Don’t Bore Me.

Jeff and Carl are in Pennsylvania this week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, an exciting show filled with lots of amazing artists. They’ve been enjoying life Philly-style and are looking forward to a great rest of the week! Be sure to check Facebook for updates from the show.

Sampling the local fare in Philly.

Sampling the local fare in Philly.

 

While they’ve been away, I did some work that involved me sending off an artist statement to a firm interested in Jeff’s sculptures. While I was putting together the things they needed, I got to thinking about artist statements. I know what you are thinking; it is an exciting life I lead. Anyway, for those unfamiliar with an artist statement, it is a short piece of written work that the artist puts together to describe his/her art. As an example, here’s a short one that Jeff has on the homepage of his website:

The short intro to Jeff's work found on zachmann.com.

The short intro to Jeff’s work found on zachmann.com.

 

One thing I’ve never really understood is why artist statements are so ubiquitous. First of all, I’ve never met an artist who enjoyed writing them. Second of all, a lot of art that has an accompanying artist statement is visual art. Why does something visual need words to accompany it? Can’t you just look at the art?

I guess there is much to be said for contextualizing a piece of art. One certainly does feel more connected to a piece when one knows something about the artist’s process, interests, influences, and motivations. I’ve grown more and more interested in Jeff’s recent work the more I’ve learn about how much his childhood is influencing his artistic style. It’s fascinating to learn about his motivation to create things using found materials because they connect him personally to an earlier time and place. I appreciate having these insights because it enhances my experience with his art while still allowing me to view his work on my own terms and through my own lens.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of artist statements that don’t simply contextualize the work they accompany. The artist has accidentally overwritten their statement, and suddenly a piece of art that should speak for itself is forced to take on meaning that is larger than life. When Jeff and I were in Grand Rapids at ArtPrize, we saw a sculpture that I immediately hated (I make my judgements fast, people). It was a naked baby doll propped upright in a glass display case. The baby had one of its arms and one of its legs sawed off and replaced with robotic-looking limbs that hovered an inch or so away from the body. The whole thing was macabre in a very juvenile sort of way, but for me the worst part was the artist’s statement. Here is a sculpture that leaves very little to the imagination already but that is supplemented by a statement claiming it is opening my eyes to children’s dependence on technology. It does not discuss the artist’s inspiration or choice of materials. It does not place the work in any sort of historical artistic context. It simply explains what it means. I as a viewer have had to do no work, and I am no better off having seen that sculpture than not having seen it.

Perhaps you are wondering what is so wrong about an artist wanting his viewers to see exactly what he sees in his work. I respond that there is nothing necessarily wrong with it; it is their art and they may do what they like, except that it is boring me. Part of the joy in looking at art is discovering one’s own feelings along the way.

"Artist Statement (No One Here Gets Out Alive)"

William Powhida, “Artists Statement (No One Here Gets Out Alive)” (2009), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 18″x15″ (Image courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery)

 

One of my best friends from college is an artist named Anda Tanaka, and I like the way she thinks about artist statements. I remember watching her get ready for her art shows when we were still in school. For her, one of the most stressful parts of putting together a show (I mean, besides doing the actual artwork, getting the venue ready, and doing all the rest of her schoolwork) was writing the artist statement. She could sit for ages trying to come up with the words to adequately contextualize her work. I always liked her statements, as once they were finished they were very clearly written pieces that matched her determined personality (plus she always wrote them out by hand on beautiful paper, so they ended up being small works of art themselves). When she did pieces that were deliberately done in a certain style, her viewers were always treated to a succinct explanation of the historical context of her work. But when her work was less obviously rooted in history, she definitely struggled. “It’s like, you know how I play the trumpet? [Anda is also a very accomplished jazz trumpeter, no big deal] Well, after I’ve improvised, people will be like, Wow! How did you come up with that? Was it based on something?, and I have to say no, because, it’s not… I’m improvising. Art is like that. Sometimes you’re just improvising.” Indeed, as Iris Jaffe explains in The Anti-artist-statement Statement, “for a fine artist to be entirely aware of his or her creative process and the resulting artwork thereby created is a nearly impossible feat- and one that would require essentially super-human levels of self-awareness and analytical ability on the artist’s part.” Anda, like so many artists, doesn’t want to have to trivialize her work through the over-generalization of a complex and beautiful artistic process. She also doesn’t want to over-analyze her own work for the perceived benefit of other people, because in the end there is no real benefit to dumbing down art for a viewer. “My art is often about myself. It’s personal, like a self-portrait or a self-analysis. But I don’t want what I’m thinking to influence the people who see my work. I don’t want to put words or thoughts into people’s heads. I want them to think for themselves.”

