Karina’s Capsule: TitleThis

TitleThis, which used to be called Name That Painting, is a weekly series starring painter Mark Kostabi that appears on both NYC cable access and Blip.TV. Described on Kostabi’s Web site as a game show in which “art critics and other celebrities compete to title [Kostabi’s] paintings for cash prizes,” TitleThis essentially reduces both art packaging and art criticism — and all of the lofty implications inherent to both — to the level of The Gong Show. It’s extremely inside baseball, but it’s got a cheeky, tacky, undergraduate-art-seminar-directed-by-Michel Gondry vibe to it that I like a lot.

Gondry is actually one of the recurring guests on the show, which is set up as a three-way dialogue between Kostabi (who is sometimes live in the studio and sometimes appears via live video feed from Rome), a panel of three “expert” judges, and a peanut gallery of less-exalted art world figures. The three judges have first crack at naming each painting. Kostabi vets their ideas, then asks the panel to vote yay or nay on his favorites. If the panel turns down all of the judges’ suggestions, individual panel members can then shout out their own ideas for voting. The author of the winning title gets a small cash prize, usually $20 or $50, which is handed out by Kostabi’s niece, a young brunette who convincingly sashays like Vanna White.

Kostabi is not exactly a household name, but even if you think you’ve never heard of him, you may be vaguely familiar with his unique style of figure painting — at the very least, you’ve probably seen his work on the cover of Guns n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums. His work has a cold garishness to it that suits the dispassionate spectacle of this reverse auction. Could there be a bigger affront to the idea of art as personal statement than an artist paying critics and barely-famous “personalities” to contextualize his images?

TitleThis gets fascinating when Kostabi drops the slick apathy and makes a concerted effort to get what he wants. In one episode from last year, the panel mulls over a painting in which the hooded figure from the infamous Abu Ghraib photograph watches from afar as three figures apparently eavesdrop on one another in a cage. The political content of the painting is, to put it mildly, unsubtle, and yet the panel doesn’t see it right away. “It just reminds me of everything I love about the circus, mixed with the technology of today,” says hunky himbo Ben Curtis. “The guy in the back looks like the puppeteer — like, he’s got all the controls, for the people.” Only after Kostabi (appearing here via video chat, which amps up the dystopic virtual market vibe) spends several minutes patiently pushing the panel towards a political reading does art restorer Lisa Rosen chime in with, “The prison…in Iraq…where they…Abu Ghraib!” Kostabi awards Rosen a $20 “political history bonus” for grasping the fact that the painting is “not a mere circus picture.” He nonetheless goes along with the panel when they vote for naming the image And In This Ring.

TitleThis is certainly not for everybody. In between the naming exercises, there’s a lot of art-world name-dropping and quippery that will only annoy an uninitiated audience. Here’s a fair litmus test: In the most recent episode, Kostabi reads aloud a quote from Roberta Smith, and Gary Indiana responds, “She really does have the brainpan of a dead flashlight, doesn’t she?” If that means nothing to you, stay away. If that makes you laugh out loud, click here.

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