Review: Art Bastard

Robert Cenedella is an art bastard


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I watched a screener of the documentary Art Bastard last night. As soon as it was over, I watched it again. I had never heard of Robert Cenedella, the subject of the film, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. Everything was new, the stories were fresh, and I didn't have to worry whether filmmaker Victor Kanefsky would adequately and accurately cover all the aspects of the artist's career or personal life.

All I had to do was sit back and enjoy a colorful guy holding court. Now you get to do the same thing, unless you're familiar with the man and his work; in which case I hope you drop me a note and tell me how the movie measured up for you.

Robert Cenedella is a troublemaker. He once did a painting of a crucified Santa Claus with a pile of presents stacked around the base of the cross. It eventually ended up in a storefront window, where passersby complained to reporters that it was sacrilegious, or potentially upsetting to children, or something. The bottom line was that it just wasn't right!

When pop art exploded in the '60s, Cenedella responded by creating a show titled Yes Art, in which he mocked the movement. Andy Warhol was famed for his reproductions of Campbell's tomato soup cans, so Cenedella painted cans of Heinz tomato soup, claiming it tasted better. Anyone who made a purchase at the show also received Green Stamps.

[NOTE: Once upon a time, long before most of you were born, Green Stamps were parceled out at the registers of many grocery, gas, and department stores. They could be exchanged for items from a catalog. The stamps remained popular until the '80s.]

Okay, so maybe some of Cenedella's jokes were kind of reactionary – like the "I Like Ludwig" buttons he sold when "I Like Elvis" buttons were all the rage – but they make for interesting stories.

The title of the film refers both to Cenedella's agitating behavior and his parentage. At the age of six, he learned that his father wasn't his birth father, which rattled the hell out of him. His pop (the one he grew up with) was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

[NOTE: Once upon a time, long before most of you were born, an evil man named McCarthy ... oh, look it up yourselves.]

Cenedella followed his father's path, getting expelled from high school for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. He went on to attend the Art Students League of New York, financed by those Ludwig buttons.

Filmmaker Kanefsky moves casually back and forth between the story of Cenedella's personal life and the story of his art. It makes for a comfortable watch. Sure, the artist is a bit full of himself, but I've found that people who aren't full of themselves tend to be full of platitudes and other people's anecdotes. I'll take a windbag over a grab bag any day.

Along with the stories we are treated to lots of Cenedella's art. I particularly like his bigger paintings, which are stuffed with visual information. The faces in his works appear as a compromise between realism and cartoon, the kind of images that look like they would be easy to do until you give it a try.

So there you are. If you opt to see Art Bastard you'll be going in with considerably more information than I had. Don't worry, I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy yourself anyway.


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