A documentary portrait of art world provocateur Mark Kostabi, Con Artist is another movie that acknowledges the existence of a particularly American air-quote culture (both high and low) which requires new product to fill its pipelines, and the art world’s important role in feeding that machine. It’s a breezy, facile thing, and if it doesn’t completely crack the riddle of the man, it at least lays bare his popularized thinking regarding branding and self-promotion, the forward-reaching impact of which can also be glimpsed in the ways plenty of smiling lost souls these days jockey to make “ex-reality show participant” a full-time, life-long occupation.
Directed by Michael Sladek, Con Artist eschews a strictly chronological tack, mixing biography, archived material and the (frequently unflattering) musings of various talking heads with present-day footage tracking the artist’s movements and whims. The third son of dirt-poor Estonian immigrants, Kostabi grew up in Whittier, Calif., and attended Cal State-Fullerton before moving to New York City in the 1980s. There, he was a contemporary of Jean-Michael Basquiat, and, like many of his peers, he idolized Andy Warhol. Kostabi, though, seized upon Warhol’s “factory” sensibilities and the idea of multiple artist revenue streams, and after a measure of personal success, created a system whereby he oversaw the creation of art, and signed his name to canvasses, but did little if any of the actual work. (You know, kind of like the painter version of Ron Bass*.) After a near-bankruptcy in the ’90s, Kostabi continues in this vein to this day, while also harboring cracked visions of taking his terrible public access cable game show national.
Physically, with his long face, sunken eyes and pinched jaw, Kostabi resembles the ruddy-complexioned theoretical offspring of Nick Swardson and Richard Grant. An egomaniac with perhaps autistic or social disorder leanings of some sort, he’s not really a willing interviewee, but Sladek is wily enough to capture the essence of his subject in glancing fashion, via certain conversations with friends (where he explains how fame, in his view, is the equivalent of love) and one drunken encounter. All of the background material gives the film a convincing mooring, and Kostabi is an interesting enough character that even if he remains a bit unknowable he’s still in large measure fascinating to watch, given his various detachments from reality and the fact that he’s still experienced so much success. For Los Angeles audiences, Con Artist bows this week exclusively at the Laemmle Sunset 5. For more information, click here. (New Yorker/Plug Ugly/Acme/Room 5/Ovation, unrated, 84 minutes)
* – allegedly