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Pupil Haze

Lynette Bibbee's museum of maudlin art is not a pretty picture.
In one strategically placed lithograph titled "No Dogs Allowed," a wide-eyed waif and his equally optically overendowed poodle soulfully dare the viewer to look away.

Avert your eyes to the print next to it, this one identified as "The Stray," and you'll find yourself gazing into the peepers of a Brobdingnagian-orbed ragamuffin and her similarly moon-eyed mouser.

All around the room, this dewy-eyed desperation continues in hundreds of similar teary tableaux. Baleful ballerinas, joyless jesters and puddle-eyed pets abound. And in the ironically titled "Left Out," a moist-eyed moppet peeps through a knothole in a fence, evidently failing to realize that each of his counterparts in the room is every bit as woebegone as he.

Wrangle an invitation to the private gallery in Bibbee's Mesa home and you may soon discover that her Big Eyes are more than you can stomach. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Laughing nervously, Bibbee leads visitors past a pile of mint-condition Milton-Bradley Pity Kitty jigsaw puzzles, a squadron of sad-faced ceramics and shelves of dolls that make Wednesday Addams look as wholesome as Punky Brewster.

"A lot of people ask how I can stand to live with all this stuff," says Bibbee, who salvaged much of her collection from thrift stores and yard sales. "It is creepy."

Not to mention pitiful, pathetic and perverse.
During its mid-Sixties heyday, however, this morbidity-for-the-masses was inexplicably popular, a fact that has enabled Bibbee to amass what is believed to be one of the largest collections of Big Eye art in the country. Today, her trickly-eyed trove runs to more than 600 prints, paint-by-number kits, needlepoint sets, dolls, commemorative platters and other ephemera, all of it centering on troubled tykes and their forlorn four-footed counterparts.

Quick to point out the ghoulish humor in her odd obsession (Bibbee jokes that she plans to will her collection to Planned Parenthood and the Arizona Humane Society), the 36-year-old airline reservation clerk began collecting ocular artistry eight years ago as a lark. "I used to see this stuff as a kid and remember thinking how weird, even scary, it seemed to me at the time," explains Bibbee. "Then, years later, when I started seeing it again in thrift stores and yard sales, I just couldn't resist. But one way or another, everyone has a strong reaction to it."

The most common response? Abject, if amused, disbelief.
Who dreamed up this grotesque school of portraiture devoted to children who appear to be dead, lobotomized, abused and/or drugged? Why would anyone possibly want this spooky junk hanging over their divan? And what sort of parent would give their kid a doll like "Lonely Lisa," a dark-socketed mannequin whose wristband poem reads: "My arms beg to hold you/I'll bend to your touch/Please take me home/I love you so much."

Bibbee, who keeps in contact with other buffs via her own Big Eye Web site (members.tripod.com/~BibbeeL/gig.htm), says she has no idea.

"I think that's a big part of its appeal to people who are collecting it now," she answers. "When you look at all this Big Eye stuff, you can't help wondering what people were thinking about back then."

Today, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who'll confess to enjoying cheesy representations of neglected children and abandoned animals.

But that was hardly the case 40 years ago when the husband/wife team of Walter and Margaret Keane, the undisputed king and queen of Big Eye, got the bawl rolling with their cavalcade of sorrowful small fry. (See accompanying story.)

Unable to crack the world of "serious" art with their odd painterly offerings, the couple simply sidestepped the San Francisco art establishment by opening their own vanity gallery there. Realizing they were on to something when people began tearing down posters for the gallery from telephone poles and hanging ads for the gallery in their homes, the industrious pair went into Big Eye overdrive. A shameless self-promoter and celebrity schmoozer, Walter was soon pulling down five-figure commissions from the likes of Natalie Wood, Liberace, Kim Novak and that noted connoisseur of tormented tots, Joan Crawford.

But shed no tears for the great unwashed, who, unlike Jerry Lewis, didn't have $10,000 to fork over for a family portrait by Keane, in which all family members were dressed as harlequins. By the early Sixties, the Keane machine was blanketing the country's better gift shops with prints and greeting cards. And for those who couldn't spring for a genuine repro, there was a vast army of Keane knockoff artists invading America's dime stores and drug stores with cheap prints that brought bad taste to even the most modest of budgets.

Working under a variety of short, whimsical and often palindromic names like Gig, Eve, Lee, Eden, Mikki and Maio, the Keane clones eventually drove the formula into the ground with cartoonish absurdities like Eve's grim-eyed go-go children, who appeared to be on the verge of tears even as they Watusied.  

By the early Seventies, the once voguish craze had developed severe crow's-feet. At that time, Big Eye art had long since moved from the Hollywood haute monde and into the back pages of movie magazines, where fly-by-night mail-order companies peddled prints at a quarter apiece ("New decorating rage! Get in step with these wide-eyed singers reproduced from oil paintings in exquisite color for family room or party corner!").

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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