The highlight among the art exhibits at this year’s Bumbershoot was the "Bumber By Number" pavilion, the creation of local artists JoDavid and Marlow Harris. Inviting several dozen local artists to select a favorite work from their personal collection of several hundred vintage Paint by Numbers pictures, the resulting reworked paintings were put on display at Seattle Center. As noted by KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, the exhibit made a case for both artistic inventiveness as well as the contrast between then – most of the pictures dated from the '50s and '60s – and now.
We can all agree that Paint by Numbers pictures are not museum-quality art. But sixty years after their emergence as a mass-produced creative outlet for newly-leisured, post-War Americans, the snappy little paintings nonetheless hold a continued fascination for artists and collectors.
That artists are intrigued has long been clear as well. As a quintessential product of popular culture, with their relentlessly mainstream subject matter, and mysterious provenance (Who created the original art? Who completed the kit?) they have both excited and repelled the serious practitioner.
Serious practitioners were in fact everywhere in evidence at Bumbershoot earlier this month, where artists and PBN fans Marlow Harris and JoDavid recruited several dozen of their local colleagues for Bumber by Number, a terrifically entertaining exhibition of artist-altered PBN originals, both an homage to and a subversion of the genre.
The good news about "Bumber by Number"is that everyone benefited from the mash-up: the participating artists, the viewing audience, and even, in an odd way, the creators of the reworked originals. The actual Paint by Numbers images, with their barns, sailboats, pastures and clowns, represent Kitsch at its Hallmark Cards extreme, but the pictures are also full of eye candy – subject matter aside, they are often really fun to look at. By adding a single ironic element – like Jim Woodring’s car plunging out of the bottom of a Vermont covered bridge – the artists allowed us to enjoy the resulting picture completely guilt- free.
That the artists benefitted from the format is a bit less obvious. But given the variety of styles, scale, and media represented by the current participants, the discipline of everyone starting with the same basic picture (several images appear more than once), gives the show a coherence it could have never had otherwise. And not to take anything away from the artists, there is something to be said for starting with a painting that has strong qualities of shape, color, and design.
Even the unsung hobbyists whose patient labors created the works in question get to take a bit of a bow. Cathy Sarkowsky, for example, chose to rework a Paint By Numbers original of a deer standing by a pond that includes the florid signature “Kristi, 11 November 88”, proudly added by the person who executed the original kit. After populating this syrupy woodland scene with rank after rank of tiny, vaguely sinister, cartoon houses – the deer is suddenly surrounded – artist Sarkowsky added her own signature “Cathy, 8 August 11” in amusing imitation of her predecessor.
Sarkowsky’s alteration, with the theme of American dream become American Catastrophe, is not surprisingly a popular motif, given the relentlessly upbeat tone of the original illustrations. Demi Raven turns a woodsy pond in a suburban park into a toxic-looking Superfund site reminiscent of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, the greenery entirely replaced with lifeless dirt, the sky gone from blue to brown, all executed in perfect Paint by Numbers style. Aaron Huffman places a balding businessman sprawled out in a pasture to a picture of a horse and pony, whose attention he appears to attract; the title “Out to Pasture” makes clear its topical spin. Mary Iverson encircles a postcard farm with her signature giant shipping containers; John Brophy fills a stallion’s mouth with lovingly painted hundred-dollar bills. Most ambitious of all is a reworked pastoral triptych by the brilliant art prankster Mike Leavitt, in which a hard-hatted utility crew is busy replacing every landscape element – including waterfall and sky – with molded, metallic counterparts. Here is a dystopic fantasy bringing the element of irony to a nearly fever pitch.
Equally successful are those pictures where the artists decide to push the calendar art original into the zone of the bizarre. Jeff Mihalyo floats a colossal godlike head with a smoking skyscraper crown into an alpine scene, the apparition staring down a tiny gesturing figure in the valley below. Chris Crites turns a sailing ship at sea into a surrealist vision by precisely covering selected original colors with Day-Glo orange and violet replacements; that, plus a giant, airborne squid, quite effectively change the mood and effect. Kurt Geissel substitutes blinking LEDs for the painted eyes of a pair of too-cute cats; the eerie Cyber Cats that result are no one’s idea of cute.
Most intriguing are the pictures where the artists have taken even more radical steps. Bill Blair, working independently in Victoria, BC, was prepared and willing to contribute huge, Paint by Numbers photo backdrop cloth to the outside of the Bumbershoot booth, as well as a set of PBN panels turned into appropriately accessorized guitars. Robert Hardgrave displayed both the empty frame from his original PBN still life, as well as the four-legged creature sculpted from the cut-up and reassembled panel. Elizabeth Jameson converted the same farm that served Mary Iverson into a frenetic, night time scene that looks like the crazy spawn of Peter Max, George Seurat, and Paul Cezanne.
Perhaps the piece-de-resistance of the entire enterprise is the reworking of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy by multi-media artist Janet Galore. The underlying painting is itself an appropriation by the Paint By Numbers team of a classic British portrait by the pioneer English society artist Thomas Gainsborough, of a handsome young aristocrat in silks and satins. In Galore’s version, two flaps of canvas painted to resemble skin have been folded back from the Boy’s chest and are held open by surgical pins; revealed inside are the internal organs, from lungs and heart to intestines. The boy’s pastoral surroundings and confident pose remain unaltered.
Here the cultural references are various indeed, from the Visible Man plastic toy anatomical figure dating from the same mid-century American cultural milieu, to the macabre half-head/half skull sculptures of historical Netherlandish art. Both the original Blue Boy and it’s Paint by Numbers counterpart were the products of times of prosperity, expansion, and cultural self-satisfaction; Galore confronts us with our current terminal sense of both social and personality vulnerability.
Even if today’s artists were to create new follow-the number painting kits, what images would they be, and who would want to paint them? Irony and elegy, and a taste for the bizarre aren’t good bets for a hobby shop best-seller.