As nice as it is to have a painful rumination on mortality by a blue-chip artist hanging on your wall, sometimes a drawing of Grumpy Cat as the Mona Lisa by an unknown local can bring just as much enjoyment. If you’re after the former, catch a flight to Art Basel in Miami and pray that you’re important enough for one of David Zwirner’s cronies to sell you something. If you’re after the latter, hop a bus to Hot Art Wet City at 2206 Main Street in Mount Pleasant, and Chris Bentzen will sort you out. No Black Card or name-dropping required.
Hot Art Wet City is the culmination of Bentzen curating and producing a decade’s worth of lowbrow art events around Vancouver. “Fun and accessible, that’s pretty much what it comes down to,” says the 39-year-old gallerist during the final days of Toys, a group show devoted to Kid Robot–esque collectibles. “I keep trying to remind myself that I’m trying to build a community here.”
A year after an art show of his own work in 2003, which included buttons as a medium, Bentzen partnered with Jim Hoehnle to launch Hot One Inch Action. The concept was simple: get a lot of artists to submit their work, print it on one-inch buttons, and sell random grab bags of them for a couple of bucks. Then get everyone drinking, socializing, and trading them. It was a hit.
“It just kept going. People were excited about it so we just kept doing it and kept doing it,” recalls Bentzen, whose earlobes are stretched nearly as big as one of those buttons. “People wanted it to happen more often.”
After coming across a listing on Craigslist that was too tempting to pass on, he snapped up the space and Hot Art Wet City opened its doors last April. Since its inception, it has hosted a slew of amusingly lowbrow shows, including May LaForge Be With You, a paean to Star Trek and Star Wars; Teenage Wasteland, a showcase of cringe-inducing work that artists made when they were teenagers; and Boobies & Wieners, an exploration of body image and identity in the postdigital age. (Just kidding: it was mostly funny pictures of tits and dicks.)
Looking ahead at the slate of shows in early 2014, there’s Typo, a group show of type-based work, and Ugh!, a historically inaccurate exhibition of caveman- and dinosaur-inspired art.
“A friend of mine was in Clan of the Cave Bear when he was a kid, with Daryl Hannah. He was the kid and the product of her rape in that movie,” Bentzen says of the group show’s curious inspiration. “He’s a very hairy and large man. He’s going to be the special guest for that. Hopefully, he’ll be wearing a loincloth and enjoying his celebrity.”
Walk by one of these shows on the opening night and you might mistake the gallery for a packed bar—group shows that sometimes have upward of 80 artists participating tend to be like that. However, it’s not just friends and family of the artists attending. Even erudite regulars from galleries along Granville or Great Northern Way are showing up at Hot Art Wet City’s raucous openings.
“It’s something different than what they’re used to seeing. They like that energy of the opening nights because it’s a bit more exciting than Granville Street stuff,” Bentzen hypothesizes, then adds: “For some of them, it’s a little much; we’re serving wine out of boxes and in plastic cups.”
The work on display pairs well pricewise with the wine. You can likely cop an original piece for $200 to $500, and Bentzen doesn’t plan to change this anytime soon.
“I’d like to keep it local and cheap, so there’s that opportunity for artists, new artists especially, to get their work out there, but also for audiences who aren’t really used to buying expensive art,” he says from behind the gallery’s front desk, with Andrea Hooge’s portraits of Walter and Donny from The Big Lebowski hanging overhead and really tying the room together. “It’s a cool little opportunity to be that steppingstone so they can go into a higher-end gallery and go, ‘Okay, I get it,’ and feel comfortable spending more.”
Regardless of whether you’re trying to unload a $280 drawing of Grumpy Cat as the Mona Lisa by Clare Zhao or a $28,000 C-print of Abbott and Cordova by Stan Douglas, selling art is no easy task.
“I wouldn’t recommend it. That’s also why I host other events here—comedy shows, workshops, and stuff like that. If I was trying to make a living off of selling art, it would not work.”
While Grumpy Cat still awaits a buyer, there have been some successes at Hot Art Wet City so far. A homoerotic portrait by Laura McIntosh of Prof. Albus Dumbledore embracing a chiselled Harry Potter, who is sporting a massive erect, er, wand, is hanging on someone’s wall and creeping out all who visit its lucky owner’s home. Let’s hope Bentzen succeeds in building a community of perverts and weirdos who are into hanging hot art like that on their walls.