in Frieze | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

Art Brute

Terry Painter l'artiste, the latest satirical take on the creative life

in Frieze | 05 MAY 04

'That was the fuck of my life! Where did you learn to screw like that?' 'New York baby!' So begins Terry Painter's transition from catwalk male model to art world stunt cock and creator of modish paintings, with the assistance of his pet robot dog Pollock. The art world leaves the modern satirist with an uneasy dilemma. The gurgling excess of self-regarding tripe published in catalogue forewords, books, magazines and even audio guides means there is an unending supply of targets, but most of them are so curdled that they are beyond the satirist's reach. How, feasibly, could you write a spoof version of a Berlin Biennale press release or Artforum's Top Ten column? So in Terry Painter, l'artiste (2003), their well-executed comic book of New York art world high jinks, Nick Waplington and Miguel Calderón, front man of the Mexico City punk band Intestino Grueso, have segued art world satire into the notoriously territorial genre of the graphic novel.

Terry Painter gets a start not be-cause of his hot grad school credentials but because he's a sack artist, hot enough to lay a room full of models and sell a painting to each of them. Racking up lines of charlie on the tanned, flat bellies of Victoria's Secret models, he quickly parlays his bedroom skills and loyal Pollock's painting skills into a Chelsea gallery show. At the weekend he gets an arts endowment grant from a New York senator in exchange for pleasuring his wife at their beach house, while the cigar-chomping politician hoots: 'Harder boy! I want you to get in there like a cruise missile!'

Unfortunately it's a narrow, hetero gloss on the art world. Terry's real friends are rappers and DJs who, like Terry, create through their cocksmanship. 'I love the technical precision in your work. Your work gives meaning to this abstract world we live in', sighs lithe Hollywood actress Grace Davenport, squatting over Terry in the bathroom at his party. 'Flip yourself over now baby so I can get a little deeper', replies Terry the perfectionist.

Like the artist in Paul McCarthy's film Painter (1995), Terry howls out the name of his hero 'Derkoooooning!' But in this case it's not just angst; it's a prompt for Pollock to get on with mechanically spreading paint across a canvas with his paws. While McCarthy's Painter is about a decline into De Kooning-like decrepitude, Terry Painter charts an ascent, immediate and sublime, followed by a twisted downward trajectory of realization and revenge. Terry's drug bingeing leads to a scooter accident and a slow return from a coma, disfigured, rejected and unrecognizable. All objectivities, Terry discovers, are false ones and, with Pollock by his side, he experiences a turbulent re-entry from orbit. Spurned by his phoney gallerist, he's quickly rescued by Schnabeloid society portrait painter and guru Julius Swackhammer, who chooses Terry as a subject for his new series of paintings, 'The Deformed Series'. Terry briefly returns to the girls of his past, seething with hatred and intent on revenge.

Whores and politicians, streets like extended, scabbed-over gutters - so far so Watchmen (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's series produced by DC Comics, 1986-7), particularly as Terry's vigilante character fulminates in the second half, but Terry Painter lacks the intertextuality of Watchmen. Terry is more Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller's empty-headed male model from the 2001 film Zoolander) than Moore's Dr Manhattan. The graphic style of Terry Painter is anti-DC Comics and anti-superhero. It's a European or Latin American comic book style - like Gilbert Hernandez' Love and Rockets series for Fantagraphics, Barry Windsor-Smith's Young Gods & Friends or the European imprint Les Humanoids, taking in the odd Roy Lichtenstein gag along the way.

This is an appropriate heritage. Being a satirist is all about having a point of view so far removed that you are looking down from a cartoonish orbit. As Laurence Sterne observed, satirists should see every reflection in the mirror but their own. Historically though, art world satires have been notoriously tricky to pull off, in text form anyway, because of the airless proximity. Coagula, Matt Gleason's LA-based magazine, butts its subject head on, picking the '25 most obnoxious people in the art world', for example, or by giving Karen Finley its 'Artist of the '90s' award for 'empowering artists to leave behind the plantation-style system of unpaid servitude in exchange for a 300-word review'. The UK collective BANK fought the London art world throughout the 1990s with various works in print, including the self-published tabloid The BANK (1996/7) and exhibition 'Press Release' (1999), in which they edited and graded gallery press releases before faxing them back to the institutions concerned.

Maurizio Cattelan's magazine Charley is more cunning - an unpaginated curatorial mega-review of the work of nearly 400 artists, all done with puzzling photo captions. But maybe only Gregory Battcock's three-volume Trylon & Perisphere magazine from 1977 ever really succeeded in print, and it did so by effortlessly co-opting the worst excesses of NYC galleries. Even Andrew Crispo, the New York art dealer whose drug trafficking, after-party S&M routines and demented threats to kidnap his bankruptcy lawyer's children landed him in jail, became a willing contributor for Battcock. The art world remains a massive target, full to bursting with a glutinous mix of ambition, careerist desperation, drive, retailing and fashion, but still somehow a suffocating monoculture. What have we done, you want to ask, to get ourselves lured out on to this apparently dismal urban terrain? Waplington and Calderón respond in Terry Painter by sourcing filmic art world swipes. They expand on a rogue artist theme that is clear in McCarthy's Painter, but also in Driller Killer (1979), where Abel Ferrara, under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine, plays a New York painter whose canvases speak to him, whose bisexual flatmates mess with him and whose punk band neighbours drive him over the edge into systematic power tool abuse.

It's there too in Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985), as a paranoid Griffin Dunne ricochets through Linda Fiorentino's studio of appalling plaster casts, and clouds of steam escape from the pavements suggesting Hell lurking just beyond the field of vision. Nor would Coen brothers devotees fail to mention the predatory Maud Lebowski from The Big Lebowski (1997) and her loft full of hyena-like German performance artists. Calderón and Waplington are consummate insiders, the right people to chronicle this massive loss and misplacement of humanity. Waplington's work spans the fashion magazine and art worlds, while Calderón's paintings were featured in Wes Anderson's movie The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), adorning the wall of Owen Wilson's office. But they have a circumspect view of this art world brouhaha, finding it as immaterial as smoke through a keyhole.

At his after-opening party Terry Painter takes down a sweaty, fractious curator, heaving him out on to the street. 'Oh my God! How totally aggressive! You're totally a Scorpio, no?' gasps an admiring model, 'I've saved you from his smelly dick - that's all that matters baby!' grins Terry. You need to have schmoozed a lot of art world openings and endured a lot of curators to know how good that might feel.