This year has shown more than ever how marginalized market segments can break out instantly and overlooked artists take center stage
The dramatic arrival of NFTs at top-dollar auctions, previously reserved for fine art, revealed that booming markets are thriving in new art worlds which were once considered unworthy of consideration by the conservative and conventional little sphere of last century’s avant-gardist gatekeepers. The art world has become a bubble-bath of variety — with many new genres to enjoy and collect.
The exciting world of digital art is not alone in the postmodern marketplace — sundry and egalitarian forms are now equally as collectible as top-selling works from the established canon of modern art. The new frontier of these worlds begs for exploration by intrepid adventurers who are willing to study unfamiliar cultures, for their aesthetics can be unexpected, fascinating and surprising, and investment in their art can be a highly profitable venture.
Among the startling new worlds worth examining by collectors interested in entering the market at prices they can afford is the art of the immensely popular card game, Magic, the Gathering, in which players in the roles of wizards use cards to defeat each other in a battle of wits, strategy and luck. First released in 1993, in 2021 the game is played by tens of millions of avid collectors, some of them professionals who travel across the globe to participate in tournaments which are attended by thousands of fans.
Each Magic card has an illustration in the top half, and a description of its application in the bottom half. Some of the cards attract more attention from collectors than others — especially those from the first edition of the game, which is called “the alpha set.” A card in the alpha set called Black Lotus, painted by Christopher Rush, gave players an unequalled advantage early in the game, and because less than 2000 of them were printed, originals have become highly desirable. In January a Black Lotus alpha card signed by Rush sold in an eBay auction for $511,100.
Although most Magic collectors limit their collecting to the cards themselves, they have a deep appreciation for the artwork, and the wealthy among them treasure the original paintings which were commissioned for the cards. These routinely sell for over $20,000 within the small community of enthusiasts, and there are standouts in the market which indicate Magic art’s potential for greater growth. The owner of the little acrylic painting which was used for Black Lotus recently turned down an offer of over six million dollars, despite the poor aesthetic quality of the painting itself. Paintings used for other alpha set cards have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of the alpha set artists have died, like Rush, who passed in 2016, aged 50, and Quinton Hoover, who died in 2013, aged 49.
Artists commissioned to produce the art for more recent Magic cards have superior aesthetic standards — an impressive and growing roster of some six hundred painters have contributed their work to the huge collection of imagery, and as the game has become increasingly popular, the quality of the artwork has improved. However, the improvement in the artists’ skill is accompanied by a generic, illustrative, digital appearance to much of the art that will prevent many of the artists from achieving individual prominence. Too much of the imagery is childishly cartoonish, there is too little balance of value; the colors are too simplified and saturated and without nuance; too often the pictures are from a lowered point of view, emphasizing action with exaggerated figurative foreshortening; there are countless ripped warriors — stereotypical men with bulging Schwarzenegger musculature, and women in skin-tight costumes stretched over pneumatic balloon-breasts.
This generic and unimpressive fantasy art is worth ignoring and many of the artists who produce it will surely vanish from the record, lacking the stamina or audience to continue with a life in art. Many of the artists exclusively produce digital art, which will doubtlessly find customers when the most organized of them learn how to exploit the burgeoning market for NFTs.
However, not all Magic artists are cut from the same cloth — a significant number are extremely talented painters with an eye for excellent composition and technical expertise, equal in skill to their antecedents among the symbolists and surrealists of the 19th and 20th centuries, and these individualists have shaped their own aesthetic within Magic’s confines.
Among the well-established artists who have made paintings for Magic are Donato Giancola, John Howe (of Lord of the Rings fame), and novelist-artist Gerald Brom. They have secured solid careers for themselves and cross comfortably between illustration and imaginative realism, and they consistently produce beautifully made and delightful compositions. But smart investors looking for undiscovered gems should take a look at the roster of up-and-comers and mid-career artists who have developed strong and distinctive styles, and possess vivid imaginations: Seb McKinnon’s Bosch-like visions; the enigmatic oil painter and alpha-deck artist Mark Poole, who has created a series of images of a strange ruined civilization from a distant past; brothers David and Anthony Palumbo (sons of the painter Julie Bell) both produce consistently excellent imaginative work — David tends toward images of horror and science fiction inspired by pulp fiction cover art, while Anthony tends toward figurative paintings with a hint of the film Bladerunner. Stephanie Law has the potential to become a truly original artist, with a delicacy and mystery that sets her apart. Although an excess of banal heroes and heroines overruns Victor Adame’s body of work, he is at his best when he produces his weird biomorphic creatures, which can be brilliantly and beautifully surreal. Wylie Beckert is developing a refreshing blend of figuration in an organic style which may evolve into something really interesting. Omar Rayyan’s delightful and affectionate bestiary crosses the boundary between oil-painted pop-surrealism and a weird Victorian sentimentality. In the digital realm, visionary artist Kirsten Zirngibl produces strikingly beautiful organic cityscapes which are rendered as enormous murals — her work is already collected by American museums.
This is a young market that will doubtlessly continue to inflate in the next two or three decades. It is an exciting market which will surely reap spectacular long-term gains, for it is the art of the moment, art which a vast audience of players will remember with nostalgic affection and desire, art which is presently undervalued and tucked underground, unrecognized by the mainstream. Detached from the game, the original art has a life of its own, as a delightful and mysterious glimpse of other worlds. It is in the same stream as the work of the symbolists of the nineteenth century, who imagined a gothic and enigmatic realm of fantastic imagination. Connoisseurs who have an eye for the painter who will become the Moreau, or Klimt, or Doré of this century will certainly be rewarded.