How a new film uses a baboon and a vacuum cleaner to poke fun at the art world.
Porter, a wealthy software engineer, brings a date home to his art-filled Manhattan loft. He shows her his collection—a painting of a woman with a stream of water shooting out of her mouth into a bucket below, a lifelike pair of legs sticking out of the wall with arrows protruding from the rear.
Baffled by his taste, Porter’s date tries to appear engaged over wine and dinner. “I’ve always loved Matisse,” she says, trying to find common ground. “I’m not familiar with his work,” Porter replies. “I’m interested in the art of my own time.” She excuses herself to go to the bathroom, where she lets out a yelp. Instead of a mirror, an eerily realistic digital portrait of Porter stares at her from across the sink.
As the newly moneyed collector, Porter (Zak Orth) rounds out a cast of familiar art-world types in the satirical new film (Untitled), which premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival earlier this year and is slated for theatrical release in September. Loaded with in-jokes and references—to everyone from John Cage to Bruce Nauman to Robert Gober—(Untitled) follows the characters as they seek acceptance and success in the New York City art world.
Chelsea dealer Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton) cultivates new collectors like Porter, giving him first dibs on the work of hot emerging artists. The gallery’s best-selling one is Josh (Eion Bailey). Gray places his decorative abstract paintings in law firms, hotels, and corporations, but she won’t give him a show in the gallery. The work, she says, is too commercial for her cutting-edge space.
Trained in classical music, Josh’s brother Adrian (Adam Goldberg) writes strange, noisy compositions that send even his own parents running from sparsely populated auditoriums. However, when Josh takes Madeleine to one of Adrian’s performances, she tells Adrian that his real problem is marketing—his pieces aren’t music, they’re sound art—and she invites him to play an opening at her gallery.
Though Adrian is experimental with his music—a bucket, for example, plays prominently in his work— he’s enraged at Madeleine’s plans to pair his compositions with works by the conceptual artist Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum). Adrian doesn’t understand why Monroe’s highly literal works like Pushpin Stuck in Wall (2008) and Light Bulb Turning On and Off (2008)—which suggests Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning installation, The Lights Going On and Off—are shown prominently in the gallery while his brother’s paintings are relegated to a back room.
In the meantime, we’re also introduced to the Damien Hirst-like Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones)—a porkpie-hat-wearing Brit who outsources the vast majority of his work. Barko shares Hirst’s love of taxidermy and eclecticism. At Gray’s gallery he shows a stuffed baboon passionately kissing the nozzle of a pristine vacuum cleaner (conflating classic works by Hirst and fellow art star Jeff Koons); a deer head in a barber’s chair; a cow suspended from the ceiling, draped with strings of pearls; and a cat splayed spread-eagle and stapled to the wall.
The film’s director and cowriter Jonathan Parker asked Los Angeles artist Kyle Ng to fabricate Barko’s artworks in collaboration with his son Sam Parker, a fine arts undergrad at New York University. Before settling on taxidermy—which is relatively conventional by art-world standards—they considered going sillier and more extreme. “Jonathan initially wanted me to do this synthetic butt that pooped paint, a nose that shot out mucus—stuff like that,” Ng says with a laugh. “But in the end, the concept was to make something that is as ridiculous and redundant as possible. Plus, I happen to have a huge collection of taxidermy.”