You can think of Mark Kostabi as a kind of poor man’s Andy Warhol whose greed for fame was just as gargantuan, but whose cunning didn’t survive the shifts in zeitgeist. Or so tells us Con Artist, a riveting documentary about the rise and fall of the anxious artist willing to do anything, even art, to feel loved. Kostabi’s major shtick in the ‘80s was to make art that was so conceptual that he never had to actually make it himself. He ran his studio like a sweatshop, hiring dozens of up-and-coming painters for very little money to completely execute “his” paintings, leaving him the sole job to sign them. One wonders what kind of structure Kostabi may be repeating once one learns his father was a concentration camp guard in Nazi Germany.
Kostabi’s work, mostly colorful human silhouettes in slightly surrealist situations, was worth a lot of money back in the day. Not because they were particularly good, but because he made the polemics of his approach the reason for being of his art, giving interviews claiming anyone who bought his stuff was stupid, at times warning his own buyers face to face that they were being duped. Like Lady Gaga, his was a rhetoric of unmasking the very mechanism that bought his condos and yachts, highlighting that artists are just like any other commodities to be passed around in the hands of dealers. And like pre-motherhood Madonna, his combativeness, childish sass, and narcissism oozed out organically. At some point, Kostabi got so rich, and his megalomania so unleashed, that he hired architects and engineers to build the tallest building in New York City as his headquarters. The project was never finished and he ended up bankrupt.
Con Artist is inventive in its mix of quick-paced, pithy talking-head interviews (among them filmmaker Michel Gondry), forays into Kostabi’s childhood in an Estonian emigré home in Whittier, California, and peeks at his present-day desperate attempts at climbing back to a no-longer-existent top. He still runs a studio filled with talented young artists who hand him the finished paintings for him to sign. He also presents a game show on public television in which he delegates even the labor of titling his oeuvres to the audience.
The film is smart in neither pitying Kostabi’s pathetic efforts of recovering his relevance (we can do that) nor caring to investigate the legitimacy behind the work or political questions surrounding authorship and consumer culture. Some of the artists and critics filmmaker Michael Sládek interviews see Kostabi as a vile person and shallow gimmick, others recognize the substance undergirding the act. What the film really shows, effortlessly, is what one does in the face of human loss: Kostabi’s incapacity to sublimate his need to be loved into outlets other than consumption (and production) hysteria. At times he reverts back to a child before the camera, strangely moving his head down, turning his eyes coyly to the left, then right, placing his hands on his face, like a baby trying to seduce his mother through bodily hesitation and cuteness.
Kostabi’s psychological needs, the obsession with attention, remained the same throughout time—and yet times change, so his successful strategies for attention in the ‘80s become botched attempts at fame in the aughts. And though in his personal relationships today he often comes off as unwanted and creepy, ultimately, Mark Kastabi is us. Just look at the hundreds of millions of social networkers begging to have their quips retweeted, their photos looked at, their status updates commented on, to be constantly and repeatedly “liked” for accomplishing nothing. While we may have learned to properly code our insecurities in the fabric of everyday life, Kastabi is, ironically, in the business of unabashed honesty. His work brings into relief the nasty mechanics of art-as-currency—his life bypassing the filters that keep us from begging, “Please love me,” without stuttering.