Viewpoints

Is it art just because a relative collected it?

Karin Klein’s family found the face of the dancing girl in this gloomy painting by Conger Metcalf to have a masklike, spooky quality that is off-putting and incompatible with their lives in 21st-century California.
Karin Klein’s family found the face of the dancing girl in this gloomy painting by Conger Metcalf to have a masklike, spooky quality that is off-putting and incompatible with their lives in 21st-century California. Special to The Bee

I’m surrounded by Posnakoffs, baffled by Kadishman’s sheep and haunted by the dancing girl – all paintings that I pulled from my father-in-law’s storage unit.

It has been an introduction to some confusing and melancholy thoughts about what we value, the nature of art and deeply held convictions that a lifetime of gathering possessions means something.

The original concept was more prosaic: to help my brother-in-law clean out the storage locker, the size of a two-car garage and packed floor to ceiling with boxes. Though my father-in-law had already sold most of his valuables, we also were looking for items that might bring in money to help pay for the memory care he needs.

My husband and I pored through cartons of papers, electronic equipment and kitchen supplies. There were at least five outdated and apparently unused laptops. My husband kept finding items he wanted to keep, including a tasseled canteen from the Middle East and old memos from the New York nightclub his father had owned. Plus you never knew when the industrial stapler might come in handy!

And I kept saying, “Absolutely not,” because each dish and pair of gloves we unwrapped made me determined to reduce our own household of stuff, not add to it. Goodwill did well that day.

But the art was supposed to be worth something since my father-in-law had seen himself as an investor. He had commissioned a 125-foot-long mural for his nightclub by Yanni Posnakoff, a Greek artist known for joyful images, and bought more works by him. There was an artist’s proof of a sheep by Menashe Kadishman. And there was the dancing girl, a painting my mother-in-law had been thrilled to inherit, but whose face has a masklike, spooky quality that the rest of the family finds off-putting.

In my trip through the art world, I learned that the girl had been painted by Conger Metcalf, a Boston-area artist of the mid-20th century, whose gloomy works don’t translate well to 21st-century California. And who knew that Kadishman is famous for his many minimalist renditions of sheep? While I’m crazy for museums, my limited knowledge (and limited resources) makes me one of those low-spending “I know what I like” types. One of my favorites is a framed abstract watercolor by my 2-year-old granddaughter.

We stacked the paintings in the bedroom of our absent college girl, and I soon discovered that when art is below the level of a Picasso or the $110 million Basquiat, it is more a matter of taste, trends and even geography than of objective value. An artist friend of mine sold his paintings for about $4,000 apiece at a festival. “How do you know what to charge?” I asked. “Whatever people will pay,” he replied.

My research so far has taught me that:

1. There are a lot of scams in the art world, like the gallery that wanted me to sign a consignment contract that said nothing about what percentage of any sale they would take.

2. Art appraisal might cost more than the art is worth.

3. True understanding and appreciation of art is a great thing, but in the end it’s still all about what we like.

Let’s have no expectations that our cherished possessions necessarily have much value beyond our mortal affection.

I’m overwhelmed and family is coming to visit; room is needed for the people I love, not more paintings. So I carted it all off, including five gigantic rolls of brightly rendered mural on canvas – to a newly rented storage locker.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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