Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Body Of Work

I was reading Lesly Finn’s blog on putting together a gallery package to present to various galleries. Lesly touched on putting together a style and a body of work. This is a concept that I have read many times before. From a business point of view it makes complete sense. Make no mistake about it, being an artist is a business, like it or not.

I remember reading an article, back in the 1970’s in Artforum Magazine, about the American artist, Larry Poons. As a painter in NYC he achieved critical acclaim doing large paintings of a field of color that had a scatter pattern of ellipses painted on it. He was right up there with other notable painters of the time such as Ken Noland, Frank Stella, and Jules Olitski. These artists were selling paintings before they were even made. One day, Larry Poons, as the story goes, told his agent to give all the money back because he was tired of producing paintings according to a formula and wanted to explore a different vein. He started doing his poured paintings and they were wildly successful. Other artists soon followed and broke free from their self-imposed restraints and pushed their art further along.

So, I have to ask myself what constitutes a body of work? I have read several articles over the years and still it is as clear as mud. One article that I read the author/artist even specified that not only was a signature style necessary but also a signature subject matter. So where does that leave an artist like myself that really wants a bit more latitude in what I do?

Being an artist is a business. This is even truer for a gallery. As an artist it is difficult enough for me to market myself, I can only imagine how difficult it is for a gallery representing dozens of artist. Combine that with the fickle nature of buyers, critics, and fashion trends. Add to this the trends of what subjects, styles, and color combinations are selling the best. After all of that I have to decide, as an artist, what success is to me and what I’m willing to do to achieve it. The simple answer for me is that I want to make good art, that is meaningful to me, that others like and want to purchase at a high enough price that I can earn a living. Then I wake up from the dream and have to face reality. As a young artist I used to think it’s not what you know but who you know until I talked with an older more seasoned artist. He was a veteran of the NYC gallery scene. He told me it’s not who you know but who you blow. I didn’t believe him (or rather I didn’t want to believe him) until I moved to NYC and experienced it firsthand. So what’s a poor artist to do?

As a young man I dreamed of national recognition and the romantic notion of the artist in his loft in the heart of a major metropolitan area. Then came marriage and kids and the lower expectation of becoming a regional artist. As life goes on and I have more time to reflect, I see more clearly the things that are important to me and adjust my goals accordingly. This attitude may be a cop-out or an excuse for not being successful. It may also be the recognition that I am not willing to pay the price to achieve certain kinds of success. I like to think that it is the latter.

So I go back to the idea of what constitutes a body of work. Personally I like to look back at history and the work of artists that I admire and see what I can learn from them. I look at the work of the American painter, Phillip Perlstein. I like and admire his work. The problem for me is that over the last 25 years he still seems to be doing the same painting with little or no change. Chuck Close, the painter of massively oversized portraits, maintains the same subject matter as his body of work but pushes his technique and style. Another 20th century American artist, Wayne Thiebaud, is a favorite of mine. I read a brief biography of him where he stressed it was important to him to be able to paint a full range of subject matter, still life, landscapes, figurative, and nudes. As I have watched his work over the last 25 years I have seen a variety of subject matter from him and watched him ever so gently push his style forward.

Art and life are the same. Both require me to have a strong curiosity of the world around me and to be interested in many things. Both require me to question what I am doing and why I am doing it. Both teach me to take what I have learned from one part of my life and work and apply it to something else. For a year I did nothing but pastel still lifes of fruit and it taught me a lot about drawing the human form. For a few years I did landscapes almost exclusively and now I am doing more nudes. I know that I will cycle back and repeat these subjects over and over again. Every time a new cycle begins I will bring more knowledge and skill with me. I will bring new ways of seeing old things.

I am not burdened with financial success (regretfully). I have greater freedom to make my body of work more varied. I like being able to explore different subjects and periodically experimenting with materials and techniques. This isn’t always easy for me. My OCD wants me to keep things the same, to maintain a routine. Yet, there is another side of me that is afraid if I don’t change that I will somehow diminish myself. So, my body of work is not consistent by subject matter as much as it is consistent by being a reflection of myself. As time goes on and I become more eccentric so will my art.

Both of these paintings are oil on prepared paper. They both measure 24” X 24”. One is a venture into bible themes titled “Nude Figures With Fruit Tree” and the other is titled “By The Pool”, a continuation of nudist themes that I have worked on over the years.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What A Difference A Day Makes

Here in the mid-West, it is a cold, dreary, and snowy day. It is not the cold and snow that I mind so much as it is the lack of sunshine. Here on the shores of Lake Michigan we get what is known as lake effect. The cold air comes across the warmer water and picks up moisture. This causes us to have greater snowfall and much more overcast. For me, gray days make for gray thoughts but then I read a posting by painter, Shari Jamieson and my thoughts changed direction.

Next Wednesday, my grandson, Aidan, will celebrate his first birthday. Shari’s post made me think back to when our youngest daughter came home one evening and told us she needed to talk with us. She had been living in San Diego and was having a hard time of it and returned to Michigan. She had been back less than 6 months and was making plans to enroll in a physical therapy program at the community college. After a few failed adventures, she was looking to get her life in order.

When she told us that she was pregnant I sat there smiling and chuckling. I commented that all those talks about practicing safe sex apparently went unheeded. We have also raised our daughters with the attitude that we wanted to teach them how to think and not what to think. Being an old hippie who was involved in the civil rights, farm workers, and anti war movements I have also embraced feