Sunday, May 28, 2000


The right to notice bad art

        During a painful chapter in my family's history, we were forced to deal with my grandmother's ugly obsession with flamenco dancers.

        Men in tight, black pants and garish ruffled shirts flaunting dangerously pointed footwear. Women in layers of hot pink fabric teetering on stiletto heels. Grandma painted them in oil. Over and over again.

        Worse, she gave them to us for birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas. Worse than that, she expected my mother to display them. My grandmother's paint-by-numbers period is the reason my parents finished off our basement, putting the art gallery next to the Ping-Pong table.

        To be fair, the ruby-lipped women and powder-blue shirts were not entirely Grandma's fault. The paint-by-numbers genre of the late 1950s allowed little room for individual flair. She bought dozens of the kits, $1.79 in “22 brilliant colors.” Once she sprang for a deluxe box, “The Last Supper” for $11.50, which included a “beautiful antique gold frame.”

        We did not know much about art, but we knew Grandma was going to go straight to hell for what she did to Jesus and his disciples.

        Happily for all, she was redeemed when she took up crocheting. We are left with colorful afghans to remember her, but the pictures have disappeared. A friend suggested I check to see if they are part of the Ohio Bad Art Guild collection.

        “We don't allow paint-by-numbers in our collection,” Stu Koblentz, OBAG's director of visual significance, says firmly. “The art must be original.” He also does not accept donations of paintings purchased at starving-artist sales, unless “there is proof that the artist was indeed starved.”

        This year-old “nonprofit, nonasset, nonorganization” in Columbus was inspired by the Museum of Bad Art in Boston, (Motto: “The best of intentions, gone horribly wrong”). Connoisseurs of the truly terrible may visit the Web site at

        A cyber gallery features “Howling Bad,” including “Oodles, the Three-Legged Poodle” and “Still Life with Snoutless Dog.” Each piece of bad art comes with its very own bad narrative: “Using Gauguin's palette and Hanna-Barbera's technique...” and “the age-old conflict between the power of the Bible and Freud's theory of rocket envy...”

        Mr. Koblentz told me that the genuine purpose of OBAG is to “embolden the meek in the face of the pretentious.” He says real artistic freedom is the right to look at something and say, “My God, that's awful.”

        Dirty Pictures, which aired Saturday night on cable, showed the seven pictures by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that were at the center of the 1990 obscenity trial here.

        Dennis Barrie, former director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center who brought the exhibit to Cincinnati says, “The truth is that the man had an amazing range of quality and beauty to his work.”

        I never thought Mr. Barrie belonged in jail. In hell. Or even in court. But he might benefit from the beauty and range of the three-legged poodle and the snoutless dog. Properly emboldened, he might take another look at Mapplethorpe's picture of the man who has bullwhips out the wazoo. Literally.

        I think most honest people could summon the courage to call this picture what it most obviously is.

        Bad art. E-mail Laura at, or call 768-8393.


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