Caveat Vendor

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I drop my first $5 token into the Art-o-mat, pull one of the yellowed knobs, and ker-chunk: My selection hits the bottom of the machine. My prize is a beat-up block of gray wood, wrapped in cellophane and precisely the size of a pack of cigarettes. On it, Dolen Smith has written in a scary script and even scarier spelling:

SCAR #64

I cut the webbing of my left hand between the thumb and the forfinger with a yellow exacto knife. I took seven stitches. Self inflicted wound.

I drop in another token and pull the knob under Laura Lark's name. Ker-chunk: another cellophane-wrapped prize, this one in a little white box. On its front is glued a shrunken Xerox copy of a book cover: How to Photograph Women. Under the title, a bikini babe beams for the camera. Inside the box, there are two more Xerox pages from the same book. The text for Figure 18A instructs the would-be cheesecake photographer that "the lens should be even with, or lower, than the boobs." And then there's the niftiest bit: On a rectangle of shrinky-dink plastic, Lark has rendered yet another of the book's illustrations as a line drawing. "Beverly" stands knee-high in some ocean, smiling as she lowers her bathing suit's top.

I insert a third token, and this time pull the knob labeled "Bronzes by the Quality Individuals." The token clatters to the bottom of the machine. I retrieve it, plunk it back into the coin slot, pull the lever, and…


I jiggle the Art-o-mat. I try to jiggle gently; the cigarette machine looks like a relic from the '50s, and I don't want to hurt it.

"You lost your money?" asks a smoothie-drinking woman behind me.

"Looks like it," I say.

"You smoke?" she asks. Meaning: How dare you score a nicotine fix here in Whole Foods, Kirby Drive's temple of organic produce?

"It's art," I say. I start to show her my treasures, then stop, sure that neither would improve her opinion of me. Instead, I wave toward the machine's nifty sign, the display on its top and its box of DiverseWorks brochures.

"Oh, art!" she says. I am redeemed; all is forgiven. What could be more wholesome than art? I smile and hide the evidence in my purse.

A day later, Paul Arensmeyer and Chris Olivier open the Art-o-mat for corrective surgery. Chris diagnoses the problem: a cardboard Quality Individuals box fell strangely, smashed itself and jammed the machine.

"So the heavy side goes in back?" Paul asks. "Or heavy in front?"

"Front," says Chris.

Paul looks abashed. A DiverseWorks volunteer, he's the machine's main caretaker, and stops by Whole Foods at least twice a week to restock. Chris, an artist with work in the Art-o-mat, baby-sat it over Christmas while Paul was away.

The store's customer service desk keeps both their home numbers handy for such breakdowns. Age has made the machine crotchety, a temperament worsened perhaps by the large number of people who continue to yank its knobs.

Since '97, Clark Whittington, father of the Art-o-mat, has installed roughly 20 of the machines across the country. That's "roughly" because Clark loses count: There's one at the Whitney Museum of American Art, another at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and a bunch scattered at cafes, hospitals and community-college art departments. In his hometown, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he's installed eight, including one at Wellspring Grocery, the local equivalent of Whole Foods. But the Houston Art-o-mat out-vends all eight of the Winston-Salem machines combined. Since it arrived at Whole Foods in November, it's sold almost 600 works. "The mack daddy," Clark calls it.

He means that purely as praise: The Art-o-mat is designed for high volume. But the vending machine is also supposed to be fun, to draw attention to artists and to generate money for charity. And that's about it.

In conversation, Clark doesn't get mired in philosophical questions. Do the low prices and small sizes somehow demean art? Are Art-o-mats a commentary on mechanization? An end run around the gallery system? Or simply a cute twist on the ol' museum gift shop? What does it mean that the machines used to sell cigarettes? Is an Art-o-mat a rehabilitated death machine? Or is it purveying a substance as sneakily addictive as tobacco? And does an Art-o-mat in the Whitney mean something different from one in Whole Foods?

Clark prefers to talk about concrete stuff: how he finds old cigarette machines on eBay; how he's got 11 in his basement, waiting to be rehabbed; how he's got a lead on a beauty in West Virginia. He's delighted that at some places, like the Andy Warhol Museum, the Art-o-mat is treated as an exhibit, while at others, like the Whitney, it falls under the retail department.

Clark foresees Art-o-mats spreading across the nation; he figures he'll spend the rest of his life taking care of them. "Change is inevitable," he writes on www.artomat.org. "Except from vending machines."

While the Whole Foods Art-o-mat is open, Paul and Chris restock it. Paul has brought a huge box full of goodies, most of which Clark shipped from Winston-Salem. The Art-o-mat group, Artists in Cellophane, started with a handful of Clark's North Carolina friends; it now includes more than 100 artists from places like Brooklyn, Korea and Ghana.

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.

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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