THE LIFE, WORK AND CHRONICLES OF JEFF KOYEN: REFORMED ITINERANT, OCCASIONAL WRITER AND FRIEND TO ALMOST ALL DOGS

 

Eddie Breen, The Paint Machine
"If you're a regular artist, you've gone through art school and all that, I think it's kind of anathema to paint on somebody else's hard-painted painting. But I don't have any such inhibitions, not knowing my ass from my elbow. I can just do it."
Eddie Breen speaks from experience. In the last two years, he's produced some 280 paintings, and sold 90 percent of them online. Every one of them was once someone else's hard-painted painting: He takes thrift-store canvasses and paints over them. More often than not, his themes are religious, sometimes blasphemous, almost always humorous. The paintings are splashed with madhouse phrases and slogans scribbled in the rough, scattered hand of a backwoods crackpot. For his fans who bid against each other on eBay, Breen is a naive artist, wobbling between the territories of outsider, folk and visionary.
Eddie Breen isn't the first such artist to see his work fly off the digital walls. Search "outsider art" on eBay and face more than seven hundred returns, some the real thing, others simply using the term to attract the bees. But there's something peculiar about him. Maybe it's his work; maybe it's the joy he seems to get from that work. A Yahoo! Pick of the Week described him as an "online auction phenomenon," and his website (eddiebreen.com, naturally) was a pass-along URL among the fringe websters about a year ago.
Commercially and, perhaps, even artistically, Eddie Breen is a raging success, destined for more media exposure in the coming months. Problem is, strictly speaking, Eddie Breen doesn't exist.
 
According to the directions, the house will be pink. A pink house seems the perfect eccentric affectation for an artist who includes among his work's themes, "god, demons, ministers, nuns, aliens, flame people, skull ladies and sex." But near to this one pink house, there are lots of other pink houses. And some yellow houses, and greens and blues. A pink house, it turns out, is not all that unusual in these suburbs.
They live in an historical landmark house in a quaint town half an hour north of Boston: 44-year old Chris Sammartano, his wife, Ann, and their 19-month-old son, Cooper. They operate a successful business here, scouting locations for photo shoots and lining up behind-the-scenes talent. This affords them the warm, welcoming furniture and folksy art on the walls. They've got one of those stainless steel refrigerators and a chrome blender on the countertop. The hardwood floors are gorgeous, worn. The living room is comfortably filled with toddler clutter.
Upstairs, in the attic, there are hidden piles of thrift-store paintings. Inside a tiny studio on the second floor, a smaller pile, an easel and a basket of paints. There are two computers--one Mac, one PC--and a crown of plastic bones with a webcam attachˆd with mailing tape. This is where Chris Sammartano dons that crown and finds his inspiration to become the painter and Internet phenomenon Eddie Breen.
"It's like Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens," Sammartano explains. "Who are you going be? Writers do this all the time, and it's considered fun. But if you're an artist, then, 'What are you trying to hide?'"
Technically speaking, Sammartano has never claimed that Eddie Breen was a real person. He's always admitted that "Eddie Breen" is a brush name, and when people buy a painting, they knowingly send money to Chris Sammartano. He says flatly, for the record, that he's not now, nor ever has been, trying to put anything over on anyone.
But the record is a little shaky on that: Eddie Breen may not be the artist's real name, but the vague biography on the website kinda-sorta-almost implies that the person holding the brush could be a crackpot genius painting somewhere in the American backwoods. "Eddie would probably be merely a local eccentric if not for the Internet," the site speculates. For other artists, this might not be a problem. But Breen is successful in the "outsider," "folk" and "visionary" circles, where definitions and terms are held to be sacred, if only because they can directly influence the value of the artwork in question. Participants in these circles are certainly allowed to conduct their business--and it is a big business, trading in this art--but a lot of different people have a lot of different ideas regarding the proper use of the terms of the trade.
While Sammartano respects (and even collects) the work of naive artists, he has little patience for the arguments about Breen's place in that world. "If you write a book, you read the book. It's what the book is. You read a book in the airport, you read the book, and it's a good book or it sucks because of the writing, because of the art of it. But with a painting, there's this whole mystic bullshit thing that's all tied up. It's almost like art as religion [and] I feel like I'm shouting fire in the church. Fuck this shit."
One would like to think that one's work can stand on its own merits, but that's a bit naive itself. Terms are very important in the art world, especially a segment of the art world--vaporous though it may be--conducting much of its commerce on eBay. Like it or not, pedigree becomes important every time value is attached to art, and perhaps more so in the world of naive artists.
Sammartano is not unrealistic on this point. He concedes that "if you have to tag [Eddie] for their purposes," then he's a visionary, a term defined by and for Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum as "art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself." But he expands: "I was more comfortable with the 'outsider' thing the first year, when I really couldn't paint as well as any of them. But now that I've had a little bit of self-training, who knows? It just depends on whose definition you want to use."
In order to "attract eyeballs" to Eddie's work, he attached the tag "outsider" to his first eBay auctions. "All my things were listed 'outsider outsider outsider' and 'folk art folk art folk art,' but now in the past year, I've been doing 'piggyback art' or 'weird muscleman art,' or just weird shit for whatever reason. One time I did 'aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrtttttttttttttttttttttt eddie breen.'"
He knows that, these days, "eddie breen" is likely to draw the most eyeballs.
He still uses "outsider," just not as frequently. As would be expected, Breen receives e-mails that harangue him about this. "Whatever, man. It comes right back to that label thing. It's like I am whoever the hell you want me to be. I am painting paintings. I coined 'piggyback art.' That's what I call myself. Unfortunately, nobody's going to look for that in a search engine yet. So I've got to have something more related to the art world I can funnel people with."
"Piggyback art" is his coinage for what he does, as are "conglom," "improved art" and "reworks." "I've always admired that guy who made up the term rock 'n' roll," he reveals with a grin. "And I always thought, even if this whole [Breen] thing folds tomorrow, if there's a whole movement of 'piggyback art,' everyone starts doing it, and it's in all the books, [then] I could be walking around cocktail parties saying 'Yes, I coined piggyback art. That was my creative brainstorm.'"
 
