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By Jesse Marx
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At the crowded intersection of art, politics, commerce, celebrity, and the Internet, it appeared, as destiny demanded it would. On January 20 the online auction site eBay (www.ebay.com) opened the bidding on a painting of Gov. Jesse Ventura...on black velvet.
The 18-by-24-inch artwork is part of a series called "American Tabloid Heroes" commissioned by an L.A. film-school dropout named Bill Robison. Others already immortalized: Monica Lewinsky, O.J. Simpson, and JonBenet Ramsey. "The common denominator among the subjects would be people whose identities have been commodified," says Robison, who hopes to add to the series velvet renderings of Ken Starr and Linda Tripp.
On the eBay page displaying his offering, Robison denoted the gubernatorial portrait as "number 73 out of 1,000," but he concedes there are nowhere near that many velvet Venturas; rather, the painting is the 73rd work in the "Heroes" series. "I don't actually have 1,000 paintings at the moment," Robison admits. "Ultimately I hope to, but I don't really think it's going to happen."
In fact, he reports that of the 10 Venturas he commissioned, none has yet sold. "This is the worst best idea I've ever had," Robison muses. "It's the costliest joke I ever thought of."
For "Tabloid Heroes," Robison draws from a stable of artists based in Tijuana, Mexico. Jorge Terrones created the Ventura velvets. "Each of the painters have their own style," Robinson explains. "Jorge's style seems to be stressed-out Caucasians. Very pink, and a lot of strain shows on the face."
Ventura's election created a market for "Our Governor Can Beat Up Your Governor" products, both old and new, and eBay, which unites buyers and sellers in cyberspace in exchange for a listing fee and a percentage of sales, showcases the full spectrum of Venturabilia. As of late last week, freelance capitalists were peddling more than two dozen items through the Web site, from campaign ephemera and old wrestling programs to a life-size cardboard promotional piece from the governor's days as a pitchman for Pig's Eye Beer.
Still, the velvet Ventura stood out. "I would love one of those! I have a velvet Elvis in my kitchen," hoots University of Minnesota art history professor Karal Ann Marling, upon being apprised of Robison's masterpiece. "It was a populist candidacy, wasn't it? This is art for the people, directly off the back of a truck in a vacant lot. I can't think of anything more suitable."
There's a precedent for black velvet as a medium of political dissent, Marling points out. "The first velvet paintings I ever saw were of Martin Luther King," she recalls. "I've always identified velvet paintings with people who are left out of the visual continuumsomehow. It amounts to sort of protest painting, in a way."
Then again, the professor cautions, it would be a stretch to view Robison, an admitted opportunist, in that light. "This is a cheap version of something that has been done to death in the art world," she asserts. "Maybe these are velvet paintings for Generation X. Ventura has already inspired sculpture, hasn't he? Action figures. And I think somebody sculpted his head in ice cream for the Winter Carnival in St. Paul."
Robison declines to divulge how much he paid to commission the Ventura paintings but says he'd like to get $75 apiece for them. (There's an additional $20 shipping charge for the portrait, which is sold unframed.) But last Wednesday, when eBay banged down its virtual gavel after a week's bidding time, Robison had netted a mere five nibbles, topping out at $32.14--considerably shy of the $50 minimum he'd set. Undaunted, he opened the bidding anew with a $40 base, and blamed the lack of interest on the poor graphic resolution of the reproduction he'd posted initially.
Of course, the work of many great artists isn't fully appreciated in their own time.
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