Master of Destruction: Mike Wiltrout on Art vs. Art
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on September 23, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.
This Friday night 32 paintings will compete head-to-head in the annual battle royale known as Art vs. Art at The Vogue. In anticipation of this celebration/destruction of local arts, Sky Blue Window sat down with the event’s longtime master of ceremonies, Mike Wiltrout. Wiltrout is the former front man of Indy’s favorite funky punks Johnny Socko and current lead singer of The Leisure Kings. “You know, I’ve been a professional musician for 25 years,” Wiltrout says. “If people come up to me and recognize me, it’s almost always for Art vs. Art, which is hilarious. I love it. At least they’re not recognizing me as the guy ran over their dog. I think it’s cool to be recognized for anything.” Scope the full interview below for an explanation of “The Dirty Sanchez” and other Art vs. Art essentials.
Sky Blue Window: How did you get roped into this gig?
Mike Wiltrout: That’s a great story. When they first had it, it was held at Birdy’s. I had gone to one, and I really liked it. I might’ve spoken with somebody about that. Back then it was being hosted by Russell Johnson [aka] Rusty Redenbacher. He was doing a really good job, but the following year he was sick and he took a bunch of cough syrup. I don’t think it was recreational taking of cough syrup. It was medicinal, but it kind of put him off his game as emcee. So, the following year, which was the first year they held it at Fountain Square Theatre, they asked me to do it, and I was really psyched because I really liked the event. I think mainly it was on the strength of having been in Johnny Socko for many years and being known as kind of a ham on stage. I didn’t actively campaign for the job, but being a game show host in any way, shape or form has always been kind of a secret dream of mine. So, I jumped at it, and I’m holding that job in a death grip.
SBW: Is there anything going on this year that’s different from years past?
MW: I think a lot of the stuff we change is such minutiae that people who haven’t been to the event before aren’t going to know what I’m talking about.
SBW: Explain the Wheel of Death to someone who hasn’t attended to Art vs. Art.
MW: Okay, so these paintings go up against each other head-to-head, and we have a decibel meter. The crowd cheers for whichever one they like the best. The one that wins goes onto the next round. The one that loses faces the Wheel of Death, which is an enormous, game-show type wheel that’s mounted on this big wrought-iron, scary contrivance. It has horns and skulls and I think a fog machine. It’s probably about 8 feet tall.
SBW: That sounds disturbing.
MW: It is. It’s very disturbing. So, I spin that Wheel of Death and whatever section of the wheel it lands on, that is how the painting would die, if it were to die. Then they give the audience a chance to bid to save it with an auctioneer. The minimum bids goes up with every round. They’ve gotta lay up some pretty serious cash. In the later rounds, I’ve seen some paintings go for $800.
SBW: Do people get upset when their art gets destroyed? Have there been any rough reactions over the years?
MW: Nobody has ever thrown anything at me. It’s been around and people have known the drill for 10 years now. I think everybody that enters it understands that it’s an honor to get your painting destroyed on stage. People are cheering for that. I remember in the earlier years, there was a little bit of outcry. I think it was just one guy, so I don’t even know if that counts as an outcry. That’s like an in-cry. Somebody wrote an editorial in NUVOrailing against the destruction of art, but by and large it’s pretty embraced. People get into it.
SBW: You’re a musician. Have you ever played in the battle of the bands?
MW: I’ve never played in a battle of the bands. One time, when I was down on my luck, I had left my old band and gotten a divorce and gotten off the road for the first time in a decade, I entered a karaoke contest. The first prize was 2,000 bucks, so not quite the $4,000 from Art vs. Art, but it looked like a lot of money to me back then. It was held at Metro, the city’s premier gay bar. It was fantastic. I remember going to it as a spectator the year before, and people would go all out. I mean, not just the singing but the costumes and the special effects. Karaoke wasn’t as widely accepted 12 years ago, at least not by me. I had been in a band for 10 years before that, and the thought of people getting up in bars and singing along to a track was lame. But the siren call was 2,000 bucks. It lured me in, and I actually won it.
SBW: Do you remember what you sang to win?
MW: Well you sang three songs every round. It was ridiculous. It took place over the span of like three months. I think there were like, 200 people in it. People came from other cities. In the final round, I did “Come Sail Away” by Styx, and I did “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, and I did a piano and drums lounge version of “Gin and Juice.” I think that was the one that clinched it.
SBW: $4,000 is a lot of cash for the Art vs. Art winner … Have the reactions been pretty crazy over the years?
MW: Personally, I always thought people would flip out, but they’re always just a little bit stage struck. Plus, they have to slog through this event that goes for three or four hours. So, they’re a little glazed by the time they get up there. Again, these are people who are probably pretty introverted — most of them. So, it’s not a world they’re familiar with being cast in.
SBW: Any other crazy stories, disasters or awesome memories?
MW: Sometimes toward the end of it, when we’ve already gone through all the modes of death and a painting is going to die, I’ll mix in two different modes of death. One of them that’s really been popular over the years was called The Dirty Sanchez …
SBW: Describe The Dirty Sanchez.
MW: Well, you have a bucket of stuff that looks like feces. It wasn’t, but it was something they had mixed up from discarded paint and degreaser — I don’t know, it was foul. In fact, they kept the exact same bucket for a decade. They just put a lid on it.
SBW: So you’re telling me somewhere in Primary Colours’ basement, there’s a glory bucket of Dirty Sanchez material?
MW: Oh, yes. Yeah. I promise you it’s there. So, when a painting gets “Sanchezed” if it’s a portrait, they use a paint brush and they paint the simulated feces onto it like a mustache. Then they end up just kind of slathering it all over. Well, I had the bright idea of combining The Dirty Sanchez with The Chainsaw. You know, just mixing it up. The chainsaw spit and sprayed what they call “the doo-doo butter” all over the place. I have a smoking jacket that I wore while hosting that year that still has little brown globules on it. It just got on there and dried. I mean, I’ve tried to have it dry cleaned. It’s not going anywhere.
SBW: I imagine the crowd was horrified when the doo-doo butter went flying?
MW: Yeah, I think we all were. It was a lesson in physics at the time when you least expect it.
SBW: Is there a formula for success in terms of what the audience tends to love over the years?
MW: It’s always the weirder stuff. There is a formula. But it’s not hard-and-fast. It’s not 100 percent. If you paint something that’s cutesy, but then there’s an element to it that turns the cutesy thing on its ear — like, a cute, cuddly poodle, but he’s shooting heroine. That always seems to go over very well. That kind of a thing: Cuteness perverted seems to be a very common thread.
I don’t think enough art gets destroyed. That’s the only flaw in Art vs. Art. Maybe they need to raise their minimum bid prices, even if it’s only for paintings that really, just kinda suck. Maybe they got their friends to stuff the ballot box or whatever, but those paintings ought to be destroyed. There’s always somebody who’s the artist’s mom or uncle, and they’ll make the minimum bid and nobody else will bid on it, and everybody else is just furious at them. ‘Come on!’ … I mean, good for them because they got some money, but it’s a bloodthirsty crowd. You don’t want to disappoint them.
SBW: So, more destruction is your professional opinon?
MW: I think so. I think so.
Written by Rob Peoni