…like smiling!

Last night, J and I took the T into town, where we attended the Boston premiere of David Tamés’ Smile Boston Project, a short documentary on the work of Bren Bataclan. I’ve blogged about Bataclan before: first when he brought his whimsical paintings to Keene to cheer us after the dismal floods of October, 2005, and next when J commissioned him to paint charmingly cartoonish portrait of Reggie.

The premise behind Bataclan’s “Smile Boston Project” is simple enough, and he’s translated the basic concept to dozens of locales far from Boston. In an attempt to spread the love, Bataclan leaves original paintings of his brightly colored characters in public spaces–on benches, inside college student centers, and elsewhere–with notes attached telling people they can have the paintings for free if they “promise to smile at random people more.”

Bren Bataclan with friends

In Tamés’ documentary, a camera chronicles one painting as it sits on a bench in a crowded Boston park, passersby pausing to consider it while others go about their business and at least one homeless man sleeps on a nearby bench. In interviews with people who were brave enough to take one of the paintings, Tamés shows how most folks’ initial reaction to the notion of paintings free for the taking was one of disbelief: surely there isn’t someone out there who is handing out art in exchange for a simple promise!

Bren Bataclan with friends

And yet, the promise behind the paintings is true. Tamés documentary explains how Bataclan, who went to college in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, was surprised to discover when he moved to Boston that people here don’t make eye contact, smile, and say hello the way they do in the Midwest. More than 15 years after my own move to New England, I still share Bataclan’s reaction: when J and I walk with or without our dogs on the streets of lush and leafy Newton, we’re continually amazed at how many folks do not return our gaze or respond to our hellos. A graphic artist who, after the dot-com bubble burst, was relieved to discover that Boston art-appreciators would actually buy his paintings, Bataclan has spent the past five years trying to thank the people of Boston and beyond by literally giving people something to smile about.

Characters galore

Several of the “serious art critics” who discuss Bataclan’s work in Tamés’ documentary raise the question of whether his cartoonish characters, painted in a “primitive” style that changes little from painting to painting, are “really” art. And yet the gushingly appreciative folks who actually claimed Bataclan’s paintings–and the satisfied customers who willingly spend money to buy Bataclan’s gallery pieces–universally agree that the paintings make them happy. Do paintings qualify as “Art” only if they are serious and somber? Are brightly colored paintings that try for nothing more than to make viewers smile too simple to be “Art”?

Notebook doodles

In Smile Boston Project, Bataclan lists Keith Haring, who made fine art out of street art, as one of his inspirations, and the connection between Bataclan and Haring is apparent. In several previous posts, I’ve grappled with the question of whether street art is “Art,” and you can infer my own stance in the debate from the fact that I have an entire blog category dedicated to graffiti. The first time I snapped photos of the graffiti-covered walls of Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, I went specifically to see Bataclan’s work there. Although his images have long since been covered with those by other spray-can-wielding street artists, Bataclan’s paintings feature the same bold colors and clean lines you’ll see in larger-than-life street murals, the eye-grabbing “pop” of this kind of Pop Art deriving more from the bold statement of in-your-face images than from the subtle nuance of more “refined” works.

High tech, low tech

Bren Bataclan’s “Smile Boston Project” is definitely fun…but is it art? Whether or not the stern-faced critics nod in the affirmative is, to me, beside the point. Like performance art, Bataclan’s street-freebies invite viewers to get actively involved in the message by passing on the smiles the paintings inspire. Skeptics say it’s not possible for an artist to survive by giving his work away for free; one critic interviewed in Smile Boston Project suggests that Bataclan is more a marketer than an artist, his free paintings being nothing more than a public relations gimmick. But if we decry gimmickry for its superficiality, shouldn’t we also decry the kind of smug superiority that suggests skepticism is more valuable than smiles? One of the welcome outcomes of art is the way it conquers skepticism to suggest anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible task of melting New England reserve to bring a child-like glee to the streets of Boston.

This is my day-late contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, I’m feeling… Today’s photos are from an assortment of Bren Bataclan encounters: the first from last night’s Boston premiere of David Tamés’ Smile Boston Project, the next two from Bataclan’s appearance at this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk, and the rest from a January visit to Bataclan’s studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoy!