Saturday night the Corey Helford Gallery opened its weeklong Charity by Numbers exhibit with a reception and auction of some of the works. The exhibit includes over a hundred classic paint-by-numbers canvases that have been modified, reimagined, mutated, or mutilated by an impressive group of local and international artists.
Gary Baseman, Paul Frank Sunich, Gary Panter, Camille Rose Garcia, Marion Peck, Mark Ryden, Shepard Fairey, and Michael Hussar were among the 117 artists who contributed an altered paint-by-numbers piece to the exhibit, each with his or her own particular twist on the original.
Though the term 'paint-by-numbers' may be familiar, most people born after 1960 have probably not worked on too many of the actual paint-by-numbers canvases. The hobby had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s when novice artists, housewives with free time, and parents looking to encourage creativity in their children would go to the local craft store and pick up a kit or order it from the Craftmaster catalogue.
'It was the 1950s when there was crisis after crisis and the Cold War was heating up and this was something for people to just sit there with and relax,' said Bruce Helford, who owns the Corey Helford Gallery with his wife Jan Corey Helford. Besides relaxation, the paint-by-numbers hobby served as an art for the masses, allowing anyone to create his own pastoral landscape, still life, or portrait to hang proudly on the living room wall.
The Helfords originally conceived of doing Charity by Numbers after Bruce had purchased several paint-by-numbers works and considered the possibility of using them as a foundation for a more expansive sort of art. They reached out to their friend, LA-based artist Gary Baseman, about getting more artists involved and he enthusiastically pulled together the extensive roster of artists on display currently, first contacting good friends, then seeking out any artist who seemed like they would do something interesting with the project. Each artist chose a piece from the collection of paint-by-numbers works Helford had gathered for the exhibit and offered his or her own take on these Americana relics.
At Saturday's opening, the walls were covered in a collage of the paintings, each work in its modest wooden frame and accompanied by a small photograph of the original paint-by-numbers piece. The crowd seemed excited as they moved their attention from one painting to the next, taking pleasure in the strangely familiar feeling of many of the works, and the tension from the artists' interpretations.
By seven o'clock, the gallery was packed with viewers. Artists including Hussar, Garcia, Fairey, Nathan Spoor, The Pizz, Anthony Ausgang, Andrew Brandou, Erik Foss, Tim Biskup, Natalia Fabia, Joshua Petker, Savanna Snow, Korin Faught, Richard Colman, Chantel Menard, and Buff Monster as well as their friends and plenty of press were in attendance.
The full open bar, live DJ, and stream of appetizers kept everyone in good spirits and anyone seeking a break from standing could slip away to the darkened lounge to the side of the gallery. A number of parents brought their children, who seemed to appreciate even the more bizarre pieces.
Not just what the artists created but also how they departed from the original paint-by-numbers pieces interested viewers. Some of the artists added new characters that changed the entire meaning of the painting, like Owen Smith's work that turns a smiling clown into the abused victim of a mob shakeup, or Souther Salazar's piece in which a pair of eager cats no longer wait to devour a mouse, but now hungrily stare at an army of tiny neon creatures.
Others completely redid the works, keeping only a tree or stone archway and replacing the rest with their own vision. Many delved into the surrealistic, notably Todd & Kathy Schorr's swirling, tongue-tied Mickey Mouse and Popeye faces that they added to an otherwise idyllic country scene.
Some artists used materials other than paint. Gris Grimly used pen and ink to draw a sepulchral history of the Spanish conquests over a painting of a Spanish mission. Elizabeth McGrath added a toy antelope head and built mini-dioramas behind her piece to install little windows into the work. Eric White actually removed the paint from his to return it to its original unpainted state.
Funny, moving, somber, or cute, each piece took its purpose in a slightly and sometimes radically different direction than the others, and the sheer variety of approaches was one of the themes of the exhibit. On a deeper level, the Charity by Numbers show reflects a recent shift in the Los Angeles art scene toward an embrace of mass art consumption and a rejection of boundaries between 'high and low brow'.
'As long as you stay true to your aesthetic and have a strong sense of a message and meaning, you can put your art on anything,' said Baseman. 'You can put it on a gallery wall, you can do it on a street corner, you can do it on a vinyl toy, you can do it on any kind of product. As long as you're keeping the integrity of your work, it's art. You're selling out when you're selling out in your integrity.'
Baseman's own art, which has been featured in museum galleries, an Emmy-winning Disney show, on covers of The New Yorker and on the board game Cranium, reflects how fluid the distinctions within art have become. He and many of the other artists involved in the Charity by Numbers exhibit are part of what Baseman refers to as a 'pervasive art' movement which avoids clear divisions between mass and elite cultures, preferring to pervade any area that makes sense for the works or icons.
Like Andy Warhol's Pop Art movement in the 60s, this new generation of artists embrace pop culture and are chiseling out their own place in both the high art world of museums and the pop art world of toy stores or specialty stores like Giant Robot. But unlike Andy Warhol, artists like Camille Rose Garcia, David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, Mark Ryden, and Baseman are not as focused on holding a mirror up to pop culture icons in order to reveal their artistic nature. They are creating their own icons for mass consumption, from cartoon rabbits to ugly dolls. Instead of painting Mickey Mouse as an artistic commentary, they are simply creating original cartoon characters of their own.
Charity by Numbers may be the largest gathering of this new generation of artists yet, and the use of the middlebrow paint-by-numbers pieces as the foundation on which they celebrate their varied work seems appropriate.
As nine o'clock approached, hosts Lacey Chabert, Helford and Baseman auctioned off several of the pieces, including Baseman's own 'Winter Offering'. Many works were on sale directly, at prices ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, and the others are being sold here on Ebay all this week. All the money raised from the auctions goes to the The Alliance for Children's Rights, a Los Angeles-based group that works to help impoverished children find a permanent family, healthcare, and quality education.
Whether this "pervasive art" infiltrates the culture through galleries or graffiti, museum installations or comic book conventions seems to matter less to the artists than that we get it, somehow. This week's exhibit is a reminder that the distinctions between high, middle, and low art have become much more blurry. Above all Charity by Numbers is a reminder that sometimes it's better to just ignore the lines.
Charity by Numbers is on exhibition at the Corey Helford Gallery now through February 17, 2007
8522 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
Tuesday - Saturday 12-6pm
Corey Helford Gallery
The Alliance for Children's Rights
Photos by Tiffany Antone
Published on Dec 31, 1969