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The Bad and the Ugly

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RONAN THE PUG, an acrylic painting by Erin Rothgeb. Purchased by M. Frank at a Boston thrift store.

Some seek out the Museum of Bad Art, others stumble upon it on their way to the john. That’s fitting, as the MOBA gallery, tucked away in the basement of a historic movie theater just outside of Boston, shares a certain aesthetic with the hundred-year-old bathrooms down the hall. Exposed wiring hangs from the ceiling, the walls are slathered in beige, and the paintings are arranged around the intrusion of a heating pipe.

Still, MOBA is among the most artistically vital museums in America. Rather than the catalogue of excellence aspired to by its civic peers—the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—it has a less glamorous, though equally necessary, mission: establishing a baseline for what can credibly be called art. The exhibition was zoo themed. There’s a giraffe wading in the sea, an enormous lobster mounted by a blurry nude, and many, many dogs. Two poodles did the tango, a husky hovered in the sky, and a sheepdog wore a Band-Aid over its mouth. But nothing drew me in quite like Ronan the Pug. The plaque that accompanied the painting read: “The artist’s affection for her dog far outstrips her artistic skill. Paint is slapped on the canvas with random brushstrokes, creating matted, impossible fur. Done in such a hurry that the canine anatomy was not even considered, the artist still captures Ronan’s playful sweetness.”

The caption was written by Michael Frank, MOBA’s curator since 2000. Frank maintains the permanent collection, curates rotating exhibits in the movie theater’s basement and in the lobby of a local wildlife center, and acquires new art from thrift stores, estate sales, and the sidewalk. Frank names each artwork, and his commentary, however lighthearted, never stoops to diminishing their status as art. His careful presentation may explain the tendency of the moviegoers circulating in and out of the gallery to not simply laugh at the paintings but to engage with them. During my visit, one man paused by a canvas titled Dog and murmured, “Look at his eyes. They have so much to say.” A couple peered at another portrait, this one called Earth Mother. After mulling over the image, the woman pronounced, “This is creepy as fuck.” Her boyfriend pointed at a drooping tulip positioned between the Earth Mother’s knees. “That’s a vagina,” he said helpfully. She rolled her eyes.

The Museum of Bad Art has received occasional publicity since 1994, when it was founded by five friends. The group included an antique dealer, a software engineer, and

Louise Reilly Sacco, who is now the director. Most coverage of MOBA has presented the museum as a curiosity, the sort of gee-whiz story that serves to chew up airtime at the end of a newscast. Sacco told me of when she and Frank were guests on Good Morning America. The host capped the segment by gratuitously offering them a piece of Mexican tourist art that he had found in a local thrift store. The painting, Sacco said, “was one that Mike had turned down a couple of times.” Sacco and Frank declined the canvas, but the show was edited to look as if they accepted. The newscaster had made a common mistake in his selection: he thought only of the bad, and not at all of the art.

Frank, you see, is an exacting curator. His collection numbers more than 700 artworks, requiring two pallets of commercial storage and half his garage to house them. About the artworks he selects, Frank said, “I don’t like to think in terms of bad art as opposed to good art. I like to think of bad art as opposed to important art.” Indeed, from the oddly footless Calico Pomeranian to Disappointment, depicting a couple in a motel room, Frank’s collection is made up of aspirational failures. Though their flaws included poor execution and perplexing composition, each artwork was an attempt to partake in a recognizable artistic tradition. MOBA’s project, then, is an assemblage of qualities that are not only undeniably bad but also, simultaneously, undeniably art.

In January, I tagged along with Frank on one of his scouting trips, which he makes a few times a week. We met in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston that is home to many students from the nearby School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Frank grew up on Long Island and moved to Boston in 1975 to study music at the Berklee College of Music. He’s still a good fit for the area these many years later, having never lost his guitarist’s charisma or the native New Yorker’s deadpan mien.

