Rochester-based filmmaker Ben Gonyo spent more than five years creating a convincing faux-documentary about a deaf, septuagenarian, undiscovered artist named Fritz. Gonyo placed himself in the story as the documentarian who urges Fritz out of the shadows. While the story follows one unique (fictional) life, the core themes — pursuit of recognition, rejection, bereavement, and second chances — are utterly relatable. The beautifully written and shot film, along with several examples of Fritz's work and photographic portraits of the artist, is currently showing in the Lab Space at Rochester Contemporary Art Center.
"Fritz" can also be viewed in 12 short chapters at fritzthemovie.com, a site dedicated to the project, which also features examples of Fritz's paintings and prints and statements by the character about various pieces. The film opens with the cinematographers, Gonyo and Mike Martinez, attempting to pull the artist-cum-machinist out of a deep slump shortly after the death of his girlfriend, Darlene.
At this point, Fritz (played by John Curtis) is sleeping away most of his days. "He wasn't broke. He had money. Just no real reason to get up in the morning," Gonyo explains in voice-over. Through anecdotes told by Fritz, we learn about his and Darlene's loving relationship, that his family did not approve of his "impractical" pursuit of art, and that his brother, Vince — who makes a few hostile appearances — still harbors resentment for Fritz.
In 1977, Fritz made a go of entering the art world in New York City, struggling for recognition for five years before returning home with his tail between his legs. "I felt invisible," he says. "Good enough to make it, but I didn't."
In a few lines, Fritz sums up some of the biggest fears of any artist who's met opposition to his dreams: "The hardest part was coming home and facing family," he says. "I proved them right."
Gonyo explores the wickedly tricky navigation of the art market in a section of back-to-back interview clips with about a dozen artists, arts writers, and curators who discuss the valuable support artists derive from one another as well as networking, politics, persistence, and our culture's obsession with early success by prodigies. An unspoken but insinuated truth here is that this fixation adds to our devaluation of elders, which is of course a phenomena that extends outside of the art sphere. It's an insane level of devaluation; why wouldn't older people have as much, if not more valuable things to say?
When Gonyo began this project six years ago, he'd been reading a lot about the art world. "I was interested by romanticized stories of hot, young blue chip artists or the old undiscovered geniuses," he says. "In reality, it's a lot of people toiling away at something they love to do, many of whom will never make a living at it or be significantly recognized. The art world is a full of smoke and mirrors and they love to spin stories. The narrative has become so important in our culture. We're a society entertained by the narrative, the fake news, the gossip, and the stories."
Gonyo visualized a project, centering on a character called Fritz. "I didn't want him to be some outlandish character like Mr. Brainwash or Banksy but rather a heartfelt, down-on-his-luck artist," he says. "A story people could relate to; not sensationalized. Through the character, I explored making it in the art world and what that really means. Perception vs. reality. Ultimately Fritz climbs out of his funk by participating in making art, meeting new people, and enjoying the process — the real reward for any artist."
In the film, Gonyo and Martinez send Fritz postcards and engage him in the confidence-building exercise of having him pose with his artworks out in public spaces. Later, the process culminates with a visit to his old big city stomping grounds to see what's changed.
They bring him to art openings, and gradually Fritz reengages with making work. Fritz sets up a basement studio, where he produces paintings and prints in two main series: "Baby Seeds" and the "Times Prints."
The former series includes large and small watercolor paintings on paper that typically have a sea of colorful marks swimming toward a large sphere, a biological and symbolic representation of genesis and birth. The latter series is made up of rough linoleum block prints that resemble a newspaper front page, with headlines that frequently laud Fritz's successes or level criticism at our systems of valuing.
"I experimented with dozens of series of art," Gonyo says. "I had to discover something that fit this character and which I could technically pull off. I came up with two series, which I thought fit his story line."
Gonyo says of all the things he's learned in the process of making this project, the most valuable is that "it's never really about being recognized, making money, or 'making it,' as they say. It's about creating, growing and never giving up. It's a battle of attrition as an artist and as a person. It's about maintaining that excitement and wonder that we all have in the beginning," he says.
In all of its believable banter and humor, the film's illusion is only blown by the displayed artist statement and the monitor positioned opposite the documentary, which shows a time-lapse of Gonyo creating the paintings and prints. To date, he's created thousands of works, and sells them through the website.
"Fritz" has been screened on PBS, WNET in NYC, the largest PBS network in the country, and it's also run on Hulu, Amazon, SnagFilms, and other online spots. And it's been licensed for TV in a handful of countries including New Zealand, France, Russia, Africa, and Italy.