Low Prices, High Art

Maria Godoy admires the work of Brendan O’Connell, painter of Walmart tableaux:

Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old. “There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”

He says it’s not his most expensive paintings that are selling:

Media reports have lingered over the fact that some of his largest paintings — those 8 feet by 9 feet or so — can fetch $40,000 or more. But O’Connell says it’s the small works in the $1,000-$1,200 range that have been selling. And the people doing the buying, he says, come from all over the country. “What I’m struck by is this relationship to brands,” he says, noting that buyers have called to inquire about specific paintings: ” ‘Do you still have the Corn Flakes? … I want the Maxwell House.’ Whatever brand it is that they have a personal relationship with. And that, to me, is fascinating.”

Susan Orleans’ recent profile of O’Connoll touched on the company’s reaction:

[O’Connell] had never had any official communication with Walmart beyond the local managers inviting him to leave. A dealer who was interested in his work had once approached the company about acquiring one of the paintings but was told that Walmart didn’t buy art. Then, by chance, the Globe article was forwarded to Suraya Bliss, a senior director of digital strategy at the company. Bliss says that she has always been interested in visual things, and collects art herself, and she liked what O’Connell was doing. Instead of interpreting the paintings as arch commentary, she thought he was speaking to the company’s mission. “I got in touch with him and said, ‘Let’s talk and get to know each other,'” Bliss told me. After their conversation, she was convinced that his work was ‘very pure and very genuine.’ She arranged for him to take pictures in stores whenever he wanted, and offered to let him photograph from a cherry picker in one of the New Jersey superstores.

O’Connell is also working on a project, Everyartist.me, which hopes to engage millions of  kids in art.