Our weekend in Cape May, N.J., where everything costs about a third less than at home, found great shopping on Washington Street. And I HATE shopping unless I have a mission. My mission was to return home with a birthday present for my friend Rod, distraught at turning 30 once again.
At the opening of the season, shops were freshly stocked. Gift shops, normally the last place in the world one should buy a gift, had lots of clever, attractive and interesting things. But they mainly targeted women, making a guy-gift a little tricky.
Then we remembered that Rod is an avid boater. Or at least his partner is. Maybe something nautical? Nautical art? There were plenty of galleries to begin my hunt.
Yes, I tortured myself at the Thomas Kinkade gallery, seeing in person his technically skillful, yet demented, horribly overpriced, overwrought mass-production prints in the $2,000 range and up. The gallery appeared to be a part of a franchise, so when I saw a gallery down the road had a little Kinkade Korner of their own, I asked the proprietor how she managed to be selling these when an official gallery was up the road. She dodged the question with a nervous “why do you ask?”
Trying to be kind, I told her the landscape peppered with Disney characters would be the centerpiece of a lucky toddler’s nursery, the proprietor got defensive. “They are displayed all over the house,” she offered, “because they make people happy.”
Then I found a modest little gallery set up in a very plain storefront. There was a variety of paintings, some better than others, and (mostly) all suitable for hanging. They were also original oils. I spotted a small framed painting for under $50.
Of course, this little painting does nothing to advance the world of art. Let’s agree it’s a formulaic and purely decorative piece. Art snobs would find it trite. Its lack of fluorescent highlights and a twee stone pathway leading into the frame would make this painting a non-starter among the Kinkadians. But who would be embarrassed to have this lovely, expertly rendered little painting on their wall? Not Rod, I’m hoping!
My twinge of discomfort comes from the answer the gallery owner gave me when I asked who the artist was. The work is signed, but it’s hard to make out the name. He said it was a “contract artist,” who I am willfully picturing to be a retired art teacher churning out oils from a studio over his garage, and not an exploited sweatshop worker in south Asia.
And what about the provenance of those charming gifty gift-shop things? How are they so cheap? Who’s stringing the seashell strands, who’s unmolding the coffee mugs, who’s stitching up the plush toy? Wrapped up in my little mission, I never asked.
There are no perfect solutions when seeking affordable, appealing art work.