Postcard — April 19, 2018, 4:10 pm

The Bad and the Ugly

Acquiring works for the Museum of Bad Art

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Kyle Paoletta:

Six Questions June 26, 2013, 8:00 am

Savage Coast

Rowena Kennedy-Epstein on Muriel Rukeyser’s political and emotional vision

Weekly Review June 4, 2013, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

Tension in Turkey, storm-chasing tragedy in Oklahoma, and auf Wiedersehen to Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

Six Questions February 20, 2013, 9:00 am

This Is Running for Your Life: Essays

Michelle Orange on the art of the personal essay, navigating cultural overload, and the distance that separates two human heads

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2019

Without a Trace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What China Threat?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going to Extremes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Tell Me How This Ends”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What China Threat?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Article
Without a Trace·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Article
Going to Extremes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
Article
“Tell Me How This Ends”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chance on any given day that the only “vegetables” served in a U.S. public school are potatoes:

1 in 2

Horticultural scientists reported progress in testing strawberries to be grown in spaceships. “The idea is to supplement the human diet with something people can look forward to,” said one of the scientists. “Fresh berries can certainly do that.”

In Wichita Falls, Texas, a woman was banned from Walmart after drinking wine from a Pringles can while riding an electric shopping cart; she had been riding the cart for two and a half hours.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today