I’d never seen art move so quickly off the walls as I did last night at Con Artist Collective‘s Lower East Side gallery. Things were so hectic that it was difficult even to talk to founder Brian Shevlin about the unusual exhibition. His eyes were too busy darting to and from the small, rectangular pieces of art as they were gently taken off the walls, wrapped in red plastic bags, and quickly replaced by more art works. It felt like a feeding frenzy, and I couldn’t help but join in. Snagging some art myself, I realized I’d never even considered buying art in a gallery before this. I mean, definitely the $20 price tag had something, a lot, to do with making an already appealing piece of work feel accessible. “We did this based on Bread & Puppet Theater’s Why Cheap Art? Manifesto,” Shevlin explained. “Basically, we believe that artists should be required to make cheap art.”
And the whole $20 thing seems like a fair shake on both ends, as evidenced by the sales record. “We’ve sold probably a couple hundred,” Shevlin said of the show, which had been open for a week as of yesterday. Con Artist may have been throwing the closing party for the show (and for the first time ever, free beers did not seem to be the main attraction) but they’ve still got until Saturday to knock an additional 200 pieces off those white walls.
The only thing uniting all the art works in The $20 Art Show is the requirement that they stick to a postcard– either an actual postcard, or something in the approximate shape and size of a postcard. The small size keeps the amount of time put into the project at a minimum, so $20 seems reasonable to the artist as well as the patron.
“What’s great about the postcards is that they’re sort of ephemeral,” Shevlin pointed out.
If three and a half by five inches sounds as if it could severely limit or automatically bore-ify an artists’ creative potential (especially those used to working on enormous canvases like one well-known graffiti artist who participated), in this case it hasn’t. But wait, these are artists we’re talking about after all, not app developers. They’re not simply going to create something that maps over an existing other-something, which is why we were happy to see a wide variety of mediums from watercolor to collage, wood carving to photography and even jewelry.
“ART IS NOT BUSINESS ! It does not belong to banks & fancy investors ART IS FOOD!” reads the manifesto, composed by Bread & Puppet, a radical puppet theater founded in 1963 on the Lower East Side by German artist Peter Schulman. The puppet troupe was first created to teach kids about some of the more difficult realities of urban life (cops, vermin) but it eventually evolved into a politicized band of puppeteers protesting the Vietnam War and other such injustices. “We contacted them and asked if we could use their manifesto and they told us to go ahead,” Shevlin said.
In the middle of the small storefront gallery space, buzzing with people (mostly young, though a few olds), stood a mannequin torso atop a pedestal. Around its neck hung the manifesto, handwritten in permanent marker on cardboard. It almost looked like those signs held by highway-side panhandlers, which echoed the themes of desperation for art, art as necessity, art as food, found within the manifesto.
It’s not surprising that Con Artist shares in this ethos. The art collective is truly an accessible one– for just $50 a year artists can join and pay a relatively small additional monthly fee to access the “creative work space” which includes screen printing equipment, a photo lab, hardware and more. Artists who sell their work in the gallery (including at this show) receive 70 percent of the sales price.
And rather than the artists whose work was on display being distant creatures of shadowy genius who surely must be off shading under a cabana somewhere in Mallorca surrounded by models and cocaine, some of the participants were right there in the room. The piece I bought was drawn and painted by the gallery’s general manager, and another work I considered snatching up was a photographic collage made by Mallory Smith, who was running around the gallery basically as an art handler.
From the 450 artists belonging to the collective, about 70 of them participated in The $20 Art Show including twisted pop artist Wizard Skull, legendary graffiti artist Chris Mendoza of the Barnstormers, the collective’s first member Manolo Rodriguez, and many more you haven’t heard of. “Some of them are well-known artists, and some have never sold work before, ever,” Shevlin explained. “In all, they contributed anywhere from one to 20, sometimes 30 pieces each.”
But when I asked for a list of participating artists, Shevlin declined. “We don’t have a list,” he shook his head. “It’s not about the artists, it’s more about the concept. But we did require that each artist sign the back of the postcard.”
Interestingly, none of the postcards displayed were obviously captioned with names or titles. Absent of context, the pieces are put on more even ground, and it’s sort of a fun surprise to find out who made it once you’ve picked out the lucky card to take home with you. “I can probably recognize 90 percent of the artists’ work,” Shevlin said.
If you’re thinking about stopping by Con Artist, best to do it sooner rather than later, as Shevlin explained: “If we sell out by Friday, we’ll be done on Friday.”
Con Artist Gallery is located at 119 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side, open Monday through Saturday 11 am to 7 pm. The $20 Art Show runs until Saturday, July 18.