Years ago, while working as a bike messenger in Boston, Sammartano began inserting sketches of bass fish into those certificate holders you find in older elevators. He put up a couple hundred, and eventually became known as "Bassman" in the messenger circles.
"I'd have my own little galleries, my own confined space where people would have to look at them." One time he went into a photographer's studio to deliver a package, and there were three of his sketches on the guy's desk. "People were collecting them." This minor episode of guerrilla artistry was his first experiment with "art" as a means by which society can be affected, even on a minor scale, by art presented in plain view, without all the conventional middlemen and filters.
His second experiment, many years later, was badart.com, a web-based gallery of thrift-store paintings curated by the fictional Vito Salvatore (his first experiment with alterego). Badart.com was wildly successful, and remains a more important online presence than even the website for the Museum of Bad Art. One day, while adding to his collection of bad paintings, Sammartano was inspired by a painting of a Marshfield, MA church. "I just started seeing things in it... I was just inspired, I guess, to get some paints, which I hadn't done before." The finished painting proclaims that "Lions eat Christians in Marshfield while Jesus weeps," and features a childlike rendering of Christ's face overlooking hungry lions chomping on His flock.
"The Marshfield one was first. Then...I was fooling around with [others], and, basically, I was--just for the fun of it--creating a character of myself. Not myself, but an alter-ego thing. So that's where I went with the Eddie Breen thing."
Some bad paintings weren't "funny enough to put on my site. They're just kind of blah paintings. They were a buck, so I bought them, and tried to think of something [to do] with them, but it didn't click. And I thought, you know, these would be really cool if you did this or that or the other thing with them, so I started."
That was 280 paintings ago.
Ask Sammartano about Breen's popularity, and he brings up the old saw about locking an infinite number of monkeys in a room, each with its own typewriter and plenty of ribbon. One, so it goes, will eventually yield a Shakespeare. "I feel like that one lucky monkey," he says modestly.
Two hundred and forty paintings sold via eBay for upwards of $100 each. That's at least $24,000. "Compared to what I make in my regular job," he's quick to say, "it's not that much... It's not even like a job. It's like I get money for my hobbies. I go through these hobby obsessions. For a while I was really into biking."
Ah, the biking. Twenty years ago, Sammartano pedaled across the country. With a 71-year-old blind man. On a tandem bike.
And then there was bass fishing. Then offshore fishing. Skiing for a while. Then guitar collecting. "I have all these things I get wrapped into. I go into it, and they always cost me huge amounts of money... All things: money's out, money's going out. This is the first one where money is coming in. So I'm more inclined to stick with it."
Not to disparage bass fishermen, but this also seems to be more of a creative outlet for someone who obviously has a bubbling, active mind. "It's much more satisfying. It's actually something that taps into something deep about me that has always been there...and now it's a way for me to let things out, let loose."
Breen collectors obviously appreciate it. A rancher in Texas has bought "six or eight" of them, making him one of Eddie's best customers. When prompted for a comment on his growing collection, the Texan sent an e-mail explaining, rather tongue-in-cheek, that he "never had a square job...no Social Security or Medicare or pension or anything coming." His Breen collection is his retirement nest egg.
Sammartano appreciates the support and the humor, and he respects his fans. "Most of the people who buy my stuff, now anyway, they're people who never looked at art, [or not] in a long time. People who passed through all this art, and they wouldn't think of buying a painting. You look at who's actually buying this stuff: a Texas rancher is buying my stuff... Why's a Texas rancher buying my stuff?"
Here's why, in the words of that rancher's wife, in a postscript to Eddie from that e-mail (the painting in question revolves around a leprechaun in prison): "Green Greed is going to be my painting. My father was an old leprechaun from New Bedford Massachusetts, and although he never went to prison...the painting spoke to me nonetheless."
These ranchers, like a lot of Breen fans, are buying the works because they actually like them. This talk about having a valuable Breen collection for retirement is just for kicks, or maybe a touch of wishful thinking. If the culturally aware working class and the struggling artist really are made for each other, then eBay is the great gallery of the masses.
 