I think her desire not to over-influence her viewers is (as it should be) a genuine concern for many artists, Jeff and Carl included. They hope to garner unique and genuine responses to their work and tend to be very successful in their endeavors, which I think speaks to their integrity as artists. At shows, they rarely have up much more than a short description of their work. The visitors to their booths have the distinct advantage of meeting the artists themselves and are able to form a much more organic and human connection to the art and the artist than are viewers who are simply confronted with disembodied work. Jeff and Carl take their viewer’s connection to their work so seriously, in fact, that they have chosen to use serial numbers rather than titles to keep track of their creations. “People ask me why my pieces are numbered and not named.  It’s that I think of them as machines and the numbering reflects that. It’s a serial number, starting from my first metal sculpture. I find that when I put a label or name on a piece, a person looks at it differently.  With a number, each viewer comes away with his or her own thoughts. An engineer, a child, or even a scrap metal dealer comes away with a different view, all equally valid, and all equally personal,” says Jeff.

Zachmann photos (22 of 54)

 

While I’m still a little bemused by the idea of an artist statement for visual art, I am obviously not ready to dismiss their usefulness altogether. It’s exciting, however, when an artist thinks enough of their viewers to give them the freedom for personal reflection. I truly admire the artists who give me a job to do when looking at their art. That, to me, keeps things far from boring.

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On The Ground Running

I spent Saturday morning at an arts marketing seminar that focused a lot on galleries and how to get artists into them. I was pretty excited for the whole experience, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. I met some really great people, heard some solid advice, and left feeling energized and ready to get Jeff into a whole bunch of amazing galleries through my tireless promotional efforts. My excitement wore off quickly in the weekend crush of traffic on I-94, however, and a thought that had surfaced unbidden during hour 3 of the seminar (I get a little testy when I’m hungry) again pushed its way to the front of my mind: What’s so great about galleries, anyway?

It can be (and is) argued that galleries actually do a lot for their artists. They are a bricks-and-mortar location for showing art outside of an artist’s own studio, and they get artists exposed to people who may never hear of them otherwise. They provide a space for intelligent conversations about art and offer a critical eye artist may not otherwise encounter. They market for the artists and employ great salespeople. They also keep up to 60% of the profits made in a sale and, in some cases, try to control how an artist promotes his own work so that no one can make a sale but the gallery. Yikes. I mean, it makes sense. Most galleries are for-profit institutions. But the art world is changing. Gone are the days when artists relied on gallery representation to promote and sell their work. Artists are on the ground running, and in a lot of cases they’re winning the race.

Thanks to the advent of this thing called the internet and its globalizing, democratizing tendencies, artists can and do promote themselves effectively. As the art critic Jerry Saltz says in an article entitled Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show, “These days, the art world is large and spread out, happening everywhere at once.” It’s true. The art world is no longer confined to the walls of a gallery in New York or LA. Every artist anywhere can have their own website, their own Facebook page, their own LinkedIn profile, and their own Twitter feed. Online galleries are popping up frequently. Communicating with people and making sales without a middleman has literally never been easier. Jeff and Carl frequently makes sales simply via jpeg images and email. They don’t need someone in a gallery telling a patron what’s good. The patron already knows what they want, and they can get it straight from the source.

Carl and Jeff crating a sculpture in the studio. The sculpture sold at an art fair. Photographer: Scott Wagnild

Carl and Jeff crating a sculpture in the studio. The sculpture sold at an art fair.                                         Photo Credit: Scott Wagnild.

Jeff and Carl are on the ground running a lot. They travel all over the country to go to art fairs, meeting people and selling art, all on their own. It isn’t necessarily a glamorous life, but it pays the bills and then some. They have created a successful business and are surrounded by other artists who have done the same thing: Cindy McDougall and Jay McDougall, Sean Scott and Kate Scherfenberg… The list goes on, and this is just in and around the small town of Fergus Falls, MN. So much for starving artists.

One thing that hasn’t changed, despite the everywhere-ness of the art world and the individual successes of artists, is the idea that a gallery is measure of an artist’s success. No matter how well an artist is doing outside gallery representation, there is a certain notoriety that comes from being in the right gallery that artists just can’t ignore. This may never change. After all, the art world is something of a meritocracy. But galleries can’t keep holding on to the illusion that they are an unparalleled gift to artists, swooping in, snatching up their work, making careers. They no longer are. The bricks-and-mortar gallery isn’t the only thing paying the bills now; it’s simply supplementing the income of an already hard-working business. I don’t want galleries to have to close their doors, but that’s what will happen if they attempt to control a business they haven’t built. A blog post by a gallery owner (in fact, the man who led the seminar on Saturday) reassures me that at least someone gets it. “Moving forward”, he says, “artists are going to see galleries as only one of many marketing venues for their work. Galleries are going to have to earn their artist’s business.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

“No Limit To Human Sh*tiness”: Art, Emotion, and Immorality

A recent experience has brought new significance to two abstract and subjective concepts that I often find myself considering in conjunction with art: emotion and morality. I’m not attempting to assert that “emotion” or “morality” are necessarily inherent in works of art. It is not my place to ascribe either of those concepts to a piece in which neither may purposefully exist. Instead, I would like to discuss the place of art in regard to human emotion and moral codes. More to the point, and to sound less like the lecturer I am coming across as currently, I would like to discuss one of my best friends and how she made me remember to hold on to the little things in life.

