Hanging offenses The collection at this art gallery outside Boston will have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief: that these works were placed on walls, not in the trash bin.


EDHAM, Mass. -- "Not bad," says the bank systems analyst and art patron, admiring a painting on the gallery wall -- and totally missing the point.

But just then he is interrupted: the flush of a toilet reverberates through the room, the smell of ammonia cleanser from the bathroom wafts through the air and mixes with the scent of popcorn butter. Douglas Antoniazzi is knocked back to his senses.

He is not at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but in the basement of the Dedham Community Theater, with "The Full Monty" playing one floor above. Here the paintings, none of which cost the gallery's operators more than $6.50 to acquire, hang on wires tied to plumbing pipes. And in this gallery, there is no door between the exhibits and the movie theater bathrooms.

"I was wrong," says Antoniazzi, staring again at the painting, "Morning Breath," a representation of a foul-looking dragon. "That is just awful."

High praise, for the world's first and only Museum of Bad Art.

Founded four years ago by three friends in this Boston suburb, the museum is part kitsch, part populist celebration of under-talented, weekend painters, and part satire of the insufferably high-fallutin' people who run modern art museums.

A great deal of the joke is that at the very first glance, many of the paintings wouldn't look out of place in a gallery where the bathrooms have doors. It is only when visitors draw closer that they grasp the true badness of "Pals" (a clown being given a massage by a lovelorn monkey), "Pablo Presley" (the King in his Blue Christmas period), or "Suicide" (a despondent cow).

"Our mission is to bring the worst of art to the widest of audiences," says Marie Jackson, the museum's director of artistic expression. "You know there are people who define themselves as being the 'art world,' and they insist that you're supposed to look for the merit, the brilliance, in any art. They have developed this taboo about saying, 'That painting is really bad.' But that taboo doesn't make sense. Don't you have to know the bad to appreciate the good?"

For the most part, art critics here have dismissed the museum as a cheap gimmick, and officials at other Boston area art museums choose to ignore questions about it. But the joke is on them: Among artists, art students and art lovers across the Bay State, the museum has received a decidedly enthusiastic reception.

More than 3,500 people have signed up to be museum members. Jerry Reilly, the museum's executive director, has been invited to lecture at the Massachusetts College of Art. Museum of Bad Art calendars, books and a live-action CD-ROM ("Art Too Bad to be Ignored"), are selling briskly, and there have been discussions with designers about developing a line of Bad Art ties.

Thousands of artists from around the world have submitted original works for the museum. So many have come in that more than 90 percent have been judged too good to make the cut for the Museum of Bad Art's 200-piece permanent collection. And in Denver, a gallery sponsored a bad art show and submitted the winner and runner-up, a painting of a bong-smoking hippie, to the MOBA collection. The museum decided it couldn't accept the winner: a velvet painting of Hank Williams Jr.

"Quite seriously, we see ourselves as supporters of those who try and fail," says Jackson. "I can't paint, and wouldn't try. But sometimes, people's passion to paint overcomes their total lack of ability."

In many cases, the poor paintings can be strangely hypnotic. Antoniazzi, the bank systems analyst from the Boston suburbs, stares at "Morning Breath" for nearly 10 minutes. It is so bad he can't take his eyes off it. "I work for a bank and that reminds me of a typical day at work with my boss," he says, matter-of-factly. "I guarantee you, someone will take a picture of that painting someday, and send to working people around the country, and it will be famous. Famous!"

Public refuse

Naturally, the Museum of Bad Art has humble origins. In 1993, Scott Wilson, a Boston antiques dealer, spotted a painting in a road-side trash pile. He showed it to his friends, Jackson and Reilly, who were immediately smitten with the awkward picture of an elderly woman sitting awkwardly in the middle of a field against a bright yellow sky.

The three friends made the painting, called "Lucy in the Field With Flowers," a feature of the first MOBA exhibit, held in 1994 at the home of Jackson, a writer, and Reilly, a computer programmer. More than 100 people came to see roughly two dozen works that had been taken from the garbage or bought in thrift stores.

Publicity about the show led to a reunion of sorts; Susan Lawlor, who was living in Boston, contacted the museum and revealed that Lucy was actually her grandmother, Anna May Lally. The family had known of the portrait, but had thought -- nay, hoped -- that it was in a landfill.

Reilly, Jackson and Wilson followed up their first exhibit with special events like the black-tie Gallery in the Woods Gala, during which the museum's art was hung on trees in a Cape Cod forest. In late 1995, the owner of the Dedham Community Theater offered to make his theater basement the MOBA permanent gallery. With its new gallery, the museum attracted hundreds of new members, all of whom signed a pledge to dedicate their lives "to the collection, celebration and preservation of bad art."

The museum's operators say judging bad art is like determining what constitutes pornography: you know when you see it. Nevertheless, the truly bad often leave clues. One sure sign of bad art is that, in the case of portraits, the paintings include no hands and no feet. Digits are hard to paint, so the bad artist will hide them behind trees, or leave them out. And the worst art, the museum's operators say, are invariably the biggest pieces, the boldest monstrosities.

"We have a growing number of submissions from foreign sources, and often those are very big. We have a piece arriving soon from Copenhagen, and we've had a number of pieces sent to us from Brazil, though all the Brazilian ones have been too good so far," says Jackson. "It's a really win-win for the artist. If we admit you, you're exhibited in a museum. And if you get rejected, you're not bad."

Serious painters

Many submissions are the lesser works of serious painters. In 1994, Frank B. Oldfield, an Atlanta artist, painted a picture of Abraham Lincoln's wife on layers of cheap lace and gave it to a friend as a joke. "He was going to hang it up at his office, but he said, 'Aw, Frank, it's just too bad,'" says Oldfield.

"A year later, I was going to throw it out, but then I heard about the bad art museum and sent it to them," he says.

Oldfield's painting, "Mary Todd Lincoln," is now part of MOBA's permanent collection, which focuses on issues of war, love, nature, and personal hygiene. Among the most popular paintings are:

* "Tina": shows a woman holding a disembodied horse head.

* "Sunday on the Pot With George": a pointillist portrait of man sitting on a toilet.

* "Film Star": shows a broad-shouldered man in front of a body of water. Museum officials speculate that the man is either supposed to be Prince Rainier at Monaco, or Liberace in Florida.

When the paintings aren't on display at the theater, they usually stay in Jackson and Reilly's basement, under light security. (Only one MOBA painting has ever been stolen -- "Eileen," in 1996 from Jackson and Reilly's front lawn -- but, with a reward posted of only $38.73, no one has returned it). Only on occasion does the collection travel, and in such cases the destinations are less exotic locales in the Boston area.

Last month, MOBA held a special charity exhibit at Rojo's Car Wash in Norwood. The exhibit benefited the Salvation Army, the savior of so much bad art, and the best of the collection was wrapped tightly in plastic and put inside the car wash.

"Pablo Presley" was displayed at the soap station, and "Swamette's Secret," an acrylic discovered in a San Diego thrift store, rested near the hot wax.

Bill Beatty, a patrolman with the Norwood Police Department, lingered in his police cruiser after driving it through the wash. "Man, that was bad," he said. "But they're so big and colorful, that they could really stick in your mind, really haunt you. Fortunately, my view through the window was blurry. All that soap and water."

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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