Our first stop was Goodwill, though Frank said he rarely has much luck there. In the housewares section, we found a painting of a black tree with an owl perched on one of its branches. “Looks commercial,” Frank said. He glanced quickly at the handful of other candidates in the store and shepherded me back outside, pausing only to point out an abstraction of unimpressive black-and-white drips. He frowned. “Hard to be ironic about this. It’s made to be a wall decoration.”

The owl painting and the drips exhibited two characteristics that, for Frank, are immediately disqualifying: commercial and abstract. Another immediate disqualification is kitsch. When people think of bad art, they often envision kitsch along the lines of dogs playing poker or paintings composed on velvet. Frank, however, disdains kitsch. In Goodwill, he barely gave a second glance to the pair of clowns we encountered, and immediately dismissed a latch-hook portrait of a monk as something made from a kit. Kitsch, in Frank’s eyes, is unserious—people who paint clowns or paint-by-numbers are simply screwing around.

I asked Frank what he was looking for. He replied that he tries to find works that are “compelling”: “Something went wrong in the execution, or in the concept. Sometimes, poor technique will result in a compelling image. In something that I find interesting. Other times, the artist clearly has control of the technique, but the imagery is just so over the top that it’s something that I find interesting. It goes both ways.” Ronan the Pug is an example of compellingly poor technique, while Earth Mother showcases excellent technique in service to a bizarre idea. Both stop you short and force you to grapple with their failures. Frank described a painting he acquired on a recent trip to Florida that depicted a Victorian boot acting as a vase for a bundle of flowers. “I thought the idea of flowers in a boot . . . it made me scratch my head.”

We left Goodwill, and proceeded down the block to Boomerangs, a local nonprofit that sells thrifted goods to raise money in support of HIV treatment. At a rack near the entrance, Frank hoisted up each of the many abstract designs we encountered, shook his head, and reiterated how little irony could be found in a rainbow herringbone pattern or a stack of colored blocks. But deeper into the store, the artworks showed more promise. We considered a mixed-media evocation of a chicken coop, a quadriptych of trees changing with the seasons, and a painting of Michigan composed from fat blue daubs. All three are not commercial, not abstract, and not kitsch, but are nevertheless far from compelling. The only artwork that demanded our attention was one we discovered towards the back of the store: a painting of an Oreo. In it, the cookie stands against a dull brown field, and the artist (“Mitchell Korman ’01”) has written “GOT MILK” latitudinally to its right. As Frank examined the canvas, his demeanor stiffened. Squinting his eyes and rocking his head from side to side, he picked the painting up and leaned it on a low wall so that we could step back and take in the image fully. Finally, he posed the vital question: “Is it compelling enough to go in a museum?”

I pointed out that the printed “OREO” on the cookie is off-center and earned a gentle reprimand. “I’m not too worried about that,” he said. “Even if it was a perfect rendition of a cookie, is it compelling?” Frank deliberated silently for a minute. “Another consideration is we don’t have a lot of food,” he said, and speculated about acquiring the painting with a view toward curating a food-themed exhibition, along with Drilling for Eggs and Blue Mushroom Man. “This would not be a . . . I don’t know. For three bucks I could get it.”

After another several minutes of thought, Frank decided that no, the Oreo does not belong. It is bad, but it is not art. I was disappointed: the Oreo painting was odd—charming, even—but for Frank, it did not quite rise to the level of a motorcyclist pursuing a centaur or a pointillist portrait of a man on the toilet. These are images whose beguiling failure you are invited to laugh at, sure, so long as you accept the premise that they share some elemental quality with the work of van Gogh or Seurat. They fit neatly into a sense of art that is commonly felt—with the added benefit that in their presence the viewer is liberated from the expectation to intellectualize. The Oreo, meanwhile, is just a little too obvious.

As we exited onto the sidewalk, Frank paused to check Boomerang’s front windows, which showcased the store’s strangest and most valuable donations. They are purchased through silent auction. Frank scanned the window and did a double-take. There, lying on the seat of an antique chair, was a plastic baby doll, naked, framed by shards of glass and wearing a halo made from a broken plate. Without hesitation, he threw open the door, flagged down an employee, and put in a bid.

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