Arriving home at her apartment late last Sunday night, my friend was attacked and sexually assaulted as she unlocked the door to her building. Someone arrived on the scene and succeeded in scaring the attacker off, but not before the attacker had beaten my friend almost senseless (among other horrible things). My friend was in bad shape that night. Her normally pretty face was swollen and covered in bruises, and she had to have her cheek sewn up where the skin had broken under her assailant’s punches. Her entire body ached severely enough for prescription pain meds even days after the attack. Of course, her physical pain is nothing when compared to the emotional trauma she experienced.

Not surprisingly, my friend’s outlook on the world has darkened considerably since Sunday. After what happened to an intelligent, confident, and hilarious woman like her, I’m inclined to agree with the succinct statement she made after her release from the hospital: “Turns out, there is no limit to human sh*tiness”. Indeed, there is little use arguing against the fact that the world often seems like a morally reprehensible place. The goodness we may try to see in other people is too often overshadowed by the acts that unfortunately end up defining our lives and/or the lives of those closest to us.

When we see the world in such a dark light, it’s almost impossible to think what good something as trivial as art can be for humanity. Art can’t prevent the physical pain that my friend is still feeling almost a week after her attack. Art can’t redeem the world. But can the right kind of art help heal us emotionally? Can it help us re-ascribe to humanity some modicum of morality? Do these questions even matter to anyone but me? I respond with a firm “maybe” to them all.

The truth is, I hate art that tries to force me to think or feel something (the exception to this rule is the work of Banksy, whose identity is hidden and whose art is admirably irreverent and thought-provoking in its blatancy).  It is with an equal intensity that I hate art that makes me feel nothing at all with its bland simplicity (here’s to you, canvases that are painted red or paintings that I could do myself with a single brush stroke). I would of course do well to remind myself of the subjective nature of art: there is a place in the world for art both bland and preachy (I believe bland art is most often found in hotels, but I digress). Many artists creating the work I have disparagingly titled “preachy” are trying to bring awareness to social injustices or environmental causes, and I respect that fully. I think we may all agree, however, that art like that is not art that is easily digested. Art that is full of intention must either confront the viewer with garish obviousness or beg the question What does it mean?, which scares away those who think they can’t “understand art” if they can’t decipher a meaning within the first few minutes of seeing a piece or reading the artist’s statement. Art shouldn’t be about deciphering or about message-shoving. At least, the art we want to heal us emotionally or to re-ascribe a modicum of morality to humanity shouldn’t be like that. No, the art that does the most to lighten our load when the going gets tough is the art I fondly refer to as “unpretentious”: it’s the art that doesn’t attempt to tell us what it is or how to look at it or what to feel or believe or wonder. It’s the art we don’t stare at and ask, What? Why?!. It’s the art we can look at for seconds or minutes or hours without moving and feel completely at peace while we gaze. We shouldn’t have to ask What does it mean?. Instead we should want to ask, What does it mean to me?

One of the first questions I asked Jeff when I started working for him was about emotion. I wanted to know what drove his work, and his answer shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his sculptures. He explained that he makes his sculptures purposefully devoid of emotion. He does want them to be something of a foil to the often dark, thought-provoking works I described above, but he doesn’t achieve that goal by instilling any one emotion or moral message into his own sculptures like “happy” or “healthy planet earth”. Instead, he leaves them completely open to interpretation by the viewer. He doesn’t even name his sculptures for fear that a name would force a reaction. The real interpretation, he says, is expressed in the faces of his viewers. It’s one of the reasons he loves art fairs so much. He doesn’t watch his sculptures at his shows. He watches the faces that crowd into his booths, the eyes that follow the movement of each marble down, around, through spiraling metal and across empty space and back up in an endless cycle. When they watch, he hopes, they lose themselves in the movement. They forget the immorality that plagues the world, the people who attack young women outside their apartments and the pain of living that affects us all to varying degrees. They get to feel the emotions that accompany childlike wonder.

This is a picture Jeff took in Madison, WI of his booth full of people.

This is a picture Jeff took at Art Fair on the Square in Madison, WI of his booth full of people.

So, can art help heal us emotionally? Can it help us re-ascribe to humanity some modicum of morality? I think it can. At the very least, good art can give us a moment to realize that the awful truths of humanity are not the only truths, and that emotional fortitude is not unattainable. A moment may be all we need to reset and regroup for the next onslaught of life uncensored. One thing we must be sure to remember is this: that while people suck and bad things happen, there exist pockets of inherent goodness in the world- in a sculpture, in a book, in playing fetch with a cute dog- and we shouldn’t gloss over those things in our rush to drown in the mire. It’s the happy trivialities that keep us afloat, and we should cling to them for all they’re worth.

Speaking of happy trivialities, here’s a video of sculpture #702. As Jeff would say, lose yourself in the movement.