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The Painter Subverting Art-World Economics, $100 at a Time

I have always collected art, but I’ve never been an art collector — which I define broadly to mean someone who can buy original pieces without profound financial discomfort. The stuff on my walls has what a serious collector would consider dubious provenance. For instance: a glazed ceramic tile that I bought off the floor of a Moroccan carpet emporium; a wooden tiger mask from an antiques dealer; a postcard I found at the flea market. The times I’ve tried to acquire quote-​unquote real art have almost universally ended in humiliation. The other day, I learned about a fascinating Azerbaijani textile maker and wrote to his gallerist to request a price for a particular decorative carpet. She messaged back to say that this piece was a “small classic,” at the low end of his range: just $22,000.

I can appreciate that beauty has monetary value, particularly for the one and only example of a particular exquisiteness. Someone spent time making it, and that person should be compensated. But even modest artworks can be out of reach for almost anyone who’s not a real estate mogul, shipping magnate, stockbroker or oil baron. Under the sanctimonious cover of “arts patronage,” these plutocrats use art to launder their money, trading up the value of young artists and enriching one another in the process. The artists, meanwhile, get paid only once, on the initial sale. The end result is a carpet that costs as much as a Honda Civic.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Out in Vancouver, the painter Jean Smith is quietly subverting art-world economics, $100 at a time.

Smith spent the 1990s scraping by in the Pacific Northwest’s riot-grrrl scene, sharing bills with Bikini Kill as part of a nervy duo called Mecca Normal. When the music industry collapsed at the turn of the century, Smith was forced to take a series of day jobs. For a while she made her living watering plants in the garden center of her local Home Depot. Needless to say, this was not the artist’s life of her dreams. So one impulsive day in 2016, at age 56, she cast off her orange apron and decided to become a painter.

Every year for most of her life, Smith had painted an annual self-portrait. Now she turned her attention outward and set about making an arresting series of 11-by-14-inch acrylic portraits based on photographs of strangers that she saw on the internet. Almost all were women. A majority were somehow transgressive — they looked sad or high or embalmed or deranged, or appeared to have been caught in a thunderstorm. They had raccoon eyes and buck teeth, or trapezoidal faces, or, if they were conventionally beautiful (and some were), they gazed off the canvas with the ache of a young Marianne Faithfull. They rarely laughed. They rarely smiled.

Unlike most portraits, especially the ones men tend to paint of women, these were not made to be looked upon. The subjects were equal partners in the looking. You stared at them and they stared back. Smith’s women seemed to have rich interior lives and sometimes wore uniforms to indicate what they were doing before you, the viewer, so rudely interrupted. They might be aviators in the Amelia Earhart mode, complete with flight goggles. Or perhaps scuba divers, suited up for a plunge. Or merciless nurses, dressed in starched whites, presumably pocketing your morphine.

Opting not to use a gallery, Smith listed each of her works on Facebook for the ludicrously low price of $100. She could certainly charge more, but the egalitarian price is the point. It’s her version of the $5 tickets Fugazi used to sell to its all-ages shows — and anyway, she has never needed much to survive. For the past quarter-century, she has lived alone and monastically in an apartment without a sofa or kitchen table (she eats off a filing cabinet), and her monthly expenses, including rent and utilities, total about $1,000. She only needs to sell 10 pieces per month to break even — though that has never been her problem.

The problem is painting fast enough to satiate her followers, because the portraits she makes every day typically sell within five minutes of her posting them online. Some collectors have bought dozens of pieces, displaying them together in a sisterhood of melancholy. One woman in Oregon amassed 250 before Smith had to politely ask her to stop hoarding. In four years doing it the hard way, Smith has set aside $200,000 to put toward starting a progressively minded artists’ residency. All artistic disciplines are welcome. The only rule is that everyone’s project must intend to change the world.

I consider myself lucky to own two of Smith’s paintings. I love them both, but what I love even more is what they represent: the utopian notion that anyone on Earth with an internet connection can make a living as an artist; that anyone with a hundred bucks can own a thrilling piece of original art — and that these two things don’t have to be in conflict. For once, social media is helping a creative economy be more equitable. The artist earns what she wishes to earn, with plenty left over to give away. And for less than it would cost to frame a dorm-room poster, you can have a daily encounter with the sublime.

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