I acquired my first bad artworka searing critique of late-20th-century excess called Two Ticks in Oilat a silent auction held almost 10 years ago in a rickety Boston loft. Turns out that the pair of engorged parasites floating in a jar of canola oil is an important early work by Anonymouswhose oeuvre accounts for a big chunk of the permanent collection at the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) in Dedham, Mass. MOBA’s inventory also includes seminal works by Artist Unknown, Pangorda, and Martha.
Arlington County arts officials somehow got wind of MOBA’s spoils and approached the museum to lend works for a bad-art show, which opened last week at the Ellipse Arts Center as part of the county’s Innovators program. This first-ever traveling MOBA Road Show presents 80 works from the museum’s permanent collection alongside mock-deconstructive wall text penned by MOBA Director of Aesthetic Interpretation Marie Jackson. The worksculled from trash bins, thrift stores, and yard salesdrew 300 visitors to the opening reception of catered Twinkies and Kool-Aid.
Aspiring bad-art patrons at the reception hoped to secure their spots in the museum’s permanent collection by hauling in works from their moldy archives for a juried selection by MOBA officials. MOBA representative Parker McGurl credited the local collectors for their good bad-art eyes: “We never expected to find as many as three new works that would meet [Esteemed Curator] Scott Wilson’s exacting standards.”
As Wilson explained at the event, bad art distinguishes itself from mediocre art in its handling of human figures, among other things. The way the artist treats the hands and feetthe most difficult parts of the body to drawis telling. If extremities are conspicuously absent, or barely rendered, he intoned, then it’s genuinely bad art. One pair of local collectors produced an in-law’s wedding portrait so poorly executed that Ellipse Gallery Director Trudi Van Dyke marveled, “They didn’t look like people at all.”
Presentation also counts. Van Dyke calls attention to an awful, circa 1950 portrait of an earnest uniformed army officer in blocky black glasses. “Did you notice the frame?” she inquires. “It’s Styrofoam.” An inappropriate frame elevates a canvas from merely hideous to museum-quality.Jessica Dawson
The Museum of Bad Art Road Show runs to October 18 at the Ellipse Arts Center, 4350 North Fairfax Drive in Arlington. Phone (703) 228-7710.