9:26 AM CST, December 5, 2012
The Wall of Bad Art at the Hotel Lincoln, the newly renovated boutique hotel in Lincoln Park at the corner of Wealthy and Twee, is a monument to iffy talent and questionable taste. It is a reminder of how bad art can get funneled through wood-paneled rec rooms and yard sales and come out the other end as good taste, warm memories and enduring charm.
The Wall of Bad Art, assembled by San Francisco interior designer Andrew Alford after an epic Midwest antique store binge, stands tall behind the hotel's front desk. It climbs from the lobby to the second-floor lounge. It is a visual anchor, a comfy monolith. It's also keeping with the vintage, handcrafted rumpus-room aesthetic sweeping hipster hotel lobbies, a look popularized by the Ace Hotel in New York, which has a lobby featuring a large American flag, salvaged-wood tables and taxidermy.
What it does not have is bad art.
The Ace Hotel does not offer, as the Wall of Bad Art does, a kind of museum of 20th-century middlebrow bourgeois values. It does not boast a giant red wall that begins with the yellowing, washed-out photo of a spongy, nondescript captain of industry (the kind of company photo that once passed for gravitas in corporate lobbies), continues with paintings of cats playing cards, squirrels resting on branches and hippies smiling, and ends with a needlepoint flower vase.
It does not have a painting of a white cat with big eyes and a pink bow, or several pieces of Mexican feather art. It does not have guests who, as general manager Bob Shelley has witnessed, stand before works of art and make up stories about what the artists must have been smoking.
"Occasionally, we get a guest who wants to buy the art," Shelley said, "and we go 'Really?' I think if any of these pieces were alone on a wall, they might feel differently. But I understand. A wall of it is awe inspiring."
To find the Wall of Bad Art, pass through the front doors of the Hotel Lincoln, then head for the check-in desk, walk past stacks of old travel trunks and tattered coffee-table books and hotel guests nursing coffee on mismatched furniture and sculptures that only loosely earn the title of sculpture. On a sleepy Saturday afternoon, on a pedestal beside the clerk at the front desk (herself in a polka dot dress and a small yellow shrug), there was a brown chunk of wood carved to resemble a rockin' '70s van. The clerk, whose name is Katy Higgins, said she didn't expect the van to be long for this lobby. Since the Hotel Lincoln reopened in February — a nationally registered landmark, it was rescued from foreclosure by Chicago and New York investors — a number of bad sculptures had been lifted from the lobby, presumably by guests. A wooden gorilla (gone). A porcelain parrot (gone). A ceramic tiger (gone). A 30-pound Abraham Lincoln (gone).
"Unfortunately, we've had casualties," she said.
Asked about this, Alford said it was not unfortunate. In fact, while planning the look of the Hotel Lincoln, he anticipated it. He even tried to persuade the new owners of the Hotel Lincoln to stamp a discreet message on the backs of all of the hotel's art, something like "Thank you for stealing this from the Hotel Lincoln."
But this wasn't done, and the art on the Wall of Bad Art was bolted down. So don't get any funny ideas.
Otherwise, go ahead: Funny ideas about the Wall of Bad Art are welcomed. For instance, the long, vertical painting at the top of the stairs of a seemingly successful guy with large 1970s eyeglasses and a mustache and pillowy yellow hair, dressed in a powder-blue suit, jauntily thrusting a pencil? Is he an architect? An ad man? A classy pornographer? A TV detective who solves crimes with a tumbler of scotch in his right hand?
What are we looking at?
"Awesomeness," Alford said. "You are looking at awesomeness. All of these paintings come from ambiguous origins. Who are the people in these pictures, and who painted them? I don't know. I don't even know what I love about these paintings. That '70s guy? We call him Ron Burgundy (as in Will Ferrell's character from "Anchorman"). We don't know who he is. But it was the first piece we hung on the wall. We put him at the top of the stairs because we wanted to draw people to the second floor, encourage them to stand next to Ron and take pictures with him. I think we bought him at, I want to say, oh, maybe Edgewater Antiques? He was standing in the window, and it was very much 'How much is that doggy in the window?'"
