This isn't a scene from a dystopic sci-fi novel, nor a recreation of a fascist act from a less tolerant time. It's actually just one of many outlandish and exhilarating moments of Art vs. Art, an event gaining more attention with each annual incarnation. (This year's is Sept. 26 at the Vogue).
Art vs. Art is a painting competition and auction, where entering artists are each given identical canvases, art supplies, and four hours to complete a work. These entries are then subjected to online voting, with 32 paintings moving on to the finals. There, the audience votes to determine 16 finalists, which are paired in a series of head-to-head "bouts" (boxing analogies pervade the entire event.) The painting that receives a higher decibel level of approval from the audience moves on.
If the idea of a mob, lubricated by stiff drinks, determining a piece of art's "worth" through screaming seems unconventional, what follows is positively audacious.
Each round's losing painting is subjected to one of a variety of "deaths." It can only be saved only if an audience member purchases it during a brief auction. Each auction has a reserve, starting at $150 and increasing by $100 per round.
Such a raucous and irreverent concept might seem borrowed from some mid-1970s Soho punk art show, but it is a completely homegrown idea. Local arts impresario Jim Clinger, inspired by a trove of vintage boxing flyers, produced the event through his promotions company, Groove Truck Productions, at Birdy's Bar & Grill in 2001-with only seven competitors and a scant crowd. Years later, he contacted Primary Colours, a not-forprofit that had successfully been producing Allotropy, a yearly, conceptually progressive gallery show.
"Before we got involved, I actually won the event," says Dane Sauer, president of Primary Colours. "I am by no means a painter, but I had enough of my friends to cheer loud enough for me to pull through."
The partnership grew the event to a larger space, the Fountain Square Theater, and increased the number of competitors. Flash-forward to last year's event, with 125 artists. It now has a reputation outside the community as a singularly unique alternative to the stereotypical froufrou art event. "When I meet artists in other cities," explains 2006 winner Emma Overman, "they always say that they wish they had something like it in their area."
Her winning painting was sold at the event after she was presented with a $3,000 check. However, last year's winning entry by Amory Abbot of a playful Dinosaur with floaties hopping into a swimming pool did not meet the final reserve.
"Nobody wanted to buy it, Sauer recalls. "We asked him what he wanted us to do. And he opted for us to spin the wheel of death and destroy it."
One option on the fate-determining wheel, "instant death," is the most controversial part of the show. "It's kind of like the bankruptcy wedge on Wheel of Fortune, says Sauer. "
This year's move to the Vogue Theater was so not much for extra room, but a result of the producers' desire to return to the original multi-media vision of the event. "When the event was originally put on," says Sauer, "it was an equal combination of music and art." The acoustics of the Fountain Square Theater made it difficult for even the emcee to be heard clearly, let alone a band.
Groove Truck has contracted two bands, Chicago-based Catfish Haven and local rockers Those Young Lions, to play immediately following the conclusion of this year's competition.
"Our long-term plan is to franchise it," Sauer explains. "It's just dying to get out to a bigger audience."
Art vs. Art is not without criticism. Vocal protestors have stood outside the theater in the past and at least one former competitor has written a letter of disdain to Nuvo. Sauer believes that besides entertaining the public, the question that Art vs. Art raises is, "Is art sacred?" He and his fellow volunteers at Primary Colours often cite temporary sand paintings by Buddhist monks who sweep away their work at the end of the day as an example that art does not necessarily need to be preserved to "be" art and be appreciated.
At its core, the event's purpose is to promote artists through exposure in a different venue, reaching a broader audience. "The Art vs. Art crowd is a whole different animal," says Overman, a veteran of many traditional gallery shows. "The 'painting meets WWF' angle draws spectators who would never make the trip for wine, cheese, and polite conversation."
Plus, it is ultimately the paying populace that decides each painting's fate. "The goal is to sell the work," Sauer explains. "If the crowd deems that it's not worth keeping around, then it will get the axe. Or the chainsaw."