Confession: I love to buy ugly thrift store paintings and then paint over them. I get why people would be weird about it (and people got really weird about in the comments on this memorable post), but just because somebody painted something doesn’t make that person an artist, or their work sacred.I think that in general, the stuff that ends up in thrift stores is hobby junkart that I see NO problem painting over (my ridiculous exceptions: black velvet paintings and paint by numbers, amateur art that is just too weird to deface). Canvases are a lot of work to stretch and frames can be expensive, especially huge ones like this big guy below that I found at the Goodwill for $10. It looked like bad Florida timeshare art from the 80’s/90’s. This piece was signed so I went deep in internet searches and came up with nothing. I also knew that, at least from today’s perspective, this style doesn’t represent some huge cultural moment in our history so I felt like I fulfilled my obligations and was free to paint. If J. Anderson is your Grandma and you treasure her work, SORRY. Two cans of paint and a few hours later, my kids and I had come up with a graphic piece that I love (currently hanging in our dining room).Did I destroy art? Did I make art? Did I appropriate art? Who is the real artist here, if any? What is art? Who owns it? Am I a no-good jerk, Franz Kline rip-off? (Probably.) Who determines the definition and merits of “art”? What does that say about our culture? Our humanity? All discussions best left to art school, ya? More pressing, I think, is will this style startlingly boomerang back in 10 years, a la Memphis, and today’s junk will be tomorrow’s treasures and worth gazillions and I’ll be taking this to an art restorer singing songs of remorse and repentance and hating my dark heart? SO UNLIKELY.
I like to keep perspective when digging through the framed bins at thrift stores. Professional works with provenance or virtue rarely wind up there. It’s no Antiques Roadshow at my favorite haunts. Of course, if I happened to find work from a cataloged artist, I wouldn’t touch it. Unsigned pieces are harder. If it’s unsigned but in a sought after style and time period (e.g. mid century abstract expressionism; the frame is often a good indication of era), it’s likely that someone else wants it so don’t mess with it. Unsigned art gets traded all the time on ebay and etsy, so there is definitely a market for it.
I think it all comes down to stewardship. Are you saving trash canvases from landfills by painting over them? Well done. Are you passing on noteworthy works to the people who appreciate them? Well done. I tell myself I kept this one out of the dump. Am I now the most heartless person you know? Thanks for reading!
P.S. It’s super fun to paint with your kids.