It is the most expensive piece of art on the Wall of Bad Art. The budget for the Wall was $20,000 but ended up costing "way under," Alford said. Not far from Ron Burgundy, for instance, is a picture of an antique car. Its $10 price tag was not removed. To put it in perspective: The revival of the 184-room hotel, built in 1928 and most recently a Days Inn, cost $10 million; installing a new elevator alone cost $1 million. There are 168 pieces of art hanging on that back wall, hung in cramped, stacked gallery style, cascading floor to ceiling.
Average cost was $40.
The entire wall? Maybe $8,000, rounding up.
The idea for the wall came from a few inspirations, Alford said. The first was artist Henry Darger, the untrained Lincoln Park recluse whose eerie, undiscovered watercolors became, years after he had died, the ultimate outsider art. The other inspiration was Ben Weprin, the founder of AJ Capital and one of the hotel's owners, an enthusiastic collector of kitschy art who lives in the neighborhood.
"You can never have too much (bad art)," Weprin said, "especially when you're paying minimal prices for it. Besides, it's not about price or investment at that point anyway; it's about how this random picture by a stranger speaks to your soul."
In the year before the reopening, Alford, who owns San Francisco-based Dirty Lines Design, would fly into Chicago for a few days and hit antique store after antique store, acquiring bad art. He drove to Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin.
"Chicago is such a diverse city that I wanted to make sure different people were represented (on the wall)," Alford said, "but we had a hard time finding vintage art with African-Americans. We found some. A lot of what we ran across was so horrifically racist." But in the end, he bought more art than he could use, more than 200 pieces. Some leftover went to Weprin, some went into storage. (Incidentally, Alford ran across so many old desk drawers that the front desk itself is constructed of dozens of old desk drawers.)
As for the wall …
Highlights include paintings of a naked woman bathing, a duck resting, cardinals in a tree, ballet dancers, geishas and a girl with gold curls named Little Daisy. Framed paper doll sheets. A painting of a flapper standing at a bank window ("Transferring her accounts," reads the caption). A painting of a bulldog, a dog show, a zebra, a German shepherd so lovingly rendered it had to have been someone's favorite pooch. There are many vases of flowers, both painted and drawn. Several images of geese alighting. A watercolor of a New England fishing village at low tide. Needlepoint renderings of flowers and birds and old-timey towns ("Reminders of all the projects my mom never finished," Alford said). There is a painting of David Cassidy (though Alford isn't so sure it's him). There is a silhouette reminiscent of artist Kara Walker's silhouettes.
Frames are painted gold and silver, some are brown, and others are cracked in corners. There are a number of original paint-by-number works, including the once ubiquitous "Swiss Village." There are a several clowns. There is a drawing of a child in a bonnet, and beside it a drawing of the same child crying, his face contorted. There is a glow-in-the-dark woodland animal and a velvet painting of an exotic bird. There is a painting of a walleyed man that looks like Neil Young, only stranger. Few are signed, but "C. Burford" signed a painting of a farm. There is a needlepoint picture of a building labeled "Shakespeare's Birthplace," though it looks more like a Cracker Barrel. There is a painting of what could be either a landfill or a Christmas tree. There's a painting of a woman who could be related to Meryl Streep and a bad portrait of a Doris Day-like innocent.
Doe-eyed girls wear go-go boots, young boys wear full-body swimsuits, a comely woman with a guitar stands in a doorway, and a handsome man with bongos at his feet leans against a wall and holds a trumpet. There is a painting of a goat so awkward it could be a painting of two people stuffed into a goat costume.
Alford said, "Being across from the park and the zoo, I wanted to include a lot of nature and animals, but mostly, being in the neighborhood, I wanted it to feel like a home. I love it when I see people walk up and down the stairs and say, 'Oh my God, that was in my grandmother's house!' That was exactly the idea."
Asked to name the hotel's aesthetic, he said, "Eccentric preppy."
Asked the same thing, Shelley said, "Second bedroom."
"As in," he explained, "the place should feel like a guest room. And the thing about art in a second bedroom, it's always what's left over, what didn't fit the rest of the house, the art we're just not ready to let go of yet."
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