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Cause Celeb

Make a Saturday morning stop at the neighborhood garage sale, and you might find a stack of watercolors depicting flowers, butterflies and landscapes, at 25 cents apiece. They look like public-access how-to works, and they really aren't that great. Mom painted these back in the '80s when she needed an...
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Make a Saturday morning stop at the neighborhood garage sale, and you might find a stack of watercolors depicting flowers, butterflies and landscapes, at 25 cents apiece. They look like public-access how-to works, and they really aren't that great. Mom painted these back in the '80s when she needed an outlet from a stressful job and two kids. She liked watercolor for a minute, but has since moved on to other hobbies. No big deal — it's common for regular people to dabble in the visual arts from time to time.

But what if a famous movie star coughs up some paintings in her spare time? The work will definitely be worth more than a quarter, even if it's no better than the garage-sale fare. How is it that we value a celebrity's attempted art above creations found in a neighbor's driveway?

Such are the questions posed at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's "Celebrity," curated by Marilu Knode. The show includes art that tackles the concept of celebrity, works that use specific celebrities as subject matter, and pieces created by celebrities — revealing a complex dialogue of taste, hype and determined value in the art world.

The question of the value of celebrity art is met head-on with a group of works by famous people, including Grace Slick, Ringo Starr, and Sylvester Stallone. Because of their creators' notoriety, the pieces are interesting and have a certain draw — and a few of them show real talent. Take Janis Joplin's Scarecrow. It's a lively drawing of an awkwardly posed scarecrow that may not be a conceptual roller coaster but does show illustration skills.

Joplin's a rare exception. Fly Me to the Moon by Frank Sinatra is an abstract painting of brightly colored geometric shapes that fill the work's surface. It is a curious vision, imagining a man so accomplished in other pursuits sitting down to try his hand at painting. It's interesting, and, to be honest, it's crap — worse than the stuff cranked out in high-school art class.

As harsh as this judgment sounds, it came with heavy hesitation. Obviously, Sinatra displayed his true talent in another artistic genre, but the fact that he decided to paint on the side is fascinating — simply because of his fame. Even though the visual aspects of the painting are not compelling, it is the scenario under which it was created that made me take a hard look. Thus, it's an art item that piques curiosity and reveals one aspect of a tricky relationship between art and celebrity.

To further explore these concepts, SMoCA provides an opportunity to view the reality television series ARTSTAR, in which no-name artists compete for the favor of Jeffrey Deitch, a New York gallery owner known for his ability to spot promising artistic talent. To watch the DVD, viewers are invited to step onto a stage in the middle of the gallery that holds the television set and two chairs.

It's the typical reality-TV formula, complete with cringe-worthy moments as the hopefuls present their work to a panel of judges that includes art critics, collectors and historians. Even as an art writer, I realized a delay in my own response to the work shown, waiting to hear what these real experts had to say before I determined its worth. ARTSTAR shows what happens in art — the hesitation until someone of greater importance deems an artist worthy.

The TV show reiterates the exhibition's message that the famous happen to own this golden touch. An artist sells her work to a celebrity and her worth instantly increases. After all, we all want to know who Steve Martin or Dennis Hopper has in his collection.

Artist Candice Breitz knows that celebrity demands attention; she uses clips from 12 movies in her pair of video installations Mother and Father. As you enter the gallery, the quick-cut soundtrack beckons. Mother is a series of six flat-panel screens, each featuring a famous actress playing a mother's role with the character cropped from the original scene and set against a black digital backdrop. Father has the same setup, and each installation individually explores media-induced myths about parenthood (Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, for example, is a cultural archetype of the most evil parent, while Steve Martin in Father of the Bride is the lovingly clumsy daddy).

The chopped-up sound bites of each popular Hollywood movie create a narrative interplay of their own while simultaneously reminding viewers of the stories in which the clips originated. I'm not a huge fan of video installations, but the familiar draw of famous actors kept me watching.

As with many large shows, there were stinkers.

Notably, Todd Gray's work Untitled (Iggy) is a large photo of Iggy Pop laid flat upon branches. The photograph is propped so high that a stepladder would be needed in order to see it, and since a few sticks of wood aren't exactly enthralling, the whole piece lacks energy. Whatever idea it was intended to explore is lost.

Overall, however, Knode and SMoCA make a wise choice with an intriguing subject supported by excellent works that relate well to the theme. This show goes so many places beyond just pretty pictures of pretty people. The incestuous world of art and celebrity unfolds to dissect the many ways in which art pieces gain cultural value. Like it or not, celebrity does bring its own status. So if you happen to see Julia Roberts thumbing through watercolors at a garage sale, you may want to pick one up.

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