Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fart on the Ave

Two weekends ago my family ambled down a street in Del Ray with friends in an effort to enjoy Alexandria, VA's Art on the Avenue. The next time I go I should chat up the vendors selling "paintings"* and start asking them "how do you do that."

Actually, I know the answer. The better question is, "why in the hell are you doing that?"

The "that" in question is the wretched process of taking a photograph, applying a filter to it in Photoshop, printing the result on canvas, and stretching the canvas. Granted, a fool and their money are soon parted, and in the case of those who would sell or buy, there are two fools involved (because my guess is the vendor goes home with a lot of unsold canvases).

The thing is, a bad vacation photo does not get better when Photoshop's "stained glass" filter is applied to it. Nor does it get better when printed with archival Epson inks on canvas paper. Nor does it get better when the canvas is stretched around a few pieces of pine.

There was a lot of "art" of this sort floating about The Ave. It impressed me no more two weeks ago than it did seven years ago when I found myself sitting in a doctor's office in New York City (whereupon after learning I was an artist the doctor responded, "I do a little art," and then pointed to the photo with inverted colors on the wall behind him). And, it reminded me of two lessons I teach beginning students in my digital art classes.

1. Stay away from the filters. It's not that the filters in Photoshop are bad. At times they are great, but if used selectively. When it comes to using the tool properly, the filters menu should simply be deactivated until later in the semester (or for a later course) so the user gains a better understanding for how to use the tools. The tools do the work. The filters act like a drug. I think anyone who has ever smoked pot knows that the pot doesn't make the problems of the world go away – war an famine still exist – it simply makes the problems of the world seem more tollerable for a very short period of time.

2. Stay away from Live Trace. This is a tool in Illustrator that will break down a photograph into a series of vector shapes, sometimes tens of thousands of vector shapes, and make the photograph look like a drawing... sort of. Again, Live Trace has its place. But, for beginners it becomes a knee-jerk stylistic choce and avoids learning how to do things like draw with the pen tool or use a gradient mesh.

Of course, this is all the vendors did to photos of beaches and mountains. And each "painting" looked as bad as the next.

In the process of chatting these people up, I would hope to gain how well these people are doing when it comes to selling a bad non-painting "painting." Sure, everyone needs a hobby, but those tents are expensive and printing on canvas isn't exactly cheap. So, how does it all shake out for this, ahem, artist? Do they break even in a given year? What is their business model?

I am also curious who the buyers are. You most likely wouldn't find the Kogods or the Cafritzes buying; you won't find the Barlows buying either; and you probably won't find any artist who is regularly showing at area commercial, non-profit, and alternative galleries buying work there. So, who is the competition? Is it Ikea and Target?

Of the great things that could be found at Art on the Avenue, all of them could be re-defined as "craft" or "artisan". I do not mean that in the pejorative, either. The last time I sat at a potters wheel, in 1995, I managed to throw a good bowl, but I wouldn't make a living from doing it, no matter how funky the glaze looked after a raku firing. There is skill to this craft, much like drawing, and it {is/can be} an art, and it is an art that I cannot confidently attempt to master. Besides, I have a feeling most of the ceramics, wood turned objects, scarves, and such were being sold for utilitarian purposes... much like the hand crafted olive oil soap. Unless, of course, the soap sellers intended for their soaps to sit on a pedestal.

*there are a few vendors selling legitimately painted paintings (notice, no quote) at art on the ave. the above critique does not apply to them.

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