And, in the Predictable Controversy Department, Las Vegas’s The Arts Factory is showing (and selling) the art of John Wayne Gacy, in a show called Multiples. (The actual location for the show is Sin City Gallery.) As of this writing, their website still claims the proceeds will go to the National Center for Victims of Crime (along with two non-profit arts organizations), but ArtInfo reports that that organization claims no one ever approached them about it, and that they won’t be accepting the money: Mary Rappaport, spokesperson for the National Center for Victims of Crime, was quoted in the Las Vegas Sun as saying, “Out of respect for the victims’ families, we have not agreed and would not agree to accept any contribution that comes from the sale of John Wayne Gacy’s work, which he did while in prison for torturing and murdering young boys and men…. We believe that the idea of benefiting from an activity related to such egregious and violent crimes would be in poor taste to the extreme.”
Maybe this is all a crass attempt to make some cash off of the darkest aspects of starfucking. To be fair, though, The Arts Factory frames the show in terms of some pretty important questions. Who should be allowed a voice in our society? We may have the right to incarcerate or even execute someone, but do we have the right to silence him or her? And if we do deprive a person like Gacy of his voice, what is our motive for doing so? Could it be that we’re really just afraid? Maybe if we look over the edge and into the abyss of madness and evil, we’ll see ourselves reflected back in a funhouse mirror. Maybe Gacy the artist has something special to tell us about the dark side of the soul.
Nah, not really. And The Arts Factory doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in those questions, instead just flinging them out as a quick justification for the show: “The Arts Factory is raising important questions here,” their website informs us in a self-congratulatory paragraph, “questions that make artists, gallery owners and viewers examine themselves and their feelings about the artist. Can we resist the impulse to attribute these inanimate objects, these oil paintings, to evil? Is the gallery a temple in which only those deemed worthy should be displayed, or is it, rather, a courtroom, a place all artists are equally qualified to be judged?” I’m not sure what The Arts Factory is fighting for here, since I don’t think it’s very difficult to become “qualified to be judged”—certainly, I feel little hesitation in judging Gacy, as a serial killer or as an artist. I also think they lost a preposition somewhere in that phrase. (By the way, is The Arts Factory seriously asking me if, when I gazed on Gacy’s tracing of Fred Flintstone, I had difficulty resisting the impulse to attribute that inanimate object to evil?) If you don’t think much of The Arts Factory’s quest and find the whole thing trashy, they’ve headed you off at the pass by conveniently phrasing your objections for you, in the most reductive way they could find without working very hard: “I don’t want to look. I don’t want to see. I don’t want to know.”
Why is the show called Multiples? We have what appears to be an explanation in the “Exhibit” section of the show’s website: “Multiples: We are familiar with multiple aspects of Gacy’s story. He worked multiple jobs, lived multiple lives, and committed multiple crimes. What we are unfamiliar with is the art Gacy created while awaiting execution: multiple paintings.” Well, okay, but as explanations go I gotta say that seems pretty thin. In the “Gacy” section it’s implied that the title has to do with Gacy’s psychological condition: “Psychiatrists maintained Gacy was not a multiple personality and was competent to stand trial.” As much as I like the combination of the indefinite article “a” and singular form “personality” with the adjective “multiple,” I think what they mean is “Gacy did not have multiple personality disorder.” But if he didn’t have multiple personalities, why name the show Multiples?
Very sorry to be such a stickler, and I can only offer my humble apologies to any art dealers to the stars who may be stung by my elitism. But thought is made manifest through articulation, and sloppy lazy articulation equals sloppy lazy thought, and you really should check to make sure your thinking is clear when you’re trying to justify, as a contribution to the philosophy of art, selling John Wayne Gacy’s tacky clown paintings for $10,000 a pop.
Which brings us to the work. There may well be a serial killer whose haunting paintings will make the world a richer place, but a quick once-over of Gacy’s makes plain the real, non-aesthetic motive for the show. The art is so boring and tacky that even the gallerists seem unwilling to charge more than $15,000 for any one piece, even for the colored-in tracings that Gacy used to create his paintings (“extremely rare that Gacy would color his sketches,” we are informed in the caption for the colored-in Elvis, Original Trace, $12,000. And then informed of the same thing with the exact same wording in the caption for John F Kennedy, Original Trace, $12,000, begging the question of just how rare it was) (by the way, the lack of a period after the “F” in “John F Kennedy” is not a typo, but the way that The Arts Factory has chosen to render the name).
The show’s organizer, Wes Myles Isbutt, was quoted by the Las Vegas Sun as saying, “It’s outsider art. It’s primitive art…. You can’t be in a room with it without feeling.” But Gacy ain’t no Darger or Rousseau. He just liked to do paintings of clowns. (He also painted finches on cherry blossoms, Disney’s Seven Dwarfs, witches, Charles Manson, Christ, stuff like that. The most unsettling thing about the pictures is how banal they are, in an Eichmann-in-Jerusalem kind of way.)
Maybe the sacred presence of the physical objects themselves would convey that magic something that can’t be transmitted through the internet. But I doubt it. I guess Gacy might have developed into a good draftsman, if he’d ever had any training. But he didn’t. And his subject matter doesn’t have the strangeness you associate with worthwhile Outsider Art, unless you feel generous enough to count his watered-down versions of the macabre. (Pennywise the Clown? Really? Ooo, I’m scared, John Wayne Gacy.) (Okay, full disclosure: I kind of like his paintings of the clown skull.)
There’s nothing new or especially startling about ordinary people having a morbid fascination with mementoes of death and violence. It’s not the price tags that make this version of that old scenario so annoying, but the way it’s gussied up as some kind of invitation to intellectual public debate, with a lecture from a criminologist and all the flashy pseudo-provocative “are you scared to look?” rhetoric. Or maybe what the gallerists are really selling is the appearance of some form of meaning in a meaningless and valueless world. That appearance comes from the thin layer of vocabulary the product is packaged with. That’s why they don’t need to spend $15 an hour on some proofreader; there’s nothing actually there to describe, so it doesn’t matter how accurately the language used to describe it is. All that matters is that the high-falutin’ words are there…. Really, both things are being sold: there’s the magic primitive death thrill, which at least is natural and hence somewhat respectable; and then there’s the socially acceptable and somber, pretentious rhetoric it’s wrapped up in, like the plain brown envelopes in which they mail pornography. Except that those envelopes hold together.
But I don’t mean to point fingers. So the guys at The Arts Factory and Sin City got hold of some junk and decided to put price tags on it, big deal—they’ve got bills to pay. As for the collectors, I guess when you’re jetting back to the West Coast from New York’s $300,000,000 Christie’s auction the weekend before last, $10,000 seems like a pretty reasonable price to pay for a nice little clown painting you can hang in your bathroom.