Worst case: Sammartano conceived of "Eddie Breen" as a prank, as a gag to make fun of the whole "outsider art" movement. His paintings have all the characteristics of a good "visionary": primitive execution, bold sloganism, religious themes. He has the right origins to navigate the art world: his father was an art professor at Salem State College, and his wife has an art degree. So if this is the case, then it's a long-term, subtle prank. Maintaining a meticulous catalog on the website, posting frequent dispatches to fans, managing a busy auction schedule, even opening up his home and family to reporters--that's an awful lot of effort and energy to make a statement that has already been made on The Simpsons.
If Sammartano were, say, a thirtysome DUMBO waiter with a struggling-artist chip on his shoulder, you'd rightly dismiss his work wholesale. Instead, he simply seems to enjoy being Eddie Breen. Though he's self-aware and self-promoting, it doesn't rub the wrong way. In person, he's a solid guy, intelligent and charming, a little goofy around the edges. There's obviously a touch of performer in him, and there's a well-intentioned thirst for fame. But with Sammartano--or, in this case, Breen--that's actually refreshing, and certainly no worse than the egocentrism of any other artist. The fact is, Eddie Breen is Chris Sammartano's new bass fishing, and it may only last until he gets bored and finds a new hobby.
Honesty has everything to do with it. Someone who's not skilled is inclined to paint something just as honestly as they know how to. You notice that in the expressions on Breen faces, for instance. Breen wasn't trained to know that eyes fall at the halfway point of the head. "I don't want it to look [proper]. I can draw a head that doesn't have an eye popping out on a
stalk. But I like doing it that way. They are
cartoonish."
He also enjoys the process of painting, not just the end result. He's tickled by the improvement that's evident when you compare his first paintings to his current work. "Now you'd call that pretty much untrained art, wouldn't you?" pointing at a photo of the Marshfield painting. "Now I've been painting for a couple years. So where does that leave me? It got me to thinking about other stuff. You look at some of these guys, these people who do the primitive art, the naive art, the folk art. How many years have they been painting? Why am I getting better? And why are these guys the same? It's cool-looking stuff, don't get me wrong, but are they just trying to stay that way?"
Good question. How does a popular naive artist maintain integrity? Can an untrained artist who was once painting for the right reasons--pure reasons, if you would--continue to produce more work under the watchful eyes of hungry buyers? For Sammartano, maybe because he does seem so sincere, there's no conflict. He freely admits that he'd like to see Eddie's work exposed to even more people.
"Frankly, I think that people who say, 'Oh, how can you try to make money?' and 'You're prostituting, this promotion is a dirty thing, it's sullying your art,' I think it's a bunch of crap. As far as I'm concerned, anybody in New York who's hustling from gallery to gallery, or who's trying to get into a gallery, or trying to have their stuff seen, is promoting themselves."
Eddie Breen is at a crossroads, stuck in the middle in some ways. Sammartano knows it. "[Outsider] is not where I really consider myself anymore. Although, I'll tell you one thing: the people on the 'inside' don't consider me an 'insider.' Go to a Chelsea gallery, and they'll go 'Huh? That guy? He's not one of us!' In fact, you go to the little local Newburyport Art Association: 'Huh? He's not one of us!' These other artists around here, they kinda look at me, they think, 'Is he looking at my painting? Does he want to do something to my painting?'"
Can an artist self-promote to this extent and still be an artist? Can an artist voluntarily adopt the label of "outsider," yet auction off his own paintings on eBay?
The man behind the brush is the first to admit that the lines between the product and process are anything but clear. For example, he's currently engaged in a postcard campaign, targeting everyone he can think of in the art world. "I send postcards to the faculty of colleges, of art history departments. And I'm also sending out cards to museums, to curators." To what end? "I want people to know who I am. I don't care if you buy my paintings. You can hate me, you can love me. Whatever. It's an experiment in impinging on the national consciousness. I'm trying to insinuate myself in a new way."
If attention paid outside of the Internet is any indication, then the consciousness is starting to take note. Last month, the Boston Globe ran a story about Sammartano-as-Breen, and just this week, the Rhode Island School of Design hosted him on a panel to discuss selling art on the Internet. Can Eddie Breen, as the idealized, artistic alter ego of Chris Sammartano, survive and continue his work in the public eye?
At his recent showing in a gallery in Provincetown, MA, Sammartano appeared in person as Eddie. He was able to walk and talk the part because he is Eddie. But that's one opening in a small town. Can Eddie Breen survive in the larger public eye?
The answer doesn't seem to concern Sammartano very much. He's not planning to paint full-time, and the money he earns is, one suspects, just payback for all those derailers, tackle boxes and guitars. "It's idea-driven art," he says, "and we'll see what happens with it... [The] goal in my paintings [is] to make it not ho-hum, to make a connection. And also just to make myself laugh. Because let's face it, these are big cartoons on canvas. That's what it is: a big cartoon. I don't have any high-falutin' ideas... Christ, no. I'm just Eddie Breen, the paint machine."