O.C. ART : Kostabi Works on View in Fullerton : The artist’s notoriety is based largely on Kostabi World, the assembly line enterprise he founded.


A few years ago, I had the misfortune to be backed up against the punch bowl at a holiday party, listening to an angry and rather sozzled young Laguna Beach painter rant about the awfulness of on-the-edge contemporary art.

“People like you think Mark Kostabi is a great artist!” she shrieked. It was no use assuring her that I’d never written a word about him. For a lot of people, the Whittier boy who made good in New York is the epitome of all that’s wrong with taste and standards in today’s art. The flaw in this reasoning is that Kostabi in no way represents the seriousness and range of contemporary art.

His notoriety is based largely on Kostabi World, the assembly line enterprise he founded in his adopted city, where a staff turns out “Kostabis” that are said to sell for anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000.


At the tender age of 29, he now has the honor of a retrospective of sorts (a group of paintings from 1982 onward) at the Main Art Gallery at Cal State Fullerton, his alma mater of sorts (he studied there for 3 1/2 years but didn’t earn a degree).

“A degree can work against you,” he claimed last week when he phoned from his parents’ home to plead for a kind review--a first in this critic’s experience. Without the degree, he said, “a lot of successful people are impressed by your nonconformity.”

The virtue of the show is that we get to consider the guy’s art (the pre-1986 works are apparently actually by his own hand, though he signs his name to all the products of his factory), as apart from his jejune remarks (“I am a champion of creativity”) or hype-riddled media reputation.

His large and economy-size paintings are peopled by sexless, egg-headed androids who tend to be plugged into earphones, hanging out at nightspots, slaving away at Kostabi World or engaging in the sort of activities “symbolic” of man’s fate (tug of war, trying to balance on the edge of a cliff) that have long been the province of lowbrow knickknacks.

Other paintings are based on famous works of art, such as Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp,” Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” or Manet’s “Fifer.”

In his Rembrandt shtick, Kostabi casts himself in the role of Dr. Tulp, and the anonymous cadaver on which he is demonstrating is Andy Warhol--the artist whom Kostabi childishly views as a competitor (“I think I’m more bizarre,” he once told an interviewer). The rest of this vacuously self-serving painting is a generalization of the famous work--this time with “normal” human faces and bodies rather than the faceless androids.

Kostabi’s version of “The Last Supper” is a reworking of the famous original with neutral android types and an invisible Jesus. On first look, the viewer may strain to perceive why the heads of certain apostles have been rendered as toilet seats. But figures in Kostabi’s paintings of entirely different subjects are also equipped with the same plumbing fixtures, rendering the gesture simply a tiresome gimmick.

“The First Step” looks like a pastiche of several Renaissance Madonna and child paintings. Illuminated by sickly fluorescent yellow lighting and augmented with a TV set (the solemn child holds up the plug like a cross) and the distant scaffolding for a modern office building, the painting cynically proposes a savior born to deliver a message about the supreme importance of media.

Kostabi’s most recent piece in the show (“The Visitor”) is a bronze sculpture with a curiously milky patina. It is a demure seated nude who rests her chin on one hand and crosses her ankles. Kitsch incarnate, down to the “artistic” patina and a title that could have come directly from the Franklin Mint, the piece adds no new revelations to the genre of contemporary art that deals with the obtuseness of popular taste.

The cleverness of Kostabi’s work lies in the way it panders to the confusion of the hapless uninformed consumer who wants to be art-hip but doesn’t know how to go about it.

His figures, landscapes and interiors are generally composed of cold geometric forms modeled in perfectly calibrated shades of black and white--the kind that gets an A in art class. This meticulous good grooming reassures the consumer that the artist has some basic skills (unlike the rarefied variety of contemporary art that appears to involve no real “talent”). The futuristic look brings to mind nattily executed sci-fi art, yet the works are reassuringly stocked with familiar objects sold in electronics stores.

But what separates this work from important contemporary art are the underlying assumptions of the artist. When Kostabi talks about “reaching out and trying to make the world a better place” with “art for everyone, love for everyone,” he is spouting the kind of drivel found in greeting cards and smarmy corporate advertising.

Given a chance to talk about art at length, as in a recent FlashArt magazine interview (Summer 1990 issue), he reveals his lack of direction and apparent inability to deal with substantial ideas in depth.

Somebody who refers to “the gullible, malleable American public,” notes his pleasure at being on the cover of People magazine, professes his love of Old Master painting and calls himself “just a simple person who wants to express himself on canvas” is someone acting the role of artist-provocateur-with-heart-of-gold.

That’s just what a certain segment of the art-baffled public wants to hear, but it doesn’t add up to a cogent view of the world--just a view of how to build a personal career. If his jumble of thoughts isn’t a put-on, it just shows how confused and desperate for public affirmation he is.

Warhol, on the other hand, was his own man. He had a clear-cut art agenda apart from his media image. As my colleague Christopher Knight has explained, the artist was packaging ideas related to the dominant art style of his time--abstract expressionism--in popular culture forms (for example, by transforming the liquid manipulation of paint--called “soup”--into literal renderings of Campbell’s soup cans).

The big void in this exhibit--and a particularly shameful one, too, in a university setting--is context. Exhibit curator Stephen Verrell, a master of fine arts candidate at Cal State Fullerton, fails to explain how Kostabi’s work fits or doesn’t fit into the larger arena of contemporary art.

This is one show that shouldn’t have been attempted without a catalogue, but the university art department doesn’t have the money for one. (Conversely, of course, one can be grateful that the Kostabi empire didn’t get any more permanent documentation.)

There is, however, a slide-and-sound presentation, strongly geared to a youthful audience. The 15-minute program opens with pounding rock music, then shoots rapidly through a jumble of images (including portraits of Picasso and Warhol, and a reproduction of Van Gogh’s auction record-setting painting, “Irises”).

The text is nothing if not boosterish, rife with buzzwords that appeal at once to a vague sense of novelty and piously old-fashioned notions of artistic creation: “Yuppie sensibility,” “personifies Now,” “crusader,” “quest,” “truth,” “reputation.”

But never do we hear how Kostabi relates to Jeff Koons or Chris Burden or Mitchell Syrop or any of the other conceptual artists who are significant today. Listening to the blather on the tape, you might think that Kostabi has been obliged to uphold the fabled outrageousness of contemporary art all by himself. Sorry, but art today is preeminently about ideas, not about titillating the readers of People magazine.

So let’s not envy Kostabi’s 15 minutes of fame. Let’s just hope that this self-professed lonely guy who dreams of “building the world’s tallest building devoted to art and humanitarian pursuits, in Brooklyn” finally finds happiness and considers early retirement or perhaps a new career in real estate.