…But I Know What I Like

“Winter is icummen in,” quoth Ezra Pound, “Sing: Goddamn.”

Actually, winter has been so goddamn icummen that cabin fever is about to drive me as insane as poor Ez. Sick of huddling indoors staring at the same walls, I switch to staring at the TV — and suddenly, salvation. An ad for the Collectors Art Sale (Sunday Only!). “Original Art” for less than the cost of a lube job. That’s it: Art — the perfect mid-season pick-me-up.

I trudge through the melting muck into the Gaithersburg Holiday Inn half expecting acres of sad-eyed cats and gaudy-colored clowns. Still, I am unprepared for the first image encountered: a painted trio of grinning harlequins, each bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ed Meese. Quickly, I turn away.

And stare across a meeting room packed with stacks of canvases, ten deep in places. A few dozen average Joes, Janes, Jorges, and Lu-Tans quietly browse amid the very faint smell of linseed oil. There are no velvet ropes to impede their quest; this is hands-on experience.

Donna Bower stands intently before a large rectangular framed canvas of a purplish Alps-scape. “This one keeps drawing me back,” she says in a reverent whisper. Donna lives nearby and has a lot of wall space to cover. The two smaller works she’s already bought aren’t quite up to the task, but the $495 price tag on the Alpine village is a budget-buster.

“You have a big sofa?” a clerk asks, giving voice to the cliche. “A big, big sofa,” pipes in Donna’s friend, Don. “It’s a sectional,” explains Donna.

The discussion moves to frames, which rather greatly affect the picture prices. In fact, there is so little talk of aesthetics and so much of frames, one suspects that this is actually a frame sale. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that the most beautiful part of every picture is the frame. I don’t think he’d seen these purple Alps when he said it, though.

Where does all this…art…come from? I ask Lisa Kellum, the representative of Collectors Art, Inc., the Chicago-based company hosting this event. Kellum’s business card reads: “Fine Art Consultant.”

“They are professional artists from all over the world, as well as American artists,” Kellum is cheerful to divulge. Before I can form a new question, she rushes to quash the rumor that these paintings are the work of mere students. Collectors Art acquires only the output of trained professionals, she insists. A sign behind her states that if one believes he has the ability to produce collectible art, one may submit photos of such work for consideration. Later, as I leave, a matronly Asian woman is eagerly inquiring about this policy.

Noting the wide range of prices, Kellum points out the “gallery setting” on the far side of the room, where art is priced “according to the artist.”

Thus, if one cares to own an original “Simpson” — in this case a triumphant portrait of Napoleon on horseback — one must pony up $695. If your wall cries out to be adorned with frolicking nymphs in the Titian, excuse me, “Richard” style, prepare to part with $1,200. Some works are twice that.

I have been searching for a Bob Ross. Ross is the fuzzy-bearded, brown-afroed, whisper-voiced host of TV’s Joy of Painting who spends less than 30 minutes to create paintings that look much like the ones displayed here — lots of pallet-knifed tree trunks with sponge-applied foliage below towering, titanium-white-capped implied mountains. Or mighty, translucent waves crashing upon craggy beaches (your choice, dawn or sunset). Sadly, there are no Bob Rosses.

Though the average price seems far above the promoted $45, business appears brisk and no one’s yelling “bait-and-switch.” (A call to Collectors Art honcho Martin Hancock a few days later reveals that one unsatisfied customer complained that his painting smelled like fish. This is apparently not an industry-wide problem, and the customer received a full refund. Otherwise, Hancock is tight-lipped about his business, offering only that D.C. is “sometimes a good market and sometimes isn’t.”)

In two corners of the room stand black tents where individual works may be studied without distraction. A young man in stonewashed jeans contemplates an Impressionist-style street scene with one of the staff. Apparently unaware that the man wearing the name tag — EDWARD — is not an art historian but a temp worker hired for the day to help move the product, the customer openly seeks advice: “Tell me what you think.”

Edward gives a small laugh, then turns to assay the canvas. “It’s a good painting,” Edward says. “It’s a fine painting,” he says, a bit more forcefully. Finally, Edward sums up the work: “It’s Paris.”

Ah, Paris! To have been there in the ’20s, wandering through piles of freshly-minted masterworks by Picasso and his pals. To pick up Nude Descending a Staircase for 45 francs (frame not included)….

That brief fantasy is quickly shattered and one is brought swiftly back to Maryland by a quarrel erupting over a picture frame. A man has chosen a “gold” frame for a sofa-worthy seascape. The temp is trying to explain that the frame was misplaced in the wrong — less expensive — stack when Mr. Short-fuse Art Patron instantly escalates the dispute with the loud line: “Are you calling me a liar?” Clearly not being paid enough for such a debate, the temp walks away with a disgusted wave of her hand.

But I shan’t let such boorishness ruin my mood. I shall stick by 19th-century English critic John Ruskin‘s assessment: “They are good furniture pictures, unworthy of praise, and undeserving of blame.” Always a sucker for the heady fumes of Art, I succumb to its spell and pull plastic to acquire a small mountainscape by — guessing here — G., or A., Whitman. The first pink light of dawn is upon the peak and with it, I’d like to think, Spring.

Now, all I need is to find a brown easy chair — with just a hint of azure — to match.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper.