Behind the Curtain

Exploitation of Apprentices & Fabricators in the World of Art

Artists have been exploited throughout history. There are countless stories that illustrate how easily an artist can be taken advantage of. After experiencing this happen countless times to his own work, our director Billie Mintz set out to make a film that told the story of another artist who’s career was overlooked at the hands of other more privileged and more powerful people that took advantage of him. There are many untold and forgotten stories of other artists throughout time who have been exploited or lived in the shadows of other more popular artists. There are many stories to be covered when looking at art and its potential for exploitation. There are fabricators that are underpaid to make art for more famous artists as well as people who have been exploited in the name of art. Art can be a powerful and sinister force to manipulate others while at the same time providing survival opportunities in places there were none before.

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Vladimir Dvorkin was the artistic wizard working anonymously behind the curtain for the great and powerful Oz Almog. A secret he and his family kept for his entire life.  But he did keep records of his work so the truth could one day be discovered.   Home videos thought to be lost or destroyed were found and restored, and photographs were collected, so we could bring this evidence to light in our documentary. 
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Revealing the truth about who really painted much of Oz Almog's artwork
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MYTH-MAKERS: THE ASSISTANTS BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Written by: Riley McNair

Many of us would be shocked if we were to visit the studios of contemporary artists Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, or Damien Hirst and see how their art is made, or rather, who it’s made by. There we might find dozens, even hundreds, of paid workers cutting, welding, and painting raw materials. In contemporary art worlds, the production of art could not look farther from the tortured artist character trope believed to be emblematic of authentic creativity.

 

Today, very few mainstream, contemporary artists fulfill that stereotype. On the contrary, most artists producing large-scale works have skillsets much more common, and indeed, utilitarian, than unique brushstroke techniques. They have financial acumen and time management skills, according to the director of a commercial art fabrication company in London who prefers to remain anonymous. Most importantly though, they have concepts and the funds to realize them. “The successful ones are good with money. Getting it and using it. They’re almost accountant types as well as artists”, he says.

Art fabrication is the process of outsourcing labour to produce large or complex artworks. Fabricators, also commonly known as art assistants, are individuals with wide ranging skills in art production, such as carpentry, welding, foundry, screen printing and painting, and are employed by individual artists to help execute their concepts. Michelangelo and Rembrandt are some of the earliest known adopters of the practice.

 

Damien Hirst is known as one of the most prolific users of fabricators. According to an article published by the Standard in 2007, one of Hirst’s assistants said, “she resented being paid £600 to do a painting that would sell for £600,000, and that in an act of rebellion, she imbued the Spot paintings she did with a secret signature that not even Hirst picked up.” Over time, these unknown talents have produced works exhibited and admired globally, but their stories have seldom been told - until now.

The late Vladimir Dvorkin, master-painter and grandfather to Roman Lapshin, the protagonist of the film, Portrayal, was a fabricator. He was employed by conceptual artist, Oz Almog, to put ideas on canvas and to do it quickly. For one of Almog’s most infamous projects, ‘Him Too’, Dvorkin was paid $50 per portrait. He produced 2500 of them. He was employed off and on by Oz for almost two decades. He died an anonymous artist, as the majority of his prolific amount of work hung in museums under another man’s name.

Dvorkin’s technical proficiency and speed were essential to the success of ‘Him Too’. His value to Almog is perfectly captured by a statement Jeff Koons made to The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “If I had to be doing this myself, I wouldn’t even be able to finish one painting a year”, he said.  “But those are his brushstrokes. No one can do brushstrokes like that”, Lapshin says about his grandfather at one point in the film, implying that the practice of ‘making’ in the context of art is inherently more special or valuable. Tangled in emotions of pride, grief, and anger, Lapshin struggles to recognize that his grandfather's work arrangements, regardless of how shadowy they seemed, were legitimate. Almog might be the monster Lapshin believes him to be but not because he employed fabricators. Art fabrication is more than an accepted practice; it’s commonplace.

