By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — The “Art Bastard” has arrived in Idyllwild.
The man himself. And the movie.
New York painter Bob Cenedella is on his first visit to this mountain village, where this week people are braving snow to see more than 100 independent movies in Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema. Cenedella is here to promote his autobiographical feature documentary with executive producer Chris Concannon.
“Art Bastard” screens from 8 to 9:20 p.m. tonight at Caine Learning Center. The movie is interesting not only for art lovers but also for anyone fascinated by psychological profiles, history and sociopolitical commentary. Audiences will be reminded how cathartic creative expression can be. They’ll see an example of how kids who’ve been told they don’t fit and who feel that they’re failures can continue on as leaders, independent thinkers and successful people in their chosen fields. “Different” can be good. It can be better than good.
Cenedella has been an artist for more than 50 years, primarily portraying the colorful everyday life in New York City. His moniker Art Bastard derives from his discovery at age 6 that the man he thought was his father was not his biological dad. In the movie, he talks with his sister about their “dysfunctional family” and we learn he had a hard time learning in school because of dyslexia. We feel his pain as he works out his demons on canvasses throughout his life. Illegitimacy, anger and justice are recurrent themes, as the artist challenges institutions and battles to receive acceptance of his work. These days, having won international acclaim, he is an esteemed instructor passing along tips to the next generation at the same school where he received his art training, The Art Students League of New York.
In an interview in Idyllwild this week, Cenedella said his work is very serious but there’s a lot of humor in it. He loves color and his work shows his gift for observing humanity in intricate detail. He’s an emotional man, as the movie shows. Feelings are not only important to him in his life but also in his art.
“Art was the special part of life for me, the part that was above the gutter,” he says in his movie. “I had a number of things in my life that I wish weren’t true. I decided not to be a tragic figure.”
Cenedella moved from Massachusetts to the Big Apple at age 12, with his family.
“Everything about New York was fascinating,” he says in the movie. “You could learn so much. Every neighborhood had different food. My work is a lot about the energy of the city.”
He grew up in a household that he describes as “fairly well off” until about 1953. His father was bumped from his job as head of the Radio Writers Guild and blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
“He’d never been a communist but that wasn’t the point,” the artist says. “We went into poverty immediately.”
Cenedella developed an anti-establishment attitude. He was expelled from the High School of Music and Art in New York for writing a satirical letter to the school’s principal about the atom bomb drill. He took his anger out in his art, which often includes violent scenes such as street brawls or boxing rings. His rebel personality and “sardonic gallows humor” (as one interview subject describes it) have drawn polarized responses from the public.
“He’s a magnet. He’s loved by everyone!” one student enthuses in an unrelated online video clip, in which Cenedella is hugging everyone at an art reception. On the other hand, an art magazine editor interviewed for “Art Bastard” says of Cenedella, “He’s a pain in the ass.”
The movie cuts seamlessly between interviews with Cenedella’s family, art critics, museum directors, students, New York elite and the artist himself, to bring an honest and endearing profile of the man and an understanding of his work. The eclectic and fun soundtrack includes Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” plus A. J. Croce and Leon Russell’s “Rollin’ On” and a Gregorian Chant.
Along the way, while we see Cenedella’s need to stir things up and irritate, we can admire his survival skills and the way he can chuckle about his life, while trying to be the best dad he can be. How many people might come chuckling out of an interrogation by CIA agents during the Nixon era? The movie relates how the agents believed Cenedella’s photographic dart board targets of political figures encouraged violence.
“But I was about reducing the violence by taking it out of the streets and into a game,” he says. “At the end of the interview, the agents asked for a Johnson dart board,” Cenedella tells us in the movie, with a hearty chuckle.
Some of his paintings are filled with the faces of celebrities and politicians, while others depict everyday people on the streets or in bars. Many include such a detailed montage that it takes considerable time to figure out the bigger picture. The canvasses are so complex and colorful that you can almost hear the ruckus of the crowd and feel the jostling elbows.
His 1985 painting “Third Movement”is an example of his political work. In it, Hitler is conducting an orchestra. Some people in the audience have Hitler-like mustaches. The message? “You can criticize Hitler but he had many people who went along with him,” Cenedella says.
In “Southern Dogs,” police have dogs’ heads and the dogs have police heads. Which is which?
Cenedella describes his style as closest to German expressionism. His mentor and instructor at The Art Students League of New York was German satirical painter George Grosz.
“There have been people who’ve told me that I’ve missed the boat. They say no one does that type of art any more,” he says in the movie. “Again, I’m not legitimate.”
In the 1960s era of Andy Warhol’s pop art and the abstract artists, Cenedella’s controversial subject matter set him apart from the mainstream commercial art world. He was considered the anti-Warhol. He still eschews what he considers mindless art that fetches big bucks.
“You can’t do a bad abstract,” he says. The modern lack of standards and definition of art are contentious issues for him. “The abstract form was the perfect thing to ignore what this country had been going through,” he says. “My heroes were the guys from the ’20s and ’30s, like (George) Bellows …. They painted the lynchings in the South and scenes from the Depression. They recorded history.”
Cenedella would like the art world and public to review his work based on his traditional painting skills, rather than seeing him as akin to a political cartoonist. For example, he said in our Idyllwild interview, he has used white lead for luminescence sometimes like old masters such as Vermeer. Oil painting allows him to work in many layers, giving depth to the colors and feelings of each piece. He appears to be a man of deeply thoughtful, insightful layers himself.
How do we define the value of art? Who decides what is “good”? These are the documentary’s questions.
“Money and art have nothing to do with each other,” Cenedella says. “You can bastardize everything else in life but if you compromise with art, why be an artist?”
In the mile high village of Idyllwild, which draws artists and independent spirits by the droves, this message should resonate well.
It’s not that Cenedella is opposed to wealth. His biological father — a Colgate University English professor — bequeathed an island off the coast of Maine to him. Cenedella now sometimes enjoys the quiet and lack of electricity there. Here in Idyllwild, I asked him about the issues he’s most concerned about now.
“I’ve been commissioned to do a piece on the end of the world. I just hope I have time to finish it,” he said with a hearty laugh.
He’s worried about what the world will be like for his grandchildren.
“There are more guns than people in the United States and it’s still not enough apparently,” he said.
But Cenedella keeps rollin’ on through life.
“I laugh more than most people” he said, “even though I’m consumed by the unpleasant.”
“Art Bastard” is directed by Victor Kanefsky. To see the trailer, click on this Vimeo link.
Caine Learning Center is at 54385 Pine Crest Ave., Idyllwild.
Copyright to Julie Pendray and SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com