Beverly Hills, 90210: Season 6 (1995)

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Jennie Garth and Jason Wiles in Beverly Hills, 90210

On a show full of enfants terrible, it takes a lot for one character to sink to the bottom of the likeability scale. And when there’s an artist in the group, it’s not hard to figure out who the outcast will be… that’s right, it’s the artist.

We already know that male artists are cads, but Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles) is also a cocaine addict, who turns his girlfriend into a cocaine addict, and then gets sent to prison (but not before trying to skip town). He is also technically a prostitute because he has sex with his art dealer in exchange for her selling his paintings.

Colin's art dealer Claudia Van Eyck (Mary Crosby) tells Kelly like it is.

Colin’s art dealer, Claudia Van Eyck (Mary Crosby), tells Kelly like it is.

Colin is physically indistinguishable from the rest of his So Cal counterparts, aside from the paint smears on his clothes. You might mistake him for a JC Penney model were it not for the hippy-dippy things he says, hoping he doesn’t “forget how fresh strawberries taste” while he’s in prison, for example.

Painter or hunk? Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles)

painter / heart-throb Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles)

From the way the other characters treat him, we are meant to believe that Colin has received substantial acclaim for his work. When his girlfriend’s roommate Clare (Kathleen Arnold) meets him, she regurgitates a quote she has memorized, for some reason, from a review of Colin’s work in Art News: “Colin Robbins’ work attains a formal depth and radiance, yet reflects the tangential nature of living in a fast, media-filled environment.”

For the most part, the paintings are comprised of circles, squares and stripes, painted in different colors and textures. An exception is the time he paints a picture of a cake with a dude in a toga for his girlfriend’s birthday (a painting that oddly ends up later in his gallery show, presumably for sale).

Happy Birthday, Kelly!

Safety Tip: Do not EVER smear toxic oil paint all over your face, or someone else's face, unless you like using turpentine as a skin cleanser!

Safety Tip: Do not EVER smear toxic oil paint all over your face, or someone else’s face, unless you like using turpentine as a skin cleanser!

The script is problematic as it seems to jumble up the logical course of events in an artist’s career. We know that Colin already has gallery representation and has been written about in a major publication, but then he is commissioned to paint a gaudy mural in his friend Valerie’s night club (and it looks exactly like a mural you’d expect to see in a night club). Maybe he should have his next show at the Peach Pit Diner next-door.

Hope they don't spill too much Budweiser on Colin's latest work...

Hope no one spills beer on Colin’s new work…

Colin routinely puts his artwork before the needs of his girlfriend Kelly (Jennie Garth). The assumption that artists are selfish is a familiar trope, as is the cliché that they rely on drugs as a catalyst for creativity. The sensationalized substance abuse by Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Jackson Pollock, among others, reinforces the audience’s predisposition to accept this as the norm. It is even confirmed in Colin’s mind after a collector buys two of his new canvases he painted while high. “You don’t need coke to paint,” his friend Valerie (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) tells him. “No,” he says, “I only need it to paint well.” But when he gets Kelly hooked on coke, as well, he loses our sympathy completely.

“High” art

As an artist (and a New Yorker), Colin is an outsider amongst his friends, but his most significant distinction is that he is the only truly unredeemable character in the season’s storyline. After being sentenced to two years in prison for drug possession and resisting arrest in a high-speed car chase, he then puts his friends who bailed him out in jeopardy by fleeing when he is supposed to turn himself in. It then becomes the plight of the rest of the cast to track him down and bring him to justice, even briefly uniting arch rivals Kelly and Valerie for the cause.

Indeed, Colin is no less than a villain. And, as is to be expected when villains are defeated, a great relief settles in his victims when he is apprehended by the authorities. Such was the relief when I realized I didn’t have to watch any more episodes of this show.

It could have been a brilliant career...

It could have been a brilliant career…

Legal Eagles (1986)

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Artists are trouble, especially when they’re Daryl Hannah. And if you are running for District Attorney in your town, you should definitely not get involved with them, or art dealers, or collectors. Look, just steer clear of the whole art world altogether, ok?

Robert Redford’s character, Tom Logan, learns this the hard way in the 1986 film directed by Ivan Reitman. It all starts when he agrees to give legal counsel to Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah), the daughter of celebrated painter Sebastian Deardon, after she attempts to steal one of her father’s pieces. It’s complicated because she’s trying to recover a painting her father dedicated to her just before his murder, which Chelsea witnessed, herself, when she was eight years old.

