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Art All Around

THE BOSTON GLOBE

BUT IS IT art? The question has been debated since man first put paint on canvas - or maybe before - and the answer from Boston’s Oni Gailery probably has the purists decrying the decline of civilization.
There, on the fourth floor of a ramshackle ghost of a Chinatown garment factory that is undergoing renovations, hangs a display of Mat Brown’s cartoon covers from Building #19 advertising circulars.

Why? Because they’re laugh-out-loud funny - and because the gallery likes to make art accessible to people who can’t tell a Rembrandt from a van Gogh.

Museums with a sense of humor - and marketing - have also been enticing the art-phobic public with motorcycle and Giorgio Armani exhibits at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a display of athletic shoes at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and a traveling “Star Wars” exhibit that landed In six cities.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts shattered blue-hair stereotypes with last year’s rocking guitar exhibit that included instruments belonging to Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. The Boston museum has also filled gallery halls with Herb Ritts photos, tiaras, and Wallace & Gromit claymation characters. This year the museum is planning an exhibit by Sarah Zsze, who works with everyday objects she finds on walks - detergent bottles, soft drink cans, toothbrushes, and spatulas.

Darcy Kuronen, curator of musical Instruments at the museum, said that “the demographics were dramatically different” at the guitar show compared with attendance at more-traditional exhibits. There were Ii lot of young men, he said, many of whom came with their fathers.

A guitar may not be as great as a painting by Sargent,” he said, “but it is beautiful and shows that design is ail around us.”

Lydia Eccles, a member of the Oni Gallery art collective who invited cartoonist Brown to show his work, agreed, noting that “there is a lot of creativity out there that isn’t called art.”

Brown, who for 30 years has been making fun of Building 19 merchandise and store owner Jerry Ellis, said that in certain ways all human beings are caricaturists.

“We’re hard-wired to pick up body language and the little motions and expressions that cartoonists use,” said Brown. “A guy recognizes his wife across the room in a crowd even if he can’t see her face.”

Brown admires the beauty of travel posters or wine ads as much as he appreciates the creations of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Norman Rockwell. He notes that Rockwell started out as a commercial artist and “always cajoled himself an illustrator,” achieving his fame despite the disdain of some critics.

Accessibility is a fine thing, for it can open the untrained eye and lead to appreciation of the complex as well as the ordinary - and both ends of that spectrum are worthy of a place in the gallery.