 

Separating artworks from the conditions in which they’re made makes “false assumptions about the nature of art, enhancing the bourgeois myth that art is created in isolation from the outside world,” writes Professor of Art History, Danielle Child.[2] With that in mind, it’s important to consider the conditions under which art is produced. After all, the storytelling of the talents and labour of fabricator and master painter, Vladimir Dvorkin, in Portrayal is now art - beautiful in it’s own right.

Damien Hirst Exploits

Damien Hirst is not only the world's richest and most successful artist, but a transformative figure who can be assured of his place in history. He also gets other people to do most of the work. These “assistants” are called fabricators. When questioning Hirst on using paid assistants to make his art he famously responds, "because I couldn't be fucking arsed doing it". Then, when stories of his millions were all over the press, and it came out that those assistants were extremely poorly paid, it seemed less funny. Now, in Hirst's current incarnation as house artist to the 1%, running some kind of sweatshop style production line on his compound in Baja California, the witty artist has lost its last residue of charm.  Artist Travis Louie stated, "One should not confuse the use of assistants by Damien Hirst to be equivalent to the way the "Old Masters" used students and disciples of their schools of painting to assist in the production of larger works." Louie added, "To even compare them is laughable and on some level, insulting.". Artist Laurie Lipton suggested, "Hirst's assistants are not the problem: It's Hirst's talent." Artist Chet Zar offered, "Assistants are one thing but assistants that do ALL the work is another." The artist claims that he was taught ‘don’t borrow ideas, steal them’ Thats not the only thing he stole, said the co-writer of his autobiography.​  "He (Hirst) grew up in a pretty bad situation with his mother, and he and his gang – many of whom became YBA artists – spent half their time housebreaking, stealing, [indulging in] criminality, and the rest of their time indulging their passion for art, which started very early on in their years,", says James Fox

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Photo: Andrew Testa/The New York Times/Redux

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Damien Hirst, 5-Fluorotryptamine, 2007

Award winning author and illustrator Lauren Child is known for her book series, such as the Charlie and Lola picture books, the Clarice Bean series and the Ruby Redfort novel series. Her books have won awards including the annual Kate Greenaway Medal from the Library Association for the year's most "distinguished illustration in a book for children". She studied Art at Manchester Polytechnic and London Art School, after which she worked in a variety of jobs, including as an art fabricator. Even though she didn’t have direct contact with Hirst, the work she did was quite important, “Pretty much all I did was paint spots. I have no idea how many spot paintings I did, we kept no record, but we were pretty quick. There’s not that much to think about apart from how quickly you can do it, and the colors, which were meant to be random so we could choose them”.

 

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Behind-the-Scenes

Roman Screens the Trailer & Film for the First Time

by Billie Mintz

There’s so much to say about these videos Roman sent to me.  The one above is from the first private screening his family had of the film.  The first one below is his family getting their very first glimpse of footage from the film when we sent them the trailer.  The second clip below  is Roman after he organized a screening of the film in a theatre for friends and family in his community. It was only the second time he had seen the film. It was the first live audience to see the film. I wasn’t there so Roman is sending me his take on the night. As the filmmaker, his documentarian, his friend and sometime mentor, this video message he sent me has so much meaning to me. When i first met and started filming Roman, the hero of the story,  he started as a person troubled by the journey that lay ahead. He was younger and less worldly. I had the honour of watching him come of age. I filmed his process, however raw. At times I mentored him. At times I provoked him and even exploited him, as he was such a fascinating character and a willing subject. I was with him as he faced the fears that haunted him his whole life. I even helped orchestrate the mission and was at times the mastermind. There is nothing more satisfying than to watch the hero returning home from completing his journey to finally share his story with his community. This is a video documenting Roman healing from his mission and being set free. There is no more important audience to me for this film than the person I made it about. His critique is the only one that matters. Glad you enjoyed your movie Roman.