'Art Bastard' Is A Loving Tribute To The Rebellious Robert Cenedella [Review]

In order to show his students the importance of holding onto their unique artistic visions regardless of which new style might be popular at the moment, beloved New York-based independent painter Robert Cenedella cuts out figures from three different works by three different Renaissance artists and places them inside a collage. Since each figure represents each artist’s singular and distinct take on the world, they clash with each other when placed within the same frame.

It’s Cenedella’s way of showing people that true artistry goes not only beyond the mainstream art world’s definition of what good art is, but even the distinct technical style of each artist. In his worldview, a real artist goes beyond technique, and creates his or her own universe on the canvas. The reason the three figures look so awkward together is because each of them are from their own special world, and placing them inside the same frame disrupts some form of painting space-time continuum.

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Cenedella’s dedication to pursuing the kind of art that made him passionate about his work at any given time, instead of following any popular trends in the art world, might be why you haven’t heard his name uttered within the same group as pop art idols like Andy Warhol. Cenedella was Warhol’s contemporary, and was deeply embedded in the New York art scene during the ’60s, when pop and abstract art was the name of the game. Yet he was the rebel in the bunch as he continued to paint crowded ensemble sceneries full of accessible but bold sociopolitical context, even though all of the galleries were only interested in abstract material.

Such a self-conscious and personal approach probably cost the artist a career full of economic and mainstream success. It’s not like he wasn’t talented enough to replicate the look of the kind of art that was popular at the time and make a living out of it. In “Art Bastard,” a loving tribute to one of the most delightfully tenacious and ardently passionate voices in modern art, Cenedella proves during interviews that he had a full grasp on the kind of art that sold during the period.

He describes, correctly in this writer’s opinion, modern art during the ’60s as an expression of technique and style that comes at the expense of context and personal vision. If you don’t think Cenedella’s take on this period is wrong, then contemplate the fact that we rarely hear about an abstract painting from the ’50s and ’60s being particularly “good” or “bad.” Each Pollock painting is almost equally as good or bad as the one before it, yet people have more to say about works where the artist has bared his or her soul using style and context.

Director Viktor Kanefsky isn’t afraid to dive deep into Cenedella’s equally fascinating and troubling past in order to get to the bottom of the painter’s rebellious attitude. His father was a successful radio writer around the time Cenedella was born, but the McCarthy witch-hunt blacklisted him into poverty, causing their family to scrape by for years. Cenedella’s father wasn’t proven to be a member of the Communist party, he just told McCarthy’s goons to mind their own business when asked about the matter. He said that since he was an American, he could believe in whatever he wanted, and the government had no business barging into his personal life.

Unsurprisingly, Cenedella doesn’t complain once during “Art Bastard” about his father’s decision to essentially flip off the government, consequently having his family get stuck in a life of poverty. Even as a child, he knew that sticking to one’s personal values trumped disowning them for success and popularity. Kanefsky and his crew obviously went the extra mile with their research, digging up media material from the era to intercut with Cenedella’s emotional retelling of his past. This well-researched approach puts us inside the conflict the family had to go through.

The artist’s professional role model was an equally rebellious figure. He improved his art under the tutelage of George Grosz, a German satirical painter who left his home country because he saw the danger in Hitler’s rise to power at a time when no one else would, and mercilessly mocked the one-balled dictator in his paintings despite warnings from everyone to keep it cool. Grosz’s dedication to use art as a courageous and unflinching blow to any sort of injustice and tyranny has obviously outlined Cenedella’s approach to his own work. Kanefsky cleverly spends a big chunk of his film’s running time going deep on these two huge influences in Cenedella’s life in order to explain his dedication to his unique vision.

Cenedella’s trademark style is a kind of colorful and crowded ensemble work that looks like a perfectly benign landscape, the kind that could be easily hung in a restaurant for the patrons to ignore. But when we look closer, we see that each interaction in the painting tells a different story that either brutally dissects a sociopolitical issue from the era when the work was done, or gives personal insight into his troubled past. Cenedella’s take on the police violence on black youth (an issue that still plagues us), looks like a fairly standard representation of the problem, until we realize that the heads of the police and the police dogs were interchanged, turning the work into a bold and subversive commentary on human barbarism in modern times.

There are times when Kanefsky spends too much time panning between various details in Cenedella’s work, turning the documentary into one of those art DVDs that you can buy from museum gift shops, the kind that turns your TV into a painting showcase for parties. It’s obvious that Kanefsky’s in love with Cenedella’s work, but after the initial look at the artist’s style, it would have been a more involving experience if Kanefsky focused more on the biographical elements of his subject while letting the audience discover more of the work on their own. The bombastic score that plays during these segments also makes the experience a bit too abrasive and on the nose.

Despite these minor issues, “Art Bastard” is a respectful and affectionate look into the life of a true outsider in the art world. It’s highly recommended to art junkies who are especially looking for an alternative look into the 1960s New York pop art era. [B+]