Jave Jive: You Call That Art?

Illustration by Demian Johnston for City Arts

The café as art gallery and how I keep looking for beauty along with my espresso.

A big part of patronizing indie coffee shops is the alt-perks that come along with the noncorporate ambiance: hep tunes; attractive, tattooed hipsters surfing Wi-Fi at the tables around you; politically correct beans (organic, shade-grown, Fair Trade, blessed by a Tibetan monk for all I know) and an array of groovy, good-for-you products selected by smart Eastside owners, including handcrafted teas and hand-painted mugs. Plus: local artists showing (and selling) their work.

I personally don’t know a color wheel from a hole in the ground. My formal arts training consists of throwing food against the canvas of our kitchen wallpaper as a toddler and making those dopey lanyards at day camp. Even my stick figures suck. In fact, I find most art baffling. The majority of sculpture seems unintentionally humorous, photography appears less a skill than a hobby, watercolors are, well, watered down and a lot of pieces simply piss me off. (Poor execution, I believe, is the proper term.) Though I love nudes, abstracts, masks and oils — hopefully applied at the same time. My criteria for good art usually come down to whether I’d hang it above my fireplace.

Gazing at the paintings on the walls of T’Latte café in Bellevue (37 103rd Ave. NE), I can’t make out the shapes. Are those candy apples or samurai battling with chopsticks? Is that a man on the shrink’s couch or a Furby in a blender? Some of them are nice, other canvases look as if my thirteen-year-old twins could have banged ’em out (then again, they’re amazingly talented little people). For all I know, the artist may be the next Horiuchi or Morris Graves, but I’m not going to shell out my hard-earned cash for further study. That goes to my therapist to rid me of these visions of bloody furballs.

Art is subjective; everyone’s a critic. Picasso was a genius, you might say; Pollock was not. (Put them in a cell and have them sketch the jailer. One hundred times out of one hundred, the warden’s picking Pablo’s piece — and he’ll take a Caravaggio over both of ’em.)

I find most art baffling; the majority of sculpture seems unintentionally humorous.

Different paint strokes for different folks. Success is one part luck, one part mad intensity, ten parts hard work and a session on the posing couch. An unfortunate aspect of the art world is that, while one master gets a retrospective at the Guggenheim and lives the good life, another equally talented artist toils in absurdity and undiagnosed apparitions, never getting her masterpiece out of the garage.

Many of us just don’t know how to be around art. Bulls in a china shop, we’re so concerned about the “you break it, you bought it” rule (especially should a Chihuly hit the deck) that we’re more comfortable rock climbing than art gazing.

But one of the attractions of art collecting is the Michelangelo Lotto Principle: there’s a slim but real chance that you’ll buy an artist’s painting in a coffee shop for a couple hundred bucks and he/she will become the next Warhol. You can’t win if you don’t play.

As a percentage of the cash my family spends per annum, art falls somewhere between Seattle Storm tickets and Copper River salmon. Full disclosure: I shell out about $325 on art each year, not including the framing, which is about five times more. We spend $800 a year on nonfat, iced vanilla lattes and don’t blink over letting local sculptors starve.

Art is like a convertible roadster: it’s a nice concept, but practically speaking, we don’t have a place for it in our everyday lives (even in the garage with the roadster). Part of that is because we’re unsophisticated dolts addicted to Mariners games and reality TV. And part of it is that — due to lack of exposure — we don’t realize that great art is affordable. While a Guy Anderson painting may sell for $40,000 at Foster/White (Grandmother’s House, Edmonds, 1935), in the room next door, brilliant abstract impresario James Martin’s work goes for seven hunch a pop (Small Universe, 2008). Is Anderson’s art worth it? Hell, yes, if you’ve got the dough. Guess what? Skip one latte a day for a year and you’ve got a Martin masterpiece on your living room wall.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and sometimes beyond me. Still, I like hanging around cafés like T’Latte, keeping my eye out for that great piece I can’t pass by. The picture-perfect stunner that changes my whole outlook, that attracts me like a moth to the flame, inspires me to see a future and makes the decision to open up my wallet and shell out the big bucks a no-brainer. I am talking about art, by the way. Go see some.