eclectic soundtrack that the director, who has extensive experience making music videos, is arguably best able to comment on his subject. His use of "The Money Song" from Cabaret can be considered his most emblematic if obvious choice.
Toward the end of Con Artist Kostabi is shown in 2007 in Italy where his sculpture of Pope John Paul II, commissioned by the Vatican, is being unveiled by none other than the current pontiff. Seeing this former East Village bad boy next to the Pope might seem dissonant or shocking, but there's a palpable sense in which Kostabi is as much an establishment figure as the Pope. Kostabi's avoidance of social justice, or any other external, non-solipsistic theme, is what resonates loudest in the end. And while damning in the opinion of many, it could be the main reason he'll be more than a footnote in the annals of art history.
Distributor: Plug Ugly Films, (917) 202-6068, firstname.lastname@example.org
Director/Producer: Michael Sládek
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: November 12 NY
Plug Ugly Films Inc.
745 Eastern Parkway #3
Brooklyn, NY 11213