Michael Sladek's fascinating documentary Con Artist is a New York story, using the much-maligned shenanigans of “business artist” Mark Kostabi to comment on fame, commerce, failure, success and desperation in the snooty art world.
But this is a New York story as told by two artists who emerged from Orange County: Sladek, who attended Newport Harbor High School and whose first film, the high art black comedy Devils Are Dreaming, premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival, and Kostabi, who attended La Habra High School and Cal State Fullerton and whose first art show was staged at Newport Harbor Art Museum (which now goes by Orange County Museum of Art).
Con Artist reveals its mark in the opening title sequence, when interview snippets include photographer and former Kostabi pal Baird Jones saying, “Mark's career is one of tragedy. Let me tell you something, when you go back to 1988, he was ahead of Jeff Koons.” That's immediately followed by gallerist Molly Barnes countering, “I don't think it's tragic at all. I think tragedy is when you give up, say that's it. He hasn't given up.”
Not that it matters, as Kostabi is informed his career is over in the '90s by none other than Village Voice columnist and arbiter of scene Michael Musto. At the height of Kostabi's fame the decade before, he laughed in the face of those pooh-poohing his works just as he did those buying them. He took his idol Andy Warhol a step farther, combining visual art and performance art by making himself the commodity commenting on commercialism through his art.
Kostabi proudly revealed hired painters cranked out the works he more or less stage directed and, once completed, would generally sign. This made him a con man to some and to others a brilliant artist reflecting the ridiculousness of the New York scene and capitalism's excesses. Then–poof!–it was over. (Cue Musto.) Turns out people will only take so many insults hurled at them.
The artist formerly known as Kostabi tried to pivot by fulfilling a lifelong dream to become a game show host–or was it just another put on? By then, only his public access TV viewers cared. The demonstrations of Kostabi trying desperately to regain fame provide the best moments in Sladek's film, which near the end has the visual artist again grabbing hold of the brass ring thanks to a Vatican commission. Kostabi reacts the only way he apparently knows how, slipping into hand-biting mode. He's a one-trick phony who is obviously the last to know his trick fools no one.
And here's my interview with Sladek from 2009, when Con Artist debuted at the Tribeca International Film Festival: