Eddie Breen, The Paint Machine
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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
Ah, the biking. Twenty years ago, Sammartano pedaled across
the country. With a 71-year-old blind man. On a tandem
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
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
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.
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
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."