Review – “Con Artist” Film by Mike Sladek

Poster for Con Artist - Michael Sladek

Poster for Con Artist - Michael Sladek

Over the weekend at the Hampton’s Film Festival (also at Tribeca, Rome, Austin and Denver Film Fests) I had the opportunity to view one of the more interesting Documentaries on the circuit. CON ARTIST by filmmaker Michael Sladek is an off beat, sometimes sad and sometimes humorous character study on the infamous 80’s painter/ auteur / huckster, Mark Kostabi.

For those of you who are too young to know who Mark Kostabi is, let us recap briefly. In the mid 1980’s the New York City art scene had reached its heights. “Art” as a commodity was the de rigueur and everyone with an extra dime in his pocket was trying to buy and resell fine art work.  The centuries old buy and hold era (to hold and appreciate art) was gone. Big money and inflation in the 80’s drove people to acquire the works of  “hot” artists and “flip”  (like flipping a real estate property) that purchase for 50% or more of its purchase price.  Needless to say, it was the death of “Art for Art’s Sake”.

 Kostabiwas born in Los Angeles in 1960 to Estonian immigrants.  He was a “nerd”, a “freak” and outcast in highschool, often put upon by his peers. He vowed from childhood to “become someone” and so launched his never ending love/ hate obsession with publicity and media.  By the mid ’80’s he was noteable figure of the bubbling New York City,  East Village art scene, befriending the likes of Andy Warhol, the Ramones and other media luminaries of the day.

He became infamous not so much for his painting, but for hiring unknown artists to paint his work for him. Work which he would then simply sign his name to and sell for huge profits. Kostabi never hid this fact from his clients, even going so far as to brag to the media about his exploits claiming this process of “mass production” was his statement against the rampart commercialism of the time.  By the early 1990’s his empire and appeal had crashed and burned, leaving him almost bankrupt.

In this film, we first see the current Mark Kostabi in New York City, older, thinning pate and a bit pudgier than you may have remembered him. He tries to project the energy and “zany-ness” of a bygone era but it often comes off flat and forced.  Like someone desperately trying to convince you that his tired party you’ve wandered into, is the bomb! It’s a sad but intriguing view into the half life of this oft titled, “pariah of the art world”.  Sladek’s great tongue in cheek direction and editing provide all the energy we need to carry off the story for the first half of Con Artist, where Kostabi’s character study deeply reveals his  sad and at the worst, cringingly insuluar life; but then something truly interesting takes place.

As we follow Kostabi to Rome (where he’s had and continues to have great success), the subject becomes “reborn”. He is  like a dying plant that has suddenly experienced drenching rain. Even the colors of this Documentary’s visual palate becomes brighter as Kostabi, reborn, trips through the quaint and lively streets of Rome. Everyone knows him, everyone wants to be his friend. We even get a glimpse of a steady girlfriend for the first time. And in that transition we are instantly transported back in time to an era when Art was king and Mark Kostabi was its principal jester.

I highly recommend CON ARTIST and hope you get a chance to see it when it comes to a theater near you. For show dates and schedule, click here! And remember to tell them ScreenPens.comsent you. -MP

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