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Robert Cenedella, the subject of Art Bastard, is not a jerk. Rather, in a tiny triumph for the English language, the creators of the documentary chose a title whose pure definition reflects not only Cenedella’s illegitimacy as a son but also his generally agreed-upon status as an outlier of his chosen career.
He’s not an outsider artist, mind you; Cenedella was taught by German artist George Grosz at the Arts Students League of New York and now teaches there himself. (One of the few punchclock jobs the 76-year-old has ever had.) His body of work may be nicknamed “the people’s art,” but it has often hung in galleries. And though his wife, Liz Cenedella, says that her husband expresses a lot of anger in his satirical paintings, Cenedella himself couldn’t be more of a delight.
If you’re not familiar with the man, or you’re expecting a film about some entitled punk, it’s a lovely surprise. Director Victor Kanefsky sprinkles Art Bastard with mildly startling details: The first is the unmistakably digital look of the doc, its opening outdoor scenes in a focus so sharp it’s otherworldly. And as you watch Cenedella hop on the subway, you’ll eventually notice that its station signs, train info, and other lettering along the transit lines have been sneakily replaced by the film’s credits. Well after the doc builds Cenedella’s history with his parents—his sister occasionally chats with him about their upbringing—particularly regarding his question mark of a biological father and the one who raised him, it’s revealed that he has children of his own.
While standing in a kitchen with his “black sheep” son (he’s a lawyer), Cenedella the elder says, “I just don’t understand how you could not be a good father.” The comment is out of left field conversation-wise, but it’s lovely nonetheless.
Cenedella seems happy to share all of this with Kanefsky and his audience, even if it sometimes gets repetitive. He begins with what inspired him: New York itself, the “constant wonderland” his family moved to when he was 12. The paintings that dot the screen while Cenedella is musing look more like cramped, crabby residents than denizens of any wonderland. Still, his works are bursting with detail and movement that throw you precisely into the moments he intended to capture.
As he tells us his story, a handful of commentators note that despite his talent, he stylistically “missed the boat” in terms of becoming successful—or at least well-known. Cenedella stepped back from the art world after abstract and pop art became all the rage, saying that the former “negated anyone who had a point of view” and mocking the latter with his own exhibition, “Yes Art.” He bemoans the current mindset of art as investment and talks of a student who had an MFA but had never held charcoal; she drew only with computers.
Still, the round, white-bearded artist remains, well, jolly—ironic considering that one of his most famous paintings was of Santa Claus hanging on a cross, gifts under his feet. It’s wonderful to visit his body of work, whether canvases or a George W. Bush garbage can labeled “white trash.” And just as his paintings are humorous—“sardonic, gallows humor” as one expert puts it—so is his commentary. He remarks on the fickleness and absurdity of some modern art, singling out Jeff Koons. “Jeff Koons, he has a vacuum cleaner—all right, now it’s art!” he says. “At some point, it’s going to become just a vacuum cleaner again.”
Opens Friday at Angelika Pop-Up.