Pupil Haze

Yesteryear's Big Eye art is still raising eyebrows

Shortly thereafter, however, even the most indiscriminate art lover turned a blind eye to one of the most curious--and underdocumented--movements in American popular art. Sated with Big Eye art, the public drew the shades on these picture windows into the soul.

But after a 25-year nap, the Keane genre has, for a new generation, become a sight for sore eyes. Big Eye tributes have in recent years appeared everywhere from "Zippy the Pinhead" comic strips to the cover of a Carpenters tribute album and even an Entertainment Weekly book review of Monica Lewinsky's autobiography.

Like Lynette Bibbee, Pittsburgh-based thrift store doyenne Al Hoff became intrigued with these unsettling relics while thrifting Goodwill and Salvation Army stores. Now the proud owner of more than 70 Big Eye prints that hang in the corridor of her home, the author of Thrift Score fantasizes that one day a visitor will run out of her "Hallway of Sorrow" screaming: "I just wish I could help them somehow!"

During years on the thrift beat, Hoff has rummaged through hundreds of Big Eye prints, including one particularly memorable do-it-yourself project: Someone had cut up a Gig print, mounted several cats on cardboard, then decoupaged the pieces on a series of ovals decorated with rickrack. "I said, 'Wow, this is cool!'" recalls Hoff. "It was like giant-eyed cats were not enough. Whoever did it had even taken the trouble to sign the back, like they themselves had created some work of art."

Hoff says she's long since given up even attempting to unscramble the twisted genealogy of the Big Eye kids, whom she likens to "caged lab monkeys."

"You've got Eve, you've got Lee, you've got Gig," says Hoff. "Then they start ripping one another off; some Lees look like half Gig."

It's even occurred to her that these various painters don't really exist and that the paintings were really the work of anonymous sweatshop artists. "Maybe they were churned out in Taiwan or somewhere, and these are literally made-up names," she theorizes. "There's just no way of knowing, which makes it all the more intriguing."

Mitch O'Connell, a nationally known commercial artist whose pop culture pastiches often feature homages to Big Eye art, hasn't had any better luck tracking down the history of the fake Keanes. Using addresses gleaned from decades-old comic books and confession magazines, the retro-culture maven once sent letters to companies that had advertised prints at four-for-a-dollar. All of the letters were returned as undeliverable.

O'Connell's best guess is that the various prints--60 of which currently decorate the basement bar of his Chicago home-- were the work of commercial artists painting under pseudonyms.

"When these things first came out, I'm sure the appeal was that everyone thought they were cute," says O'Connell, who referenced that art movement with the title of his recently published compilation Pwease Wuv Me. "Today, everybody in the world is in on the joke that they straddle the line between cute and very frightening."

But for at least one latter-day fan, the saucer-eyed souvenirs of the Cold War era represent forbidden fruit.

"When I was a little kid, I'd see these pictures advertised in Humpty Dumpty magazine," says 26-year-old Megan Besmirched, a Dana Point, California, Big Eye buff whose 700-item collection rivals that of Lynette Bibbee. "But my parents were hippies, and they were just not into this commercial thing," continues Besmirched. "They were like, `Where the hell did we go wrong?' Now they realize it was totally a girl thing."

Unlike the doomed objects of her affection, Besmirched is holding out hope that maybe--just maybe--one of the artists like Gig will someday stumble across her Web site members.tripod.com/~besmirched/eyes.html and e-mail Besmirched the true story of his--or her--life.

And, some day, wide-peepered pigs will fly.

When that day comes, Lynette Bibbee no doubt will be there to sift through the droppings, looking for an obscure print that has somehow eluded her all-probing gaze.

A part-time publicist for "Weird Al" Yankovic, she's currently looking forward to a summer-long tour with the comedian that will enable her to scour thrift stores, garage sales and retro shops in other areas of the country.

One place you won't find her is the Keane Eye Gallery in San Francisco, where Margaret Keane's current day, upbeat works fetch prices far beyond what Bibbee pays in second-hand stores. "Just for fun, I asked the guy in charge what it would cost me to have a portrait of myself done," says Bibbee. The eye-widening price tag? $50,000.

"And that was just the basic portrait," says Bibbee. "The tear was extra."

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: dwebb@newtimes.com

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