The man responsible for his death is Victor Taft (Terrance Stamp). He is also the proprietor of an uptown art gallery on West 57th Street in New York City, just in case some readers are still not convinced that all art dealers in movies and television from the 1980s must be named Victor (or Victoria). Needless to say, he’s evil.

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Victor was kind enough to rescue Chelsea from the blaze, along with the canvas her father gave her. Not as fortunate were all of his other unsold works, which were destroyed in the fire. Or were they?

Incidentally, we never actually see Deardon’s paintings, as Reitman makes the choice not to show them (at least not from the front). It’s a shrewd decision, maintaining a sense of reverence through mystery, and more filmmakers should follow this example when it’s appropriate. In “Legal Eagles,” we do get a sense of context for Deardon’s career, understanding how his work is situated in the secondary market, among other artists like Dubuffet, Calder and Picasso—he isn’t quite in their ranks, but he is collected by their collectors.

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The true fate of Deardon’s oeuvre is gradually revealed by Logan and fellow defense attorney Laura Kelly (Debra Winger). As it turns out, Victor Taft was masterminding an insurance fraud scheme, heisting a number of the paintings and stowing them away. 17 years after committing his crimes, he seems to wield an awful lot of power. When Kelly and Logan accuse him of a cover-up, he threatens to singlehandedly dismantle both of their careers, suggesting they will never practice law again (isn’t this guy an art dealer?).

Chelsea, on the other hand, having been so traumatized by the violent episode she witnessed as a child, is now a performance artist. “She’s a what?” asks Logan. He later finds out exactly what that means when he gets a front row seat to one of her multimedia works. After inviting him to her spacious SoHo flat, she casually ignites paper sculptures of a house and a birthday cake and large format portraits of herself, and they combust into a small inferno. It’s like a Laurie Anderson piece with pyrotechnics, complete with spoken word elements and a synthesizer soundtrack. The imagery is all emotionally charged symbolism, harkening back to night of her eighth birthday party, and her father’s imminent death.

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She puts on quite a show but, aside from this being counter-intuitive behavior for someone who almost died in a fire, her work would undoubtedly set off every smoke detector within in a 100-foot range. But Chelsea doesn’t care—she’s an artist. She is at once exotic and a mess, and full of secrets. Men with guns follow her around at night . . . and could she have even killed someone? Her own criminal record has made her a reluctant enfant terrible, but her motives are pure, despite a slew of bad choices, such as seducing her attorney.

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The film’s characterization of Chelsea as an “emotionally disturbed” young woman who never fully grew up evokes a familiar bias toward artists, implying that her work is just a coping mechanism for trauma she experienced. Artists rarely appear well-adjusted in the entertainment industry, nor do they have regular, workaday lives like normal people. What’s more, as an attractive female artist, Chelsea’s character reminds us of the sexism that spans beyond the art world and into the culture at large. It isn’t clear how successful her artistic career is, but it is her looks, not her talent, that prove to be her most effective way of getting what she wants.

As is often the case in the movies, all of the non-art-world characters in “Legal Eagles” ultimately seem to return to some semblance of normalcy. The others end up either dead or, in Chelsea’s case, drifting through the rest of their damaged lives like bohemian space cadets. At least some viewers with future careers in law may possibly find inspiration to become Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts some day.

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TUXEDOS & FUR COATS: Sartorial Status Symbols in “Family Ties” and “Color Me Blood Red”

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The art world is fancy. It’s a place where tens of thousands of dollars can change hands in a single transaction. It is only fitting, then, that the hands making these exchanges should first pass through luxurious sleeves of fox fur.

Such sleeves are on display in a 1982 episode of the television show Family Ties, in which Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) organizes an art auction fundraiser. Sponsoring the event is “one of the biggest art dealers in the Midwest,” Victoria Hurstenburg (Christine Belford). In fact, “the Hurstenburg name is virtually synonymous with fine art and culture.”

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Victoria arrives at the Keaton house wearing a full-length fur coat, a stark contrast to the casual flannels worn by Elyse and Steven. She is there to deliver some paintings for the auction (which she carries unwrapped, under her arm, like a stack of library books), but she abandons them on the kitchen counter when she notices a sculpture by Mallory’s boyfriend Nick. The piece, which prompts obvious distaste from everyone else, impresses Victoria so much that she purchases it from the auction, herself.

