Museum of Bad Art
Update: The Museum of Bad Art was kicked out of its bathroom gallery in Dec. 2012, when the theater decided to convert it into a screening room. There's hope that MOBA will reopen at the same location (but not in a bathroom) some time in 2013.
"The thing that's baffling about this one," said Louise Sacco, our guide at the Museum of Bad Art, "are the little bows in the crotches."
Louise was standing next to a painting titled Play Boy Bunnies, a portrait of two chunky human-rabbit robotoids with teeth like piano keyboards and discreetly placed censorship bows. She mentioned that its painter was both prolific and legally blind.
Play Boy Bunnies is bad art, as is everything on display at MOBA. This small gallery, more an idea than a museum, has carved a niche for itself in northeastern Massachusetts, a region already filled with art museums and artistic pretense. MOBA treads a thin line of post-ironic self-awareness -- Louise calls herself "permanent acting interim executive director" -- but we liked the place because of its art, and because it's in the basement of a theater, just outside of the men's bathroom.
The air at the Museum of Bad Art carries the tang of urinal disinfectant pucks. There's no tasteful pin-spot lighting for the artwork, just a single fluorescent fixture overhead. "It was much gloomier," Louise said, before the cement walls were painted mustard yellow. "And our landlord gave us a rug."
The echo-y, bus station ambience of MOBA gives it the aesthetic of a Nazi "degenerate art" exhibit and suggests the craptacular status of its selections. This is useful, since MOBA has high standards for its bad art: no porn, no paint-by-numbers, no 9-11 or Jesus tributes. "People want us to be about kitsch, but that's not us," Louise said.
What about black velvet paintings? we asked. "It's possible," Louise answered, "but it seems so unlikely."
We thought about places such as the lavish American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and wondered: if MOBA's artwork hung in a good-looking museum, would people still view it as bad?
"People come in here all the time and say, 'That's not bad. I like it,'" said Louise. "Well, we like it too."
And who decides whether the art is good or bad? "We've got the museum," said Louise, "so we decide."
On the day that we visited, the artwork on display included Born Without, a portrait of a woman with a black hole for a face and her eyes, nose, and lips floating over her head; and Papa Nostro, which featured Pope John Paul II blessing what looked like a giant EKG floating in the sky. Mariachi in Tiananmen Square appeared to be just that, or maybe it was an Amish farmer blocking the tanks; the image was too blobby to be definite (Mariachi was apparently too good; it was stolen in 2012).
We were impressed by a large mural that covered the modesty screen between the gallery and the toilets. It included a blue-skinned man with mushrooms growing out of his mouth. The painting seemed to have a lot going on in it, and Louise concurred. "Sometimes 'too much going on' is what makes it interesting."
MOBA's basement gallery only has space for a few dozen artworks, which are changed "all the time," according to Louise (The museum has a growing collection of over 450 pieces). Although MOBA is small, frequent turnover ensures that patrons will see new masterpieces every time that they visit.
"Our curator still drives slowly on trash night, still goes to thrift stores and yard sales," said Louise, who stressed that bad art can be found anywhere, not just in Greater Boston. "Somebody dies, the family's cleaning out the house, and sometimes the piece has been hanging in the dining room for years and they're dying to get rid of it. Or it's discovered in a closet."
"A lot of it just comes in," she said. "Artists send us their work all the time." Why would they do that? "They're trying to communicate something and they want people to see their work." Even if it came out bad.
"Talented artists can make bad art," said Louise. "Incompetent artists can make bad art, too, but mostly what they make is just boring."
And what about people who intentionally make bad art? Do their creations qualify for exhibit space in MOBA? Louise said no. "If you do it bad deliberately, you've accomplished what you set out to do. You've done it good. It's not bad any more."
Update: In Dec. 2012 the men's room was turned into a screening room, and the museum collection was dispersed to two nearby locations: the basement of the Somerville Theatre (55 Davis Square, Somerville), and the top floor of Brookline Access Television (46 Tappan St., Brookline).