I Guess It Wasn't Miller Time
I set my painting down on top of a mirror-less vanity in my parents' garage. I rested the Miller sign against the vanity’s legs. Then I waited for a phone call. It never came.
On day three, I texted my mother: Did dad see my stuff?
It was possible he had missed their arrival. For twenty years, the garage had been filled to the brim with just about everything except a vehicle. Retrieving something from it required Catherine Zeta-Jones levels of grace and agility (save the burden of an ogling Sean Connery). So, it could be forgiven if a small dog-sled painting went unnoticed.
Yep. He saw them. You can call him tonight.
Translation: Your stuff isn’t worth anything and I’ll let your father tell you. I mean, he told me. And, I know he’s avoiding telling you. Now, I’m gonna do the same. Love you. Give my grandbabies a kiss. Goodbye.
He wasted no time discarding the sign as patently worthless.
“The sign? It’s virtually new, eh?”  The barrage continued, “It’s one sided. There’s nothing special about it.”
Wow. “But other than that?”
“Twenty bucks at a live auction, maybe more online. You paid ten, you’re fine.”
That’s right. You’re fine. You can do this. You’re not gonna cry. Just breathe.
 You know that, right? I mean... come on.
I haven’t bought a lot of art in my life, but I swear to you that I saw this coming. In John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, Robert De Niro tells Jean Reno “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.” Here, he’s explaining how he knew an arms deal was a setup. Something felt off, and something was off. That’s how I knew my doggy painting was a bust. Just a feeling. A hunch. And, whether you’re gun-running in Paris or yard-saling in Buckhorn, you would be wise to listen to your instincts.
I might have exaggerated a bit. Not the part about comparing yard sales to organized crime. The worthless part. The painting wasn’t worthless. My father agreed it had great subject matter. He felt it was worth somewhere between thirty and sixty dollars. A nice (potential) return for a three-dollar investment. I pressed for an explanation. His analysis can be divided into two subcategories: Labels versus Stickers and A Glancing Assault on a Hobbyist.
Labels versus Stickers
According to my father, a gallery label should include several details, including: the artist’s name (and whether or not he or she was a member of a recognized academy or institution), the size of the painting, the price, the date, a name for the piece, specific details on the subject matter, and even a space for other “remarks”.
It should look like this:
Mine looked like this:
“You’ve got a sticker, okay?” he said, in the most hilarious matter-of-fact way. “I’ve never heard of that gallery – not that that means much – there are plenty of galleries I haven’t heard of – some of them have to be great – but, this painting might not have even been in this gallery – it could’ve been framed there.”
Look for labels, not stickers. Lesson learned.
A Glancing Assault on a Hobbyist
“Everything around you can be analyzed in terms of its visual presence…the great thing about art is that there’s more than you can ever know about, you can’t learn it all. And you’re lucky if you get to spend your lifetime trying to.” – distinguished art critic, Roberta Smith
“There is a sea of shit out there. How are you going to get good at this game? By reading a [blog]? I don’t think so.” – heralded soul-crusher, Robert Carruth
Placing these quotations beside one another is a bit unfair of me. Roberta Smith is expounding the limitless possibilities of a life spent engaging with art, while my father is warning of the sinkhole riddled landscape of a life spent selling it. Roberta is uplifting and sincere. Robert is cynical, but his cynicism is utilitarian. It keeps him (and, by extension, me) protected from over-extending when purchasing art from someone’s wall (or driveway). They’re both right. Because my father’s criticism of art is more or less immediate, it always runs the risk of seeming unduly cruel. Knowing his kind heart makes these passive assaults seem funny, though I must concede that the artist, fellow artists, and the generally sweet might balk (with mouths agape) at some of his more callous assertions.
“This is an amateur effort,” he said.
“What exactly do you mean by that?”
“It’s not the big leagues.”
There was a pause in the conversation here, while I suppressed laughter (not to spare my father or the artist’s feelings, but to avoid waking my two small children who had fallen asleep on the third hour of a particularly draining drive).
“I understood the analogy,” I said, “but, what about my painting is amateur?” I felt a light ache in my jaw (like when you eat three bowls of Quaker Harvest Crunch), and realized I had been smiling the entire conversation. Talking about antiques with my father is one of my favourite things to do – especially when he’s poking holes in my so-called treasures. I don’t know why, but I always find it terribly funny.
Here is where his criticism flirted with the insane. “It’s composition is a bit naïve, really,” he said, instantly transforming into someone wearing a black turtle neck and polishing a monocle, “it’s just… not all there. Do you understand?”
I obviously didn’t.
The short answer is yes. The trouble is the man knows a great deal about what makes a very specific kind of art valuable. He’s seen it so much, that he knows when something is special (and by special, I almost always mean valuable), the moment he holds it. It’s something sensory and experience-based. He just knows. His analysis lacks a bit of polish (and compassion), because it hasn’t been necessary. He is right more than he is wrong, and that’s a product of years and years of taking chances, listening, and remembering what’s worked and what hasn’t. He knows when something is off. He understands that when there is any doubt, there can be no doubt.
None of that helped me very much, however, I was insulated by the fact that I was buying art for the price of an iced cappuccino. I suppose I could afford to purchase (and profit from) the naïve works of a 1950s hobbyist. If things got more expensive, I’d need to trust my gut. Or, in the very least, find a label, not a sticker.
I plan on saving my items and selling them at various shows and auctions. I’ll document those experiences and share them down the road.
For now, I will adhere to the following publishing schedule:
Monday – an account of the weekend’s adventures
Thursday – an evaluation of my findings, sprinkled with bits of this and that