When she asks to see the rest of Nick’s sculptures, the show apparently has no budget to build another set for his studio, so he brings everything over to the Keaton household. Victoria arrives wearing another fur coat and a black, sequined evening dress. Using words like “primitive,” “crude” and “bordering on offensive” to describe his work, she actually intends this as praise, because art people are weird. So excited by Nick’s talent (and handsomeness), she offers to “open a few doors” for him, with the promise of causing “a real stir” in the art world.

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True to her word, Victoria curates Nick into an exhibition in town. At the opening, one of the gallery attendants wears, not only a tuxedo, but also a top hat (the height of fancy). Mallory shows up to spy on him and becomes involved in an awkward conversation with one of the guests. A total outsider, she clearly doesn’t know anything about the show she is attending, and ultimately rationalizes her presence by explaining that one of the artists used to be her camp counselor, and then she accidentally knocks over one of the sculptures.

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Earlier instances of the wardrobe cues from art world power players can found in the 1965 splatter film Color Me Blood Red.  In the opening shot, an art dealer named Farnsworth (Scott H. Hall) burns a painting from his gallery while wearing a tuxedo (he wears a tuxedo almost all the time). We eventually learn that he is destroying the evidence left behind by a homicidal painter named Adam Sorg (Gordan Oas-Heim). Though Sorg enjoyed a loyal following in the Sarasota, Florida art scene, one thing stood in his way of earning the respect of the town’s discerning art critic: his unsophisticated use of the color red. So he began murdering people and using their blood as paint.

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The melodrama of the situation corresponds to the film’s cartoonish portrayal of the gallery system, and Farnsworth’s gallery actually resembles to a community theater. There is even a stage at the back of the space and, for a classy touch, a red carpet cuts through the center of the room. Folding chairs are positioned in front of the paintings so patrons can relax as they admire them (and since most of the attendees appear to be over the age of 65, the chairs are put to good use). It’s understandable, though, as anyone would tire from viewing the over-hung show while standing up (there are so many paintings, that some of them sit on the floor, leaning against the wall). As for the art, Sorg’s style is all over the place, ranging from floating monster heads to Mondrian rip-offs, giving the impression that the film’s producers scavenged the canvases from an art school dumpster.

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At Sorg’s big opening, Farnsworth can be found up on the stage (in tuxedo), joined by two large houseplants and the town’s local art critic, Gregorovich (William Harris). The critic sits with  a foot-long cigarette holder and delivers live, onsite critiques of the artwork. He also wears a beret, a typical accessory of intellectual or artsy figures in cinema and television. Sorg, who is always angry and has a reputation as a bad-boy art star, shows up late, with paint on his clothes and wearing sneakers. He also carries a cigarette holder (though it is not as long as Gregorovich’s), and whispers nasty things to his admirers.

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Even though these people live in Florida, the emblematic fur coat is once again paraded about by several of the gallery-goers. This gives us a visual cue to their wealth, but we can also tell that they are interested in the latest trends in contemporary art because they say things like, “It’s quite a thing to own a Sorg painting—he’s most fashionable!” One fur-clad collector, in particular, wants so badly to have one that she seems willing to pay any price. At first scoffing at Farnsworth’s $15,000 quote for a painting of a woman getting stabbed in the face, her good taste quickly wins over and… Sold!

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Real life artist David Hammons appropriated the fur coat as a means of social commentary in 2007. Hammons, himself, contacted an elite gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, L&M Arts, proposing to put on an exhibition. It was an unusual gesture, given his resistance to the commercial gallery system, but he kept the actual concept a secret until the installation. The show, on which Hammons collaborated with his wife Chie, was comprised of six lavishly expensive, full-length fur coats on antique dress forms. The backs of the coats had been burned with a blowtorch or streaked with brightly colored paint. The implication was surely not a celebration of these symbols of decadence. Instead, Hammons shone a harsh light on the glaring divide between wealthy patrons who flaunt tactless displays of affluence, and the strife of the powerless (both in and out of the art world). And despite the gross exaggerations of art world dynamics by the entertainment industry, those clichés come from somewhere, after all.