In the opening scene of “(Untitled),” a group of people stands before a pleasant but vague abstract painting, seemingly engaged in thoughtful contemplation. A moment later, we realize they were just waiting for the elevator.
The characters in this clever and often hilarious film directed by Joanathan Parker face issues that people in the art world genuinely grapple with—measures of success, dealing with criticism, what it means to sell out. It’s also notable for being one of the few motion pictures to portray an art dealer in a sympathetic light. The depiction of the gallery system, itself, is also handled reasonably well, aside from some problems that will be pointed out in detail later.
At the center of the story are two brothers: Josh (Eion Bailey), a successful painter of corporate lobby art, and Adrian (Adam Goldberg), who composes intellectual avant-garde music nobody likes. Adrian is holding out for notoriety that might never arrive, while Josh appears content with a particular kind of fiscal success, though he is not taken seriously by those whose respect he really desires.
The person he wants to impress most is his art dealer, Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton). She runs an “important gallery” in New York City that appears to be next door to Bortolami on West 20th Street. We like Madeleine. She clearly loves art and is intellectually curious. She’s also chic and beautiful, and wears extremely noisy clothes made out of vinyl, pompoms and other materials that might potentially disrupt a chamber music performance (and they do).
When it comes to Madeleine’s tastes, the weirder the better. Unfortunately, Josh’s art isn’t weird—it’s generic and “peppy,” which is why Madeleine’s other clientele (consisting of hospitals, hotels and restaurants) seek it out in large quantities for their walls. She keeps Josh’s art tucked away in the back room, closing the blinds when presenting it to clients as though she were conducting a drug deal. One buyer tactlessly refers to the paintings as “merchandise” and Madeleine visibly dies a little inside. But since she is a shrewd businesswoman, she has kept the cash flow moving with Josh’s work so she can exhibit the more challenging (but commercially unviable) art she really cares about. This all goes fine until Josh presses her to give him a show of his own, and she tells him, “A gallery has a front room and a back room. Never confuse the two.”
This may make for good drama, but it isn’t how it actually works. The kind of blue chip Chelsea establishment that Madeleine’s gallery is supposed to be handles artists whose work fetches high prices and carries some level of critical acclaim. In their back rooms, one would find more works by their roster of artists, not a completely different, secret program of lower caliber work that is somehow more popular. Associations are everything in this market, and a high profile gallery would never affiliate itself with hotel lobby art unless it were in an ironic way. Collectors want to feel they are getting a piece of something important (often viewing it as an investment) and many will pay big money for it.
A case in point is Porter Canby (Zak Orth), “a guy who did something with a computer and now he’s rich.” He is an avid collector whose motivations are diversifying his investment portfolio and getting a personality in the process. Porter is a poseur, and will buy anything that gives him the illusion of having interesting taste. His clothes become progressively trendy throughout the film in the most painfully try-hard way, and his apartment is so packed full of art that he never even sees most of it.
Currently at the top of Porter’s must have list is Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), a flighty British sculptor who wears pajamas in public and makes art out of taxidermied animals. An egomaniac, his character was clearly inspired by Damien Hirst (though his work more closely resembles that of L.A. based artist Carlee Fernandez). Barko is in such demand that Madeleine has to compete with another dealer to represent him.
On the opposite end of the personality spectrum is outsider wannabe Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum). As Madeleine’s newest discovery, he says he doesn’t consider himself as an artist, but it’s just a charade and he’s totally working the system. Monroe personifies what people hate most about contemporary art, raising the persistent question of whether there will ever be a favorable depiction of a conceptual artist in film or TV. “I like to make things and show them to people,” Monroe stammers. “It’s like I want to say…‘Hello.’”
Some of Monroe’s works include a single pushpin carefully placed into the wall, a rubber doorstop and a wadded up piece of paper. “Many people find his work baffling, but that’s how you know that he’s working on the edge,” says Madeleine’s assistant. Another piece features a single light bulb going on and off in the gallery, a reference to the work of artist Martin Creed. In 2001, Creed won the Turner Prize for the controversial “Work No. 227: the lights going on and off,” consisting of an empty room in which the lights went on and off.
In case you didn’t recognize these things as art, there are helpful labels next to them on the gallery walls, and Madeleine applies red dots to them when a sale is made. However, art world sticklers will be quick to point out that such labels are rare in upscale gallery spaces such as this. More likely, there would be a checklist at the front desk (probably two versions: one with the prices and one without) and the dots would be applied to that.
It’s a forgivable offense. The film is insightful enough that it’s worth overlooking this and the aforementioned back room scenario the way we accept the factual errors in science fiction movies. Aside from spinning art world clichés in a way that’s actually funny, the filmmakers have also managed to ask some of the questions artists really think about: “What is the difference between art and entertainment?” Porter Canby asks, to which Madeleine replies, “Entertainment never posed a problem it couldn’t solve.”