Bulk art

Where do some of the big hotels and casinos buy their paintings? And do they have any artistic or educational value?

Photo By Lauren Randolph

An art educator and I took a stroll through the hallways of the Peppermill Casino at 3 a.m., after most gamblers and partiers had laid their heads to rest, to investigate the cultural worth of the casino’s paintings. What educational value can be found looking at mass-produced paintings in a gaudy-carpeted casino? We did not smoke cigarettes while doing this, but in this place, we could have. That’s some culture.

Cindy Gunn, my roommate, has made a three-decade career out of teaching art to young people at such venues as the Washoe County School District, Very Special Arts Nevada and Sierra Arts. She currently instructs at McGee Center for Adolescent Children and offers private instruction.

Gunn, in her 50s, humbly dressed, quick to laugh and often flashing her confident smile, was excited to point out countless flaws in the paintings on hand. She had plenty of ammo to shoot, at one point even declaring, “These are offensive to what I would call ‘real’ artists.”

Real artists? I hadn’t even wanted to get into the political stuff with this work. It seemed fascinating from an art educational standpoint that here we could examine paintings done by different artists/artisans without the hindrance of making judgments on subject matter or style. The painting factory had only so many designs to offer. We were able to see multiple copies of every painting exhibited and often in close proximity—four copies of one particular design were hung down the hall from one another on the fifth floor.

At 17 stories tall, each floor of the Peppermill Tower houses approximately 60 original oil paintings from the series—25 to 30 paintings line each hallway with two to four paintings in each room, for a grand total of approximately 1,020 paintings just in this one of two towers at the casino hotel. These are factory produced paintings bought in bulk.

A question of style

It’s not obvious if the paintings found in these hotel hallways are copies of particular artists’ works, but they all fit loosely into one or more of the following genres: neo-classical, baroque or rococo. Loosely labeled here—because the term neo-classical depends upon which “classical” the current society defines itself by—but baroque or rococo because these assembly-line creations are candy colored and sometimes “cute.”

Neo-classical art usually has a seriousness and rigorous geometry that these paintings do not necessarily possess. They do, however, feature lounging women in flowing tunics with cobalt blue Mediterranean seas as a backdrop—and lots of luxury and marble. Also, in a couple of designs, one can spot Latin text inscribed in rendered walls. These clues beg the next question: What does it take to make a painting “a painting”?

“Many from the general public would say it has to be figurative and set in some kind of romantic time period,” said Gunn. “[These paintings] fool the customer into thinking they’re getting more than they are—which makes sense because casino culture is very artificial. … [But the work is] totally color-coordinated with the carpet and furnishings. It’s decoration for the walls, that’s all.”

With a little internet research, I discovered that 60 percent of all paintings sold in the world each year come from a village called Dafen in China. The New York Times reported on one particular Chinese artist, Zhang Libing from this village: “At 26, Mr. Zhang estimates that he has painted up to 20,000 copies of van Goghs”—many more van Goghs than van Gogh himself painted in his lifetime. Zhang earns less than $200 a month, plus meager room and board.

Christel Citko, owner/director of Art Source Gallery in Reno specializes in large commissioned projects similar to the renovations at the Peppermill. “Everyone understands budget concerns, but give us a chance! More of the local creative community could have taken pride in this wonderful renovation project had they chosen to open it up to local bidders.”

Higher education

Again, politics aside, is there any educational value in looking at paintings like these? Could students learn anything from paintings like these?

“First, I’d have students looking seriously at art from the past such as the pre-Raphaelites [Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt],” says Gunn. “Then they’d look at three copies of the same painting here, finding six features to compare and contrast. For example, how’d the artists handle the background or the fabric, gesture of figure—hand or eye depicted, the shadow of the cheek … Or how was curvature of arms and necks modeled? Does it look like marble or skin? … Asking how cold is the appearance compared to another version? How muddy are the colors, how crisp, and how’s the energy rendered compared to another copy of the same painting?”

Comparisons from experienced eyes notice differences in renderings of flesh and stone, water, bushes, still-lifes and various textures in background and foreground such as fur or velvet. Unmistakably, they’ve been painted by different hands. At one point, I tried to pick out traces left by the hands of different artists, with their particular talents and styles. I had a list of six distinct artists that I called cracked stone guy, calligraphy addict, the beginner, the master, porcelain face painter, and the soft shading painter. It’s quite possible that there were more painters than those six, but there were at least that many.

“I’d rather see prints made from good paintings,” says Gunn, “with the originator getting a piece of the money.” The value for painter and viewer is better that way. “The value of original art will go up. [These] will never increase in value. They’re just gonna knock out more copies.”

If nothing else, this collection of paintings provoked contemplation at length about value, or maybe more specifically, about the definition of value.

The executive offices of the Peppermill could only inform me that the paintings came “from overseas.” This bleak response was not very surprising as often the origin of the kind of impersonal, unsigned work presented here is shrouded in secrecy. I wasn’t even furnished with the designer’s name, but the office of architect Peter Wilday confirmed that the choice of artwork was his. That is the extent of information I could gather.

The value I gained from researching this subject regarded the meaning and intricacies of a word like “value” itself.

Rephrasing, I asked Gunn, “Could these paintings have any value at all?”

“Maybe, if they understood the application and energy of the brushstroke and general craftsmanship. But they’re flat. The women lack grace—feet too small, no elegance, no luminosity, depth, no build up of color—there’s no texture. There’s an education of the public at stake here.”