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Beauty of All Sorts

Sean Cole

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"Heather Come Hither" by Bianka.
(Courtesy Museum of Bad Art)
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Art lovers in the Boston area have a lot of options for their weekend museum browsing. You've got your Museum of Fine Art, your Institute of Contemporary Art, your Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum and scads of little galleries scattered all over town. But what about bad art lovers? Well, they're in luck. For the longest time there was only one Museum of Bad Art (MOBA), located in the basement of a community theater in Dedham, Mass., right near the men's room. But now MOBA has opened up a new gallery at a movie theater in Somerville, Mass., right next to the men's room. We sent our Bostonian friend Sean Cole to the new space. As it turns out, he has a personal connection to this story.


Many years ago, a friend of mine brought a painting to the original Museum of Bad Art in Dedham, Mass., to see if it would qualify. It's a portrait of J.F.K. and Jackie Kennedy, done in 1964 and rescued from the trash. Jack is big and orange, and Jackie is little and gerbil-like. But one of the volunteers said you could tell where J.F.K.'s hair stopped and the background began. So, "No thank you."

As one thing led to another, that painting ended up on the wall of my apartment. So I brought it to the new branch of MOBA, in the basement of Somerville Theater, to get it reappraised. Acting Interim Executive Director Louise Reilly Sacco picked at the edge of the picture, where it bubbled out a little bit from the frame.

"It might be a print," she said.

"Does that automatically disqualify it?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," she said. "We only collect original art."

I was surprised that they had such high standards. Or any standards. Louise reminded me that they're a museum. Then the curator, Michael Frank, walked in and put his face right up to J.F.K.'s.

"It's a print, isn't it?" he asked.

"But what's puzzling," Louise said, "is why would anyone make a print of this thing?"

"I don't know why," Michael shrugged. "You know part of the whole exercise of this museum is I look at all these pictures and I wonder why people made many of them. Most of them."

MOBA's second home, like its first, is just one room. There are about 40 paintings hanging on the white cement walls, all of them sincere attempts. The motto of the museum is "Art too bad to be ignored." So we're not talking about Velvet Elvis-type kitsch. Rather, we're talking about an abstract portrait of, for some reason, a Latino Elvis sporting a tiny little moustache. Bonnie Daly is responsible for that one. She calls her painting "Pablo Presley." It was a present to her brother, who re-gifted it to the Museum of Bad Art.

"It's an interesting painting," Louise explained. "And it's one that we love. Which is part of what we're doing here. Everything in our museum, we consider bad art, but we love it. We celebrate it, we want to share it, and people like it."

People especially seem to like the interpretations that accompany the paintings. The placard beneath "Pablo Presley" reads: "A refreshing multicultural treatment of one of the 20th century's most beloved and painted icons."

"We're never giving the artists a hard time," Louise said. "If we're giving anyone a hard time, it's art critics and the art-speak people. We don't have a lot of sympathy for them."

MOBA has collected 450 pieces over the past 14 years. Most of them are in storage, and the original museum is even smaller than this one. So they were excited to open this new gallery back in May and expose a whole new audience to some of their favorites. For example, Louise pointed out two pieces that employ the technique known as pointillism.

"We call them pointless-ism," Louise said.

One of the pictures depicts a wiener dog in a hula skirt juggling bones. The other is of a fat, John Ashcroft look-alike who appears to be wearing a diaper.

"Well," Louise said, "we're thinking he's wearing his tightie whities."

And he might be sitting on a toilet. The piece is called "Sunday on the Pot with George." Louise and Michael tend to come up with the titles themselves. A lot of the paintings are of unknown provenance, but some of them are donated by the actual artists - artists who can't paint, or good artists who were having a very trying day. Other sources include thrift stores, the curb on trash day and dead people's houses.

What all of the pieces have in common is a special brand of what-the-hellness that stems from lack of skill, poor choice of subject or, as Louise told me, "Sometimes you get meaning, piled on meaning, piled on meaning, piled on meaning so that you just don't know where to start to understand it."

For instance, there was this one piece hanging at the entrance to the new gallery. It didn't have a name yet. In fact, it was the subject of an interpreting (or as Michael says, "interpretating") contest open to all MOBA members. Whoever came up with the best interpretation would also be allowed to name it. It's a picture of a tree with boobs. There are also leaves shaped like eyes - or they are eyes? It's hard to explain.

"The leaves are falling down," Michael attempted.

"There are tears coming from the eyeballs. There are blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes."

"It's kind of terrifying," I say.

"Terrifying?" says Michael. "Well, then look away."

"I can't!" Then I screamed. Then I laughed.

And that's what the best bad art, if I can use that construction, has in common with the best art. It's impossible to stop staring at it. It's also impossible to visit the new MOBA unless you buy a ticket to one of the movies playing at Somerville Theater. But as theater manager Ian Judge told me, some patrons buy a movie ticket just so they can visit the museum.

"Movie studios love us," he says. "The bad art is pumping up their grosses."


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Sallie Abbas

    From Cary, NC, 09/13/2008

    As I listened to the story on the radio, with its descriptions of the art, I marveled that an art exhibit can be projected with audio only, and I could see the pictures rather well from only a description. I headed to the Website to compare my idea of the images with the visual presentation. Not far off!

    By Mark Gordon

    From Wilson, NC, 09/09/2008

    The story got me a-wondering...after 36 years in claywork, which of my own potter's mud-generated experiments would qualify--which would rate--as ugly art? Just a few? At least a few, I would hope. Maybe it's time to cull the studio and to submit something 3-dimensional to MOBA.

    By Daniel Michalak

    From Oberlin, OH, 09/06/2008

    This story was charming and thought-provoking. I thought I would find the actual paintings laughable when I saw them, but instead the sight of amateur artists persisting despite serious technical limitations was oddly touching. (Well, the dog and baseball paintings both made me laugh, but not in a derisive way.) I can see how these paintings could inspire affection in the curators--moreso than, say, the works of some third-rank Abstract Expressionist with pretentions of being a great artist.

    By Abdel Sepulveda

    From Boston, MA, 09/06/2008

    I heard your story while driving to an art supply store in Boston. I laughed and thought that maybe some of my paintings might end up there someday. My perspective of the story changed a bit, once I saw the slide show. What great pieces of ugly and bad art! They reminded me of many of the paintings at the American Visionary Art Musuem (AVAM) in Baltimore. Which makes me wonder: is it really bad art or rather misunderstood visionary paintings?

    By Wendell Johnson

    From San Diego, CA, 09/06/2008

    I really enjoyed this story. This museum serves as an excellent counter-point to more pleasing art. The dialogue about aesthetic standards is one of the oldest in humankind, which I feel helps to propel our cognitive development as a species.

    By Renee Sherrer

    From Bellingham, WA, 09/06/2008

    I used to collect all the "bad" art I could, Goodwill being my favorite source. Finally, one day, I let it all go in a garage sale. I wanted to see the one you described in the article as a weiner dog in a skirt, juggle bones. I think my ex-roommate painted that and God love her, she was a bad painter.
    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it.

    By Rose O'Brien

    From Halifax, MA, 09/06/2008

    Great story! I must go see the MOBA, why go see good art?


    From ELKHART, IN, 09/06/2008

    I'm amazed that Sean didn't mention the apparently classical element in "Safe At Home." Or isn't that brown figure a centaur? Or a really big satyr? (Like I know the size of your average satyr).

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