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A grab bag of art shows plays Santa to the masses 

By Traci Vogel
Wednesday December 16, 2009

If you have always wanted to start an art collection, this is your season. The shopping gods have deemed December the month when galleries and artsy boutiques offer, in the words of various press releases, "small work installations," "affordable art," and "bargains." Instead of its usual cold shoulder, the art world in winter cuddles up to crowd-pleasing. Suddenly everyone is a conceivable Charles Saatchi, even if they haven't got a ha'penny and their collection consists of inch-high paintings, postcard collages, and T-shirts.

At their current show, "Toys Don't Cry," artists Sandra Wang and Crockett Bodelson (aka S.C.U.B.A.) get small. The tiny paintings — most are about 3 inches square, on foamcore — start at $30. If that's not cheap enough for you, try catching Wang and Bodelson at one of their Sunday sidewalk sales on Hayes Street, and you might snag a piece for a double sawbuck. The artists have adapted to their bantam canvases by employing avian brushstrokes and bright colors. Aquamarine robots pose against magenta backdrops; a yellow city rises in loaflike domes; a pint-sized family lives in a transparent house. Despite its postage-stamp size, the artwork is in no way limited or spare. Whimsy and wit broaden its boundaries; the best pieces suggest a storyline, like illustrations without captions.

S.C.U.B.A. aficionados sometimes purchase 10 or more paintings at a time, Bodelson says, creating an instant art collection. He and Wang have been replacing the pieces regularly during the current show, so purchasers can take the works home immediately.

If your budget lacks even a ha'penny, you'll find like-minded types at the Non*Mart Holiday Stop & Swap, a barter-based art exchange on Saturday, Dec. 19. Non*Mart founders Kathryn Kenworth and Sasha Petrenko offer works by Johnna Arnold, Lauren Davies, Sean Olson, Naomi Vanderkindren, and others, all acquirable through a "simple barter system." Artists keep a "tradebook" that details items or services they'd be willing to exchange for their art, and offers are pitched silently, through writing.

Kenworth and Petrenko hope that Non*Mart functions as a kind of performance art all on its own, prompting consumers to question their relationship to commerce — an especially salient angle to take during the holiday season. The interaction with the artist and uncomfortable questions of value may end up being just as provocative as the artwork.

  You can acquire artwork at Non*Mart, but you won't need to pay any money to do so.

You can acquire artwork at Non*Mart, but you won't need to pay any money to do so.

There are no angles or themes at White Walls' "Winter Group Show," just a huge selection of work by well-known and up-and-coming artists such as Mike Shine, Rich Jacobs, AJ Fosik, and Henry Gunderson. You'll find paintings, mixed media, and sculpture by more than 30 artists, all from the middle to the deep end of the collecting pool (i.e., more than a few ha'pennies). Among the standouts are Katy Horan's folksy drawings and paintings, which project a pleasing sense of spiritual calm, and Kevin Cyr's portraits of vans, which stick gorgeously to street-level realism. White Walls is known for blurring the contemporary art categories of low- and highbrow, which means there's bound to be something here for everyone.

If these December sales prove one thing, it's that art priced toward the masses doesn't have to be mass-produced or dull, and art collecting doesn't have to be constrained or stuffy. Ending the year by starting a collection is an expression of hope, no matter how small.