Artistic License

Greg Constantine is working on a ransom note. A very big one, with very specific demands.

Rick DeVos—hand over the $200,000 ArtPrize or else—wait 4 further instructions—come alone 2 my venue with unmarked $20 bills or else—no cops or else—the public will vote 4 me anyhow or else

It’s his submission for this September’s ArtPrize exhibition in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the seasoned ArtPrize participant has gotten to the heart of the competition: “Why else do so many curious people fill the streets of Grand Rapids to observe and enjoy the art buzz? Why else would I be so open and transparent about my motives?” he says in his tongue-in-cheek artist statement. “I believe the voting public will understand. However, if Rick DeVos or the FBI take this too seriously, I’m in trouble.”

Self-referential, clever, and sometimes outrageous, Greg Constantine, emeritus research professor of art and artist-in-residence, has made a career of helping people think about art differently. His three children’s books and three humorous “trade books” envision the great artists—and some lesser-known ones like Artemesia Gentileschi and Giotto—on a much more relatable scale. Little Seurat, for example, got measles and was forever fascinated with spots; Picasso goes to Chicago and everything looks slightly twisted.

His most recent series, “Poetic Licenses,” revisits a concept from 30 years ago and expands on it in humorous ways. In the 1980s, he created “Artist Licenses,” a series of vanity plates for artists, that display their signature style—Christo’s was wrapped in plastic; Dali’s plate half-melted; Pollock’s covered in paint splatters. They were a hit when exhibited in New York. Thirty years later, he had some leftover materials and was thinking about vanity license plates. They’re a very consciously public medium, and so are used to say funny or semi-philosophical things about their drivers. Artists, too, are known for saying things as well as making them, and a quick search on the Internet will give you pages of artist quips, many of them wry or witty. Constantine began using the license plates to spell out famous and funny quotes, and quickly had a series of about 45 quotes.

Many of the quotes he uses are from modern artists—Picasso is a particular favorite of his, famous for saying things like “Good artists borrow; great artists steal” and “When I haven’t any blue I use red.” Andy Warhol has contributed to the series as well—his famous statement “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes” fits rather too well with the idea of vanity plates.

To create the pieces, Constantine uses a vacuum-former to melt plastic over a series of moveable letters and numbers, reminiscent of the Gutenberg printing presses. He then paints the plates and proceeds to make them look used, painting rust on them, distressing or melting them, and even adding bullet holes—which he quickly notes “aren’t real.”

The plates are incredibly realistic—they fool many of Constantine’s viewers at first glance. “The most common question I get is, ‘Where did you get all these plates?’ I usually say, ‘I have friends all over the world that send them to me,’” he jokes. He then goes on to explain that he handcrafts each one, which usually clears up the confusion and leaves the viewer with a greater appreciation for the pieces.

After creating the artist quotes, Constantine moved on to famous quips from movies: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” The vanity plates of film, the quotes he’s chosen stick in our minds and sneak into our conversation. Most recently, he’s begun a license-plate series of quotes about cars, including this gem from Henry Youngman: “I drive my wife everywhere but she keeps finding her way back.”

“I have more ideas than I have time to create them,” he says. His many works over the years have been about seeing “old” art in new ways. He regularly exhibits in New York City and Chicago, and is an active participant in local art exhibitions and contests. “My motto has been never to say no to myself—I’ll let someone else do that. I’ve gotten plenty of noes, but I’ve also gotten some yeses.”

And whether or not he places or gets arrested at ArtPrize, Constantine loves the art awareness that the annual citywide exhibition generates. During the three-week exhibition, people from all over wander around the city, peek into museums and other venues, and have opinions about art. Last year, he waited two hours in line to see the prizewinner. “I was standing in line with Mr. and Mrs. Joe Blow in bib overalls, and they were curious—they’d probably never been to the museum before.” The exhibitions draw huge crowds, and get comprehensive coverage in local media.

He’s currently searching for inspiration for future projects. “I kind of like this ransom note thing,” he says without a hint of a smile, revealing nothing about any questionable possible career intentions.

If you want to see this year’s ArtPrize submission before it’s impounded as evidence, Constantine’s piece will hang in the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids. ArtPrize runs from September 18 to October 6, 2013. A full listing of events and participating locations is available at

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