But what if an artist seeks — nay, demands — obscurity? That’s the premise of Dan Gilroy’s contemporary art world satire-cum-horror, in which the dying wish of a hermit painter is ignored and his works fed into the hungry mouth of the market instead of being destroyed.
Zawe Ashton (Josephina) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Morf) in “Velvet Buzzsaw” as conspiring cogs in the art world machine. Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix
When gallery associate Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers a stash of paintings by newly-deceased neighbor Vitril Dease, she brings them to Vanderwalt for appraisal. They’re “visionary; mesmeric,” he claims, sparking a buying frenzy from which Josephina, her boss Rhodora (Rene Russo) and a motley crew of LA art bubble stereotypes all plan to get filthy rich.
The spirit of Dease has other ideas, however, and conducts murderous revenge through his art. Hands reach out from inside picture frames, paintings self-combust; galleries swallow victims whole. And there’s myriad real-world inspirations lurking behind it all.
A section of “Realms of the Unreal” by Henry Darger, the American outsider artist whose life story shares parallels with the fictional Vitril Dease. Credit: Wellspring/Everett Co
Gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) assesses a Dease in “Velvet Buzzsaw.” Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix
To create the Dease collection, Bissell said Gilroy hired art advisor David Hundley, who worked with digital artist Saxon Brice to conceptualize the works, before fellow artist Alexander Panov painted the designs on canvas. “Of course, (Dease’s) artwork is a MacGuffin,” Bissell argued. “It has to look like it represents a tortured soul, but it can’t really be too powerful, because (it) can’t really be about Dease’s art. It’s got to be about these characters and the way they interact with it.”
Not so fast. Bissell, quite pragmatically, said his team “tried as much as possible to find our own visual language” and noted that “especially with living artists (and) recent artists, we have to be extraordinarily careful … (Art is) not only a highly-commodified industry right now, it’s a highly-litigious one.” Nevertheless, influences abound.
“Man in Blue VI” (Francis Bacon, 1954). Production designer Jim Bissell says the artist proved an inspiration, and “we started doing effects on (the Dease pieces) like the blurred heads, à la Bacon.” Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
There’s further potential allusions in the film to Bruno Amadio and Bill Stoneham, both of whom produced 20th century works some claim to be haunted.
A painting of “The Crying Boy” by Bruno Amadio/Giovanni Bragolin, c.1950s outside an antique shop in Edinburgh. Credit: Alan Wilson/Alamy Stock Photo
Prints of Amadio’s kitsch paintings of crying boys, signed “Giovanni Bragolin,” were blamed for multiple house fires in the UK by tabloid newspaper The Sun in the 1980s. Known as “The Curse of the Crying Boy,” while homes burned the painting would reportedly remain unscathed. In “Velvet Buzzsaw” it is Dease himself who survives a suspicious house fire as a boy.
“The Hands Resist Him” (Bill Stoneham, 1972) became an online sensation when it was listed for sale on eBay in 2000. Credit: courtesy Darren Kyle O’Neill
Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich as two artists at different stages of their careers, awed by Dease in “Velvet Buzzsaw.” Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix
Bissell said the psychology behind good art is moving enough without supernatural interference. “If it’s powerful art, there comes a point when the mechanisms of our ego dissolve and we start to lose ourselves into the art. That’s a particularly vulnerable point for anyone’s psyche,” he explained.
“It’s that psychological state that we were trying to mimic: where your ego and your perception see something as a work of art, or see it as artificially created, but suddenly it starts to turn real.”
“Velvet Buzzsaw” makes this sensation all very literal. “Before the sublime, the whole body quivers,” a buyer says breathlessly, taking in a Dease. Forty-five minutes later she’s dead, lost to the art. Perhaps she should have heeded the warning signs.