Gadfly artist of the ’80s Mark Kostabi is accurately described as a “half-ass entertainer” in “Con Artist,” Michael Sladek’s comical look at the man and the phenomenon. Famed for employing others to do his paintings for him, Kostabi has a pathological hunger for attention that becomes painful to watch when not tempered by more reasonable voices, but it’s unclear how much of the docu is manipulated by the subject and how much is genuine. This playful uncertainty will either amuse or annoy viewers, though there’s little doubt “Con Artist” will find receptive auds in Gotham and other art-centric locales.
For a time, Kostabi made a name for himself as the bad boy of the art world, getting a buzz from the money streaming in from ’80s high-rollers who enjoyed being insulted by the man they elevated to celebrity status. At the time, the artist was merely running with a phenomenon pioneered by Andy Warhol, who realized that his personality was just as marketable, if not moreso, than his work. The difference is that Kostabi was no sphinx-like oracle but rather a marginally talented draughtsman who took a somewhat basic idea about art as commodity and ran with it long after such theories seemed new or profound.
Interviews with an early professor and one of his first champions in California suggest Kostabi did have some aptitude for his chosen profession, but what the docu makes clear is that his need for publicity far outstripped any artistic integrity. By the early ’90s, he was nearly bankrupt and largely friendless, so he moved to Rome.
There, he’s been able to parlay his fame into a second career, including a commission from the Vatican for a statue of Pope John Paul II. Kostabi’s move to Italy makes art critic Donald Kuspit’s brilliantly acerbic comment even more accurate: “He’s Applebee’s aspiring to be the Olive Garden.”
Docu also chronicles Kostabi’s recent return to the States with a public-access TV gameshow in which panelists — largely friends and attenuated denizens of the ’80s downtown scene — judge suggested titles for his newly minted paintings.
The last half of “Con Artist” is sometimes hard going, as Kostabi becomes a constant, grating presence: The pic would have been better off spacing out the talking heads that pile up at the start. Still, helmer Sladek has crafted an entertaining reverie on the concept and addictive nature of celebrity, and his use of music and guerrilla-style graphics suit the subject perfectly.