Caveat Vendor

A converted cigarette machine peddles a new addiction: Miniature art

The art varies wildly. Quality Individuals, the Ghanaian group, makes tiny bronze sculptures that reflect the collision of African and Western culture: sculptures like a Walkman, a crashed Volkswagen, and a refrigerator complete with shelves and a swinging door. Other works are far more conceptual: A box might contain four poems rolled into a scroll; a Web address and password that allow the buyer to download art; or even a palm-sized paper bag wrapped in cellophane.

Sometimes the art is shocking: An R-rated series titled "Cemetery Girl" mixes blood and full-frontal nudity. Other times it's shockingly mainstream: The moon-and-stars blocks by Sarah Whittington are downright cute, the sort of thing you might see at Bed Bath & Beyond. (Sarah, it turns out, is Clark's mom.)

Right now Houston artists fill about a third of the Whole Foods Art-o-mat slots, and their work sells better than the out-of-towners' -- a matter of some pride for Chris. His own stuff occupies the top left-hand slot. "Olivier/computer prints with magnets," says the two-inch square under his knob; Chris made the square himself using Photoshop, and used similar computer smarts to print little photos of his larger paintings, classical subjects like angels jolted with bright modern pinks and greens. He laminated the printouts and stuck a magnet on back: refrigerator-ready.

At $5 a pop, sometimes you get what you pay for with the Art-o-mat.
Deron Neblett
At $5 a pop, sometimes you get what you pay for with the Art-o-mat.

In a similar vein, Denise Ramos made little photos of her large abstract paintings and glued them to magnets. But Denise is a series painter, so her magnet-paintings came five to a box, with instructions explaining precisely how the series should be installed on your refrigerator door.

Instead of offering miniature photos of her paintings, Patricia Hernandez made tiny original works for the vending machine. She had previously painted a series of abstracted mouths, 14-inch by 20-inch canvases that sold for $600 apiece. For the Art-o-mat, she made scaled-down versions on canvases stretched across tiny pieces of wood. When Patricia delivered the first batch to DiverseWorks, the art space's staff pounced on the bargain, buying half before they could be loaded into the Art-o-mat. Paul didn't think that was fair. The next time she had a batch, he asked her to meet him at Whole Foods. That time, all the paintings made it into the machine.

Patrick Phipps didn't have to shrink his work to fit. To amuse his friends, he draws mini-comic books with names like Teen Draculas vs. Frankenbot. Normally he Xeroxes about 15 copies of each title; but when DiverseWorks asked for an Art-o-mat contribution, he simply ran off a few extra. If pressed, Patrick will explain that his characters represent different facets of his psyche. But how deeply can you analyze a character who shouts, "Holy bowel movement!"?

I asked people why they thought the mack daddy outsold other Art-o-mats. Clark, ever the polite Southerner, praised DiverseWorks and Whole Foods. Patrick, the comic-book artist, credited the funk aesthetic that thrives in Houston, where barriers between high and low art seem to melt.

Patrick had a point, I thought. And at Whole Foods, "high" and "low" seem even more beside the point. All things converge, blended as thoroughly as a $3.69 smoothie. Sixties ideals mix with eighties materialism, whole wheat righteousness and dark chocolate sensuality. Every product declares a philosophy: The baby lettuces are organic; the milk hormone-free; the Riesling a sign of a cultivated palate.

Art? Just another impulse purchase, another way to tell yourself who you are.

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