I am innocently looking for an affordable spatula at the Bay at Queen and Yonge, last month, when a recorded message announces over the P.A. that a massive art sale is taking place on the eighth floor.
A flyer promises "thousands of beautiful oil paintings and frames from $39 to $2,000." What is art doing in a bloated, flailing department store? And is it really "art"?
Restrictive definitions be damned, I'm the sort of person generally ready to counter the "it's not art" argument with a firm "is too."
So imagine my surprise on discovering the horror that is the Collectors Art Sale when the elevator doors open onto the skylights and chandeliered glamour of the eighth-floor atrium.
Strewn around in piles, leaning on chairs and filling the place are hundreds of real, live oil paintings - landscapes and abstracts, still lifes and scenes with boats, all in frames. Each bears the signature of a suspiciously generic-sounding artist: Dan Ford, Richard Pitt, S. Young, R. Hartman, Van Ellen and C. Manning.
It all looks like art - exactly like art - but something feels seriously wrong. Aghast, I hiss, "This is not art. No."
What on earth has come over me? Where's my liberal, artsy, inclusive self?
After a few dumbfounded minutes of browsing, I find Kristen Damolaris, Collectors Art's friendly director of special events, who explains what the hell is going on. Rather than copy famous paintings, Collectors Art sells "interpretations" of them, because, she tells me, people aren't interested in "cookie-cutter reproductions" of works by the great masters.
So this painting of a white lily in a pond "feels like a Monet," and the landscape over there is not Impressionist but impressionistic. Such is the magic of suffixes.
Damolaris herself has never met any of the artists whose work she sells, because the paintings are allegedly hand-picked by agents scouting studios all over the world. Nor does she know any of the agents. Collectors Art, it turns out, has been around since 1982, is based in Illinois, and holds around 400 such art sales every year in malls across North America, most lasting no more than a day.
Damolaris describes the work as affordable and made purely for the purpose of decorating. She acknowledges the difference between "interpretations" of old paintings and truly contemporary work.
Her customers have a hole to fill on the wall, a room to tie together, so their main concern, she tells me, is size. Next, customers pick a type out of the dozen or so categories of paintings. Street scenes, typically featuring troubled skies, wet ground, cobblestones and a means of transportation, clearly sell well.
Variations in time and place mean you can pick 19th-century Paris with a triumphal arch fronted by horses and carriages or an early-20th-century version with the exact same composition depicting streetcars rolling before the White House and an American flag.
The odd still life lingers here and there among the popular British hunting scenes. Best of all, every canvas comes in one of several standard sizes, allowing salespeople to swap the gesso-and-composite faux-aged brown frame on your idyllic impressionistic meadow scene with the sleek, black frame on the Venice-in-bloom over there.
After the shock comes a wave of fascination. What exactly am I looking at? The fact that the styles represented stop short of modernity smacks of a rather antiquated notion of painting.
Moreover, these interpretations of famous works don't even capture the subject of the originals. They are paintings of the idea of paintings. French theorist and master of sweeping statements Jean Baudrillard and his talk of the simulacrum comes to mind. The copy erases the original and becomes the real.
But the simulation of nearly everything mars far more than art, JB would say. It's the most fundamental feature of the world we live in.
Nonetheless, I need to take a stand. This is not art. Hanging one of these canvases on your wall, with its precise impression of Impressionist brush strokes, amounts to framing the word "art" itself.
These are highly advanced signs, stillborn representations passing themselves off as original creations. Why do people with hundreds, even thousands of dollars to spend on a painting choose one of these when they can afford to purchase an original work?
To be fair, customers who want an oil painting but lack the confidence to march into a dauntingly hip commercial gallery and pick one out can relax with Collectors Art in the knowledge that: 1) they will not feel out of their element, and 2) the painting will match the drapes.
For many people, comfort and decor trump advancing artistic innovation. Who dares tell them (other than television and magazines) what their home should look like?
The question goes beyond boring tackiness versus elitist snobbery. Original works of art become windows to the world outside of simulation and a reprieve from our increasingly septic homogeneity, at least for that split second before they fog up.
To reserve the three-letter-word for those steamy panes does justice to the artists who make them.