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Art Review

By Popular Demand

Two artists painted by numbers polled from 14 countries and came up with everything from haystacks to a hippopotamus in their 'People's Choice' series.


Sixteen of the most desirable paintings in the world are on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art--and there's not a Van Gogh, Picasso or Rembrandt among them. Nor is there anything by Georgia O'Keeffe, Andy Warhol or Norman Rockwell, much less by Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet or Jackson Pollock.

All of the canvases have been painted during the last five years by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, a pair of Conceptual artists who, having emigrated from the former Soviet Union to New York, commissioned various market-research firms to poll people in 14 countries as to what they most wanted to see in a painting.

Each survey included questions about size, style and subject matter, as well as detailed sections about setting, mood and paint handling. Tallying the results, the artists produced a painting designed to please most of each nation's people most of the time, with two versions for Italy and another specific to Santa Barbara. Pretending to be impartial public servants (or objective social scientists), Komar and Melamid also made a painting based on the statistically least-desirable qualities. Hung side by side, the results are hilarious.

"America's Most Wanted" is a competent, mid-size landscape filled with rich colors, delicate shading and warm light. It features a mountain lake, cloud-dotted sky, lush foliage, three strolling tourists, a solemn George Washington, two deer and a hippopotamus. By contrast, "America's Most Unwanted" is a puny abstraction in which angular shapes in unpalatable colors jostle for position amid a dingy halo of darkness.

"Turkey's Most Wanted" shows 10 children playing on a tree-lined lake shore. Its unpopular partner is a paperback-size grid of lavender, burgundy, orange and beige squares.

This pattern is repeated with surprising frequency throughout the exhibition, whose title, "The People's Choice," gives voice to the democratic goals on which it is based. In every country except Holland, polled citizens preferred landscapes to abstractions. The Dutch chose the opposite.

Blue was almost unanimously selected as each nation's favorite color. Wild animals were more desirable than domesticated ones. And the majority liked pictures of people in contemporary clothing. Whether the subjects should be at work or leisure split right down the middle.

Consequently, the compositions of the favored paintings are remarkably similar. Set in the countryside, all include large bodies of water, picturesque skies and grassy meadows in the foreground. This is where Komar and Melamid customize each image.

"Denmark's Most Wanted" juxtaposes three dancing ballerinas and a man planting the nation's flag. "France's Most Wanted" includes a topless bather, two nude children, a herd of sheep, a field of haystacks and an ancient cathedral. Mt. Kilimanjaro forms the backdrop of "Kenya's Most Wanted," in which Christ appears alongside three Africans, a grazing hippopotamus and a statue of a historical figure. In China, size matters. Measuring more than 7 by 12 feet, the unpopulated landscape made for Chinese preferences pairs a water buffalo and a framed portrait of a young government official.

The only interior scenes are the least popular paintings of Holland and Italy. Both depict martyred religious figures, modern buildings and contemporary references, from portraits of President Clinton and Elvis Presley to a Power Rangers toy.

Otherwise, hard-edged abstraction is the most undesirable style. Tacky standouts include an orange and black Malevich-inspired composition (Russia), a purple and yellow diamond pattern (the Ukraine), and a series of pink crosses arrayed on a flesh-toned field (Portugal).

Komar and Melamid's ongoing project is not limited to slapstick humor. One of the most devious aspects of their absurdly literal attempt to make the most desirable paintings in the world is how spectacularly it fails. Neither desirable nor popular, most of their images are not as appealing as those made by amateur Sunday painters.

Merely gussied up with the trappings of democracy, "The People's Choice" is actually an exercise in bureaucratic inefficiency, in which compromise derails good intentions and partial logic results in its opposite. Hardly modeled on the face-to-face exchanges by which art is commonly traded in commercial cultures, the exhibition gives loopy form to the authoritarian arts administration of many countries, most notably that of Komar and Melamid's adopted homeland.

For example, the specially commissioned "Santa Barbara's Most Wanted" is not art of, by and for the people, but art by committee. Composed at a town meeting held in January, this unresolved mixture of generic styles and subjects is cluttered and cliched, like an opportunistic politician's ill-conceived platform. In trying to bring the greatest good to the greatest number, it pleases no one.

After all, art in a democracy is never all things to all people. It does not represent its citizens according to well-researched projections or median percentages, but in terms of the specific responses of individuals, who rally around the works that actually satisfy their desires.

Conflict, not consensus, is the modus operandi of truly democratic art. Making fun of government-funded works that no one likes but most tolerate because they're better than nothing, "The People's Choice" is a bracing antidote to such out-of-touch abstractions.


* Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara, (805) 963-4363, through June 27. Closed Mondays.

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