The Irish News June 2001
A few years ago a woman rang me.
“ Hello. I’ve got a Charlie Mc Auley painting and I’d like to know how much it is worth?”
“ I’m sorry, I don’t know. Take it along to one of the auctions and ask them.”
“ I hear that they are worth more if there are figures in them.”
“ I believe some people evaluate them in that way.”
“ Do horses, cows and hens count?”
To anyone with a serious interest in painting, the woman’s question seems to be idiotic; but don’t blame her; she is, after all, only reacting to a greater idiocy; - The critical standards of the new and burgeoning breed of art dealers.
I mentioned in a previous column, that the art dealers in the past tended to be people who loved Art and as a consequence, developed their livelihood from it. If any complaint was levelled at them it was likely to be, that they were only interested in Art as a commodity. Today there is a more fundamental malaise; Our present dealers don’t care whether the commodity is art or not, as long as it sells for art room prices. Marketing supersedes educating as a sales strategy and when that happens the artistic quality of the merchandise is of little importance.
It all started about twenty years ago when the auctions discovered Irish Art: Jack Yeats, Paul Henry, Craig, Mc Kelvey,
Dillon, Luke,… all the dead arose and appeared to many as money. The London auction houses saw a new and largely untapped art market on their doorstep. In 1989 when a John Luke painting realized £175,000 in an auction, the new breed of art dealer emerged from the woodwork. With money like this about, they had to be in on the act. In the old days we called them chancers. This motley mixture of dealers, agents and hawkers of art, soon realized, that it was no longer possible to buy a Conor or a Craig for a pittance and sell it for a fortune; the scenario they most favoured. The living artist, however, came to their rescue. Someone told them that they ought to invest in established living artists. Initially this seemed to be to the artists’ advantage;- more people were buying their paintings; but it wasn’t long before the artists regarded them as a pestilence. They named them “ Studio creepers”; people who plague their studios while masquerading as art lovers;
“ I’ve always wanted a painting of yours for my lounge”.
Of course It never makes the lounge. It is sold next day for an exorbitant profit to another dealer.
Some chancers on the other hand, found the established artist too expensive. They created an alternative art world. A world where they could market a certain type of Art which minimised outlay and maximised profit. This Art would have to be easily produced, in constant supply, and above all, marketable. It must be remembered that these dealers are not art specialists, therefore their artistic judgement may be suspect. It is not surprising, therefore that they have chosen to promote simplistic art rather than the serious, complex painting which challenges the knowledge and sensitivity of the viewer.
The favoured painting methodology involved in this simple art can be loosely described as; - drawing black lines and filling in the spaces with colour. Markey, who might be considered the progenitor of this art, filled his spaces with muddy greens, blues, and browns inhabited by triangular, faceless, figures. Graham Knuttel on the other hand uses brash, primary colours held in a black framework. In both cases the copyists are indistinguishable from the originators. Above all, they challenge neither the eye nor the mind, offering a kind of modernity to people with a limited knowledge of painting. Sometimes the method used to promote these visual vacuities is as idiotic as the work itself. One publicity gimmick told us that there was a year’s waiting list for someone’s Markey look-alike paintings. Amazingly, it seems to work. These non-art commodities are making their way into serious collections. A collector friend apologised when he saw me looking at a large Knuttel on his wall: “ I know, its terrible, but I got it for a good price”. A good price meaning that he might be able to sell it for a profit and buy six or seven real paintings.
There are still people who believe that the bigger the price tag the better the article. One of the dealers had a Knuttel look-alike in his window priced at £800. To his chagrin it didn’t sell. He took the price tag off and replaced it with a £3000 one. A passing barrister, with more money than sensitivity snapped it up.
Joseph Mc Williams June 2000©