BALTHUS, WHEN ASKED ABOUT HIMSELF: “Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.” The same can be said for Cumwizard69420. No one in the New York art world knows him, except perhaps for the people at Cheim & Read, who are currently hosting a small exhibition of his works called “The Americans.” Jenny Borland knows who he is; twelve of his paintings featured in a group show at Jenny’s, her space in Chinatown, two years ago. Neither gallery will reveal the artist’s real name or identity, as per Cumwizard69420’s request for anonymity. However, Annie Armstrong, the “Wet Paint” columnist at Artnet.com, got him for a recent interview and was able to reveal his given name, Michael Clark, and that he lives in Pennsylvania. The artist was less forthcoming when it came to other biographical details, but we did learn some basics. Self-taught, twenty-six years old, took to art during lockdown. Fair enough. Let us look at the pictures, which began attracting attention after he started posting them on social media not very long ago and which of late have been the subject of some fascination.
Alice Neel: “Cézanne said, ‘I love to paint people who have grown old naturally in the country.’ And I say I love to paint people who have been torn to shreds by the rat race in New York.” What I’ll say: Cumwizard69420 enjoys painting ridiculous people chewed up and spit out by the internet.
A majority of the men and women who’ve been given the Cumwizard69420 treatment have already been looked at (have “been seen”) by a great many eyeballs with suspicion or sneering, and thus are either famous or infamous. The common denominator, really, is that their likenesses had already been tossed around on the internet for a while, occasioning source material for the artist, even though he likely never knew them in person despite knowing their names, what they’re accused of or known for.
Some of Cumwizard69420’s figures are fat and naked; others are perverts. A lot of them are old. A good number are engaged in some form of sexual congress, exhibitionism, or masturbation and are made to appear debased or delusional, not exactly in their own right or of their own accord but since images have been made of them for the puerile, comic, and/or prurient benefit of third-party internet voyeurs. I would probably enjoy anything with the title There’s a Darkness on the Edge of Town, but Cumwizard69420’s 2022 oil-on-canvas is rather nice in particular. There he is, a shadowy nude male self-fellating in the middle of a road underneath a streetlamp in an otherwise pitch-black nocturne. Diane Arbus: “You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.”
As mentioned, some subjects are famous/infamous, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Ghislaine Maxwell, Kanye West, et al. A few of them are transgender or gay, plenty are Black, some are poor whites. I beg your pardon, but I forget if the term poor whites is impolite. It doesn’t matter; my editor will tell me. I won’t let him correct the rude language, because I want to match Cumwizard69420’s energy and make sure that everyone understands what I mean by ridiculous. I mean someone made subject to ridicule, which must be understood in American-media terms to encompass every distasteful human flavor of the visibly ludicrous—losers, essentially—which often, unfortunately, involves this society’s marginalized peoples. In addition to anyone not white, that is anyone not rich; anyone not young, thin, or beautiful; anyone not sane; anyone not able-bodied; anyone not in a stable, heteronormative, sexually reproductive relationship; anyone not at peace with themselves or the systems we’re living in. Some deserving and some not (who’s to judge?); some criminal, some not. Any-one who’s been laughed at or publicly taken to task as an example of farce in our culture is fodder for a Cumwizard69420 painting, for visual comedy fashioned out of the spectacular tragedy of our daily bad-newsworthy reality.
Jamian Juliano-Villani, in conversation with Peter Saul in 2019: “Can I say one thing? I always say whoever paints a Trump painting is an idiot, and then you painted a Trump painting!” The Cheim & Read show includes a very good small portrait of Donald Trump. With a name like Cumwizard69420, you might think the artist is an idiot. I suspect he’s wonderful.
The painting in question, Trump, 2022, shows our former president donning a white polo shirt, like the kind he wears golfing, and a MAGA hat. He’s outdoors on a clear day. His eyes are squinting into the very bright sunlight, his duck-tailed blond hair blowing behind his head in the wind, his face and neck craggy with sunburn and age. The paint handling is awkward yet self-assured, the use of color excellent. The good humor and thereby basic dignity established by its characterization withstands. It resembles something George W. Bush would have painted. It could pass for a Bush, if not for the picture hung next to it of an overweight white man wearing nothing but briefs, passed out in the middle of the day on a twin-size mattress (Sleeping Beauty, 2022). Trump looks too stupid for words; the poor beaut looks worn out. They both appear human.
“Cumwizard69420: The Americans” is on view through March 18.
Sam McKinniss is an artist based in Connecticut and New York.