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Murderer Gacy's Art Brut Gets Beverly Hills Display : Culture: The serial killer reveals self with painting, says show's curator--'there is more to (him) than 33 murders.'

March 14, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A man out on a Saturday-night shopping stroll wandered into a Beverly Hills art gallery, Neiman-Marcus bags in hand, and responded with a slight, bemused start when he saw just which Midwesterner's work was being displayed in this tony setting.

"I didn't know John Wayne Gacy was an artist!" exclaimed the browser, to no one in particular. "Does he paint in blood?"

The nearby curator held his tongue. Arthur Deco, who put together the Gacy exhibition now showing at the Tatou gallery, gets a lot of this sort of thing, bemusement running just about neck and neck with disgust as spontaneous reactions go. And displaying three-dozen works by a painter renowned as America's most notorious and prodigious serial killer does demand a certain public stoicism.

Gacy was convicted in 1980 of killing 33 boys and young men throughout the '70s in a Chicago suburb; although he was suspected of having slaughtered even more, the conservative count still stands as a domestic record. After 14 years on Death Row, Gacy stands a good chance of facing the electric chair in the next few months.

Which means, of course, that his work will appreciate like crazy.

Deco's task with this exhibition, he says, is to show "that there is more to John Gacy than 33 murders, and when you're talking about art brut , more to the people that create it."

Although folk art is a burgeoning field in America, Deco says that the subgenre known as art brut --or art by the criminally insane--is better appreciated in Europe right now. He's under no delusion that Gacy's work is "good" by any conventional art standard.

"If John Gacy didn't kill 33 people, I wouldn't be holding this exhibition; I think there's something that can be learned about the person who created it, and what that is is up to the audience," Deco said. "When people study Picasso, they dissect the work--it's an endless task--trying to learn something about Picasso. If they assume there's nothing you can learn from this work, it's just wrong."

Some of Gacy's paintings may be easier to learn from than others. Art critics may be stymied by Gacy's fondness for replicating Disney's Seven Dwarfs, although the fact that Snow White isn't represented in any of the paintings may somehow be telling. His sketches of Christ, Elvis, Don Quixote, Dillinger and Hitler may seem pretty basic beginner exercises.

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Of greater morbid interest are his more macabre paintings--lots of skulls, one with blood on the teeth, another with male and female genitalia pictured inside the eye sockets. But Gacy's real stock in trade is his self-portraits as Pogo the Clown, a persona he worked under at children's parties, where he apparently met some of his victims; these smiling portraitures are, inevitably, most sinister of all.

"When I saw the clown, that one right over there, it gave me the chills," said Yolanda Arreola, who'd wandered over from the Tatou nightclub next door, drink in hand, pointing to the exhibition's highest-priced work (at $20,000), a disturbing image of an open-mouthed clown with fangs.

Also on display at the Tatou Gallery is some of Gacy's prison correspondence, which (full of salutations like "Happy Passover" and "watch out for the flu") doesn't belie much overt insanity--although some may find benign notations like "Hey I am a doer not just a thinker" slightly chilling anyhow.

"I think it's exciting--it makes you try to put yourself in the position of Gacy himself, see what thoughts led him to do what he did," said another browser, Tom Kalili, thinking about purchasing a soft-bound book of Gacy's letters. "It's interesting, the transition one can make from a well-respected businessman to . . . this. It makes you question what intelligence is."

Not everyone finds the display illuminating.

Frank Poynton, an actor and limousine driver, has been calling everyone from Tatou's owners to the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce this week to register the "shock and disgust" he felt upon seeing the exhibition after dropping off some patrons there.

"On Monday, The Times ran a story on a restaurant down in Laguna that removed nudes off the walls after several decades because people were offended by them," noted Poynton. "The next day, I go to Beverly Hills and see a display of Gacy's work, and I couldn't believe it. It reeks of the same sort of odor as (Ice-T's rap song) 'Cop Killer.' It condones violence, in the name of profit."

Deco pointed out that Gacy won't receive any proceeds from the sales, although the private collectors who've invested in the paintings certainly stand to. Business has been OK with this exhibition, which ends Wednesday, he said; it's anyone's guess how it'll go when he brings it next to Gacy's hometown, Chicago, "which should raise a few eyebrows."

Meanwhile, the curious quipster with the Neiman bag, Bob Kline, turned out to be a Hollywood deal-maker who, coincidentally, recently packaged a biopic of another killer, "Jeffrey Dahmer: The Secret Life," now on video shelves.

Which didn't make him any more sympathetic toward Gacy's ouevre .

"Well, when he's not imitating Dali, he's rather primitive, but that's him--a primitive person," said Kline. "I guess he killed people better than he painted."

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