Lost artist, found: Paintings on Buzz Café’s walls have Hollywood ties, obscured origins

If you look carefully at the walls of the Buzz Café, there’s a little bit of Hollywood.

How it got to the Oak Park Arts District cafe is a bit of mystery, or was, until recently.

Specifically, two photo-realistic paintings — titled “Blue Cup” and “Skanks,” respectively — have hung on the café’s walls for almost a decade. They’re also featured prominently in director Terry Zwigoff’s 2006 movie “Art School Confidential.”

The artist info boxes next to the paintings — small scraps of paper smudged behind aging Scotch tape — identify the painter as James Emmenegger, complete with a phone number that isn’t his. Dead end No. 1.

“He said he’d come back and then never did,” said Buzz Café co-owner Laura Maychruk.

A few social media accounts featured a few more images in his style, but the pages appeared abandoned. Dead end No. 2.

Just as enigmatic was the work itself: Brightly-colored paintings of what looked to be Polaroids washed out by a too-strong flash. The subjects appear to be unaware of a camera, joyful and perhaps a little tipsy.

More Internet sleuthing identified a man named James Emmenegger as a drummer for The Blacks, a band that recorded with Chicago label Bloodshot Records. A rep from Bloodshot thought that yes, Emmenegger also painted and there was a rumor that he’d moved to Los Angeles — but the contact information they had for him was no good. Dead end No. 3.

Perhaps a dozen of Emmeneggers’ canvases can be seen in “Art School Confidential,” the adaptation of a comic book by Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World”). The art house indie movie was a mix of murder and artistic angst starring Max Minghella, John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi.

In the film, the paintings are hung in the café owned by Buscemi’s Broadway Bob, a launching pad for aspiring artists. Much the same could be said for the Buzz Café’s walls, which have displayed and sold artists’ work since it opened in 1998 — including much of Emmenegger’s early work.

A second call to Bloodshot garnered another suggestion: Had I tried a James Williamson Emmenegger? A Facebook account under that name had a Los Angeles number tied to it. So I started dialing.

“Yes, that’s me,” said a surprised voice after I explained my search.

Emmenegger, 44, was not in California, despite the cell number. In fact, he was living in downtown Oak Park and returned years ago, after a stint in L.A.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, but raised in Chicago and Oak Park, Emmenegger was an aspiring actor who appeared in high school productions with Thomas Lennon (“Reno 911”) and studied theater at Columbia College Chicago.

“I dropped out of acting to become a painter,” he joked.

Emmenegger moved west in 2000 when he heard the photorealism market was making a comeback. Although he had no intention of “going into showbiz,” he said, the gamble quickly started to pay off.

An agent noticed his work at Los Angeles’ Gallery 825 and within two days, Emmenegger began renting his paintings to television shows, starting with “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Other TV and film set decorators began calling. His work appeared on HBO’s “Entourage,” MTV’s “Real World” and CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother.”

The way it worked, Emmenegger explained, is that shows would rent paintings at a percentage of the purchase price, with the option to buy.

But who are the other people in the paintings?

“I have no idea,” Emmenegger said.

Most of them were based on photos he took with vintage cameras at parties while he toured with the Blacks. The images from the Buzz Café paintings are probably from house parties in Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest music festival in 2002.

The band’s frontman, Danny Black, remembers that time on the road as fun and booze-soaked but confusing for the strangers bring photographed by Emmenegger.

“He started to have to ask people to photograph them. He got threatened,” said band-founder Black. “It’s an amazing record; it’s probably the only way we’ll remember some of that stuff.”

Art consultant Mardine Davis, Emmenegger’s agent, said she was drawn to the “fresh, unrehearsed” quality of his paintings.

“He doesn’t position things in a predictable fashion. You can feel the action of the piece by the way he composed the painting,” Davis said. “He’s gifted this way; he really does a wonderful job.”

In 2004, however, Emmenegger moved back to Oak Park, so his then-wife and their son could be closer to family. Still, Davis continued to place his work and in 2005, the set designer for “Art School Confidential” selected more than a dozen of his canvases. The production also commissioned a painting featuring actress Sophia Myles, who play Minghella’s love interest.

Why, then, had Emmenegger’s paintings from the movie hung so long in the Buzz Café?

Emmenegger says that he virtually stopped painting while battling what he called “serious depression.” He “did about five paintings in ten years,” Emmenegger said. He simply forgot about them.

“I was selling every painting, sometimes one a day,” he said. “But the two that were in a film didn’t sell. It’s funny.”

He didn’t leave the art and design world entirely. With a company called Oak Street Design, he started installing window displays for places like The Drake, The Palmer House and Union League Club.

Earlier this month, Emmenegger moved into new studio space, where he plans to start painting again.

“My dream is to become extremely reclusive and get back to painting,” he said. “I’m going to continue my art.”

At the Buzz Café, he even put an up-to-date phone number on his paintings.

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Read about Ernest Hemingway and his ties to Oak Park by clicking here.

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