Going Once, Going Twice ...

New art collective The Artillery takes the auction to the scenesters

click to enlarge SOLD: Cherie Doughtie oversees the bidding on a piece by St. Pete artist Hugh Williams - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
SOLD: Cherie Doughtie oversees the bidding on a piece by St. Pete artist Hugh Williams

In novels and film, the art auction is always presented in the same way. It's a genteel, sedate affair, the nobility of which is cracked by gasps at some character's outlandish bid, then shattered by the pandemonium that follows. There's always a sense that some brash outsider has defied time-honored protocol, and that the inevitable result is chaos.

This scene is just one of the familiar images of a stuffy, snobby subculture that have long served to perpetuate the notion that one cannot be an art lover without also being an insufferable douche-bag. Lots of people know this is untrue, but lots more still avoid openings, exhibitions and auctions because a lifetime's worth of popular entertainment has suggested it's just not their thing.

And a lot of young artists doing accessible, enjoyable work - the sort of stuff that most of their music- and film-fanatic contemporaries would love, were they exposed to it - find themselves battling what isn't really an elitist, exclusionary institution, but rather the vague notion that such a thing exists.

So they band together in groups, and they take it to the streets, to the dive bars, to the coffee shops, to warehouse parties and independent restaurants, to anywhere they know their target audience is going to be.

Tonight, they're taking it to an atmospheric, Big Easy-esque breezeway on one of downtown St. Pete's most heavily traveled blocks.

"Our catchphrase is 'defining creative culture,'" says Chad Mize of a relatively new Bay area collective, The Artillery. "We just want to open up the community to emerging artists."

Mize, whose iconographic work has become quite popular with Bay area scenesters over the past couple of years - those are his lovely, lacquered pop-art portraits of Twiggy you've been seeing everywhere - cooked up The Artillery with his partner and fellow artist Phillip Clark last summer. The first show featuring the collective's original core of members, held early this year at St. Pete nightclub The Bank, was a rousing success.

This Saturday-evening shindig takes a somewhat different approach. Aimed at raising money for both the co-op and non-profit Creative Clay (which provides an artistic outlet for folks with various physical or emotional challenges), tonight's event combines a 10-artist exhibition with an auction of their work. Rows of folding chairs face a lectern emblazoned with The Artillery's cool bomb-and-bullseye logo; it's a nice, low-key take on one of the art world's most staid traditions.

Early on, things are looking more than a little iffy. Plenty of people cruise by the party outside the open wrought-iron gate at 243 Central Ave., but there's no sign inviting them through it, and only a handful of friends and strangers are hitting the cash bar, eyeing the bountiful snack spread or perusing the pieces hung on both of the breezeway's walls.

Lars Lucas, a stylish young social worker who helps with Artillery events in his spare time, is visibly worried about the turnout. "These guys put a lot of effort into bringing the pop scene to St. Petersburg," he says. "It's amazing that people can be so determined."

Lucas gushes about Chris Musina's bold, colorful, deceptively simple mix of animals and cultural commentary, and Ewelina Ferrusa's amazing blend of reality and surreality, before heading out to the sidewalk to try to bring in some new patrons.

"I've got no spiel," he worries.

But apparently he does have one, and it's working - before long, nearly enough folks have plunked down the five bucks for a paddle to fill all the seats. Cherie Doughtie takes to the lectern (her downtown boutique Cherie's Eklectika is a sponsor), and the bidding begins.

This isn't the movies, and thank God. Doughtie is an engagingly amateur auctioneer, joking, facetiously sweetening various lots with rebates and personal appearances by the artists, and more than once forgetting exactly how high the price for a particular item had risen.

She never has to beg for bids, however. Nobody in the crowd is rich, but they all want art, and several of the artists (and their companions) relax visibly as, between bouts of laughter and catcalls, the bids quickly and regularly rise into triple digits.

St. Petersburg Times music critic Gina Vivinetto somehow ends up briefly bidding against herself for Hugh Williams' warm, folk-art-meets-the-graphic-novel portrait of Chuck Berry. A large, extremely inebriated man barrels through pockets of onlookers toward Doughtie, asking loudly and continuously, "is that Sarah's thing? Is it Sarah's?" (Sarah Ellen Smith is one of the artists who donated two works to the auction.)

Mixed-media artist Jacob Arden McClure is basically forced by Doughtie and his friends to get up and explain the inspiration for one of his pieces (something about Elvis Costello); the canvas goes to Bay area film- and art-scene supporter Margaret Murray for $275, one of the auction's highest prices. Chad Mize's blaxploitation icon Roxy fetches an impressive $210.

Then, a burst of hoots and applause, and it's over. People mill about, meeting the artists and explaining to Clark that yes, they do have $200 - well, no, not on them, but they can come by and pay cash on Monday. Every piece in the auction has sold; for an event whose outcome looked distinctly uncertain at its outset, the Artillery Auction closes a success.

"It's more about interaction than anything," says Mize of the auction format. "It gives people something to do other than drinking and walking around. It makes them part of the event."

And there was even a genuine movie moment: the first time somebody jumped far ahead of a current bid to over $100.

With gasps and chaos and everything.

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