Robert Cenedella, the titular painter in the new documentary Art Bastard, is a rebel in New York City. That’s a city already full of rebels in the arts. So how does he and the film prove that he is one? The film lays such a promising foundation. It inter-cuts scenes of the real city to the ones he lays out on his canvasses. The audience hears music here and there, immersed not with just one sense but two.
The film’s talking heads are spontaneous, with the exception the conversations he has with his sister. Cenedella had a complex family situation – an outspoken unmarried mother and the blacklisted man who raised him and shared his name that he called father. There’s also Russell Spiers, the prankster English professor who is his real father.
His high school expelled him for writing a pamphlet satirizing the atom bomb drills. That led him to going to the an art school, studying under German Expressionist painter Georg Grosz. That man is one of a few who inspired his aesthetic, another one would be George Bellows. These moments explain the biographical nature of his canvases, turning his studio into a gallery where he gets to comment on his own works. These commentaries have a tendency for cliche and repetition, but his vulnerability sells his ideas.
I sometimes catch myself just commenting on the Cenedella’s works, which is fine, yet I didn’t want that art criticism to seep into the film that has its own visual methods. And a slideshow is not enough in art documentaries. Most of the time it’s opposing viewpoints speaking for an artist who can’t speak for him or herself. Here we have a painter who can. An artist who dared to put human figures in his work in a time of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Yet the film takes a turn after the twenty minute mark when he decides to speak negatively about those movements.
He also trash talks the painters who were lumped into those styles, and the taste making curators who supposedly shunned him. Both film and subject derides and sets up the art world as a bourgeois establishment that eschewed the political volatility of the world around them. They also express the opinion that artists like Pollock painted in movements, one work indistinguishable from another. Admittedly I have my own biases for Pollock and the like, which makes hearing these opinions and speculations slightly uncomfortable.
In a way, the film and its subject remind of Mike Leigh’s biopic of JMW Turner for all the similarities and differences both artists have. Turner eventually fell out of fashion while Cenedella never fit the trends of his generation. Mike Leigh chose to portray Turner as someone hiding in a corner, teary eyed, as he sees his style of painting shoved off in preference for the neo-Raphaelites. Director Victor Kanefsky also shows his painter, Cenedella, crying, but not because of the rejection he gets from the taste-makers. I may not agree with his opinions but I like watching him fight for them.
- Release Date: 10/14/2016