[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]
Über-chic Chelsea and its constellation of spendy New York galleries is the setting for “Untitled.” In large part, the film’s charm resides in its faithful rendition of luxe gallery interiors, their business-conscious owners, strangely canted artists of every persuasion, and manipulated patrons—not to mention works of “art” the film scrutinizes with hilarity and insight. Recently screened at the The Modern in Fort Worth, “Untitled” explores the clash of contemporary art and the intrepid and candid souls who search for meaning in works roughly as pertinent to our lives as rusting Sputnik satellites. In fact, picture Sputnik 1 in a freshly painted gallery with a label affixed to it in meticulously rendered Helvetica type. Punctuate it with price tag that resembles a telephone number and it’s not without possibility that you could wind up in the pantheon of highly touted conceptual artists commanding other worldly sums (pun intended) for their “shocking” oeuvre.
That is precisely the kind of situation one sees depicted in “Untitled.” And by the way, seeing the movie makes one uncomfortable using words like oeuvre. It demands that we climb out of our cerebral perch and re-inhabit our body, that suffering corpse too often sundered from our over-rated noggins.
While providing a refreshing examination of the current art scene that brandishes cash in denominations that make bank heists shrink to the status of chump change, “Untitled” also offers the twin appeal of lifting the veil on both musical and visual art while providing fodder for animated conversation — or even riled-up vitriol. Here’s a scenario peopled with all the usual suspects. Successful “commercial” artists, a Damien Hirst-ish presence that concocts sculptures that include a taxidermied bull embellished with draped strands of pearls, an avant garde musician that meshes the sound of crumpling paper, rustling vinyl, kicked buckets and human wailing, collectors as foolish as they are wealthy and, of course, a scarily attractive gallery owner whose business acumen might outstrip her intelligence in the aesthetic arena.
“Untitled” is fun, but it also opens the proverbial can of worms regarding legitimate questions regarding conceptual art. Cruise around on YouTube a bit and you’ll find some “serious” discussions that could be dropped into “Untitled” verbatim. Once swelled coffers are flattened and people are taking a harder look at what they spend to stylishly ornament their minimalist lofts. But there will always be the rich—and they really are different. Check out “For the Love of God,” Hirst’s jewel encrusted skull that sold for £50 million. Ultimately, one has to ask, “Is it art or is it branding?”
And that is precisely the kind of question “Untitled” poses. I’m inclined to say Hirst’s skull is on the money but the cadre of “lesser thans” following in his wake, and sometimes in his own corpus, should be given the cold shoulder. These are tough calls. And how marvelous that “Untitled” is a film both funny and evocative. It’s time to pose some rather obvious questions — after all, the art milieu entered the domain of the “curiouser and curiouser” some years past.