By Ray Stern
By New Times
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Once on a visit to Las Vegas, Teri Skrdla saw several Phoenix Art Press paintings in a gallery. As she pointed them out to her husband, the gallery owner came by and asked, "Do you know Richard Hall?" When she said that she did, he pointed to one of Hall's paintings and said, "That's his masterpiece."
Skrdla stifled a laugh and left, wondering how much of it Hall had painted. Teri Skrdla quit after six months. John Cline was disappointed because he had high hopes for her and he told her so. "I would hope [my artists] would not leave," Cline says. He doesn't think they could get a better opportunity than to work for him. One artist has said that Cline and Grassia act as if the artists are their family and their children. And when the children stray, Cline freely admits, he feels betrayed.
When asked if he can't think back to his own art school days and identify with the disillusioned young artists who have walked out of his employ, he answers with a single word.
@body:The notion that artists are pure and ethereal channels of creativity and inspiration is a modern one. Michelangelo was not a starving artist; he had the wealthy Medici family as his patrons and was commissioned by the Vatican. Vel zquez worked for the king of Spain. And many of the great masters claimed the work of their students as their own.
Indeed, in this half of the 20th century, Andy Warhol called his studio the Factory because his assistants worked at his bidding creating works of art that he art-directed.
While Warhol dealt in a realm of outrageously nonconforming conformity, Cline's realm swoops closer to the furniture market.
The art-furnishings business is a cutthroat one. Cline worries that competitors in the furniture business will pilfer the designs of his frames and finishes, that art firms will copy his designs, and that people will even try to bring cameras into their High Point showrooms.
"Every one of these pieces is copyrighted because I want to protect them from being knocked off," he says. "I just want to stop it."
Even when it involves his own employees. Every employee signs an extensive--but probably unenforceable--noncompetition contract upon being hired, stipulating that he is doing work for hire and that everything he learns while working at Accent Graphics is proprietary. If an employee's art shows up at a local gallery and it has an "Accent/Phoenix Art Press" look to it, the employee is summarily fired, and can expect to receive a letter from Cline's attorney.
A former frame finisher named Gary Butler, for example, set up a display of his framing talents at a gallery on South Central, and within days, a color photograph of the display was on John Cline's desk.
And two weeks ago, an artist still in Cline's employ called an art-gallery owner at home at night pleading with her to take down the show of his paintings scheduled to open the next day. He was petrified that something would be deemed too similar to the work he did for Phoenix Art Press and that he would be fired. "We had him long before Art Press did," says the gallery owner. "I'm crying over it. He's lost his soul."
@body:John Douglas Cline is fully aware of what people say about him and about his company. He becomes irate with artists he suspects look at his line as "decorative crap for the wall."
As he sits at lunch at Lombardi's restaurant in Arizona Center, he points to his half-eaten bowl of risotto with calamari and says, "I could lacquer this and call it art--but I couldn't sell it."
He goes on to say that some people cannot accept pictures of flowers as art or think that filling a machine gun with colored lead and spraying it into a wall is art. Then, speaking of the furniture show in High Point that he had returned from late the night before, he says, "I just came from a place where duck pictures and dogs jumping over fences is art."
Jon Glimpse, who once worked for Cline and now makes custom furniture, takes the other side. "Philosophically, I believe there's very little difference between what they do and fine art. Most of the animosity you're picking up on has to do with the misexpectations we're all taught in art school."
And if the critics and the art school professors do not take Cline's side in the argument, the market does.
Next month, the John Douglas Cline School of Art will be moving into a building ten times the size of the one it now inhabits. The 72,000-square-foot former American Express office near Indian School Road cost $5 million to build; Cline and Grassia picked it up from the Resolution Trust Corporation for less than $800,000.
As Cline paces the still-uncarpeted floors, and points out where the frame shop, the offices and the galleries will be, one sees only art, the kind that Warhol talked about--the art of business.