In all the low-budget hotels in all the world, the decor rarely strays far from bare conventions: a bed, a desk, a lamp, a telephone, and a single painting. So ubiquitous are these artworks, they comprise an entire artistic genre: hotel art.
You’d be forgiven for failing to keep up with the hotel-art scene; after all, there aren’t New Yorker gallery listings for Pastoral Landscape at Super 8, Schenectady. Moreover, low-budget hotel art, like office building muzak, seems deliberately chosen to escape notice. It wouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the paintings were somehow there when the walls were erected, part of the hotel drywall package supplied by the contractor.
But as it happens, hotel art doesn’t come as part of the build-your-own-hotel starter kit. In fact, hotel art is just a niche of the larger commercial art world. As an artistic discipline, commercial art encompasses hotel art, paintings sold in HomeGoods and Cost Plus, paintings hung on the wall in department stores and small boutiques; essentially, any art you can purchase that doesn’t aspire to gallery placement. And behind each piece is an artist; someone like Brooklyn-based painter John Cerasulo, a professionally trained painter who, after years of museum and gallery exhibitions, transitioned away from the so-called “high-art” world to work full-time as a commercial artist. Now, his paintings hang in furniture stores, gift shops, and, of course, hotels.
At first glance, this may seem like a demotion; gone are Cerasulo’s days of schmoozing with big-time art collectors, agents and executives, of being critiqued in major newspapers, of hanging paintings in modern, minimalist Chelsea galleries. But for him, all of that was just noise. As a commercial artist, he gets to focus on one thing: what kind of paintings do people like?
“Dogs are huge, dogs wearing clothes always,” Cerasulo says. Armed with the knowledge that people want to buy paintings of pups in sweaters, Cerasulo recently painted the “handsome boy” shown above. He then scanned the painting, and sent it to a colleague who oversees a printing facility in China. There, the digital file was printed on canvas, and hand-accented with a translucent acrylic glaze to make the reproduction appear more like a painting than a print. Finally, the finished product was delivered to a showroom owner, who sells his work to businesses in need of art.
This particular piece was purchased by home furnishings retailer Pier 1, one of the higher-end destinations for commercial art. Cerasulo gets an advance on their first bulk purchase of the painting, a percentage of the actual sales, and he retains the rights to his work, so it can be sold again in the future.
Because the success of Cerasulo’s art is largely dependent upon the artistic sensibilities of regular people who just happen to be shopping in Pier 1, and not the more stable judgment of the art academy, it can be difficult to estimate whether or not a particular piece will sell very well. Around 35 to 40 percent of his paintings go to market, but whether or not people buy them? Anybody’s guess.
What’s more clear is why people buy the art. In the high-art world, collectors make up most of the market, and they purchase art for a variety of reasons. Sometimes because they value the piece, but also as an investment, or as a jab at another collector. Oftentimes, this results in an artist’s work just sitting around in storage. And for a painter who wants their work to be seen and appreciated, that can be dissatisfying.
On the other hand, when someone discovers Man in Rowboat at Home Goods, or snags the Dog in a Sweater from Pier 1, that’s not an appraisal of financial value—it’s a statement of artistic appreciation. For Cerasulo, knowing that his painting is “gonna stay above someone’s couch until it yellows and collects dust, that’s way more substantial.”
At a fundamental level, the main difference between Cerasulo’s work in the high-art world and the commercial-art world is nothing more than context. The label “commercial art” implies a sort of sellout move that seems essentially opposed to the romantic ideal of making art for art’s sake. But if you can find a painting that appeals to you for $50 as opposed to $3,000, it becomes clear where money is playing an outsized role. Commercial art is less about cheapening art, and more about democratizing it.
Of course, painting for a wider audience without demonstrated interest or training in the fine arts does require some basic guidelines. No paintings that are too overtly political or edgy, a focus on the visually stimulating rather than the technically impressive, and you’re probably going to paint some animals wearing clothes.
But just because there are a few rules outlining successful commercial, mass-market painting, doesn’t mean that it is inherently less than high art. Sure, there are some constraints. “Maybe there’s a subtle twist where you make it a little more pretty and a bit less about the psychology, the physical weight of the space, the air, the heaviness of the paints next to each other,” Cerasulo says. “But I’m still using everything that informs my fine art work”. It’s simply a matter of emphasis. There are countless ways to write an essay to a single prompt, and there are countless ways to paint a dog wearing a sweater, or a still-life vase. And the high-art world constrains artists as well, it’s just that the categories and restrictions are more nebulous.
By stepping away from high art and into the commercial realm, Cerasulo has found a wider audience, more creative freedom in his work, and he’s come up with a pretty good mantra, too. “Sure, you’re gonna have to paint flowers,” Cerasulo says. “But I happen to really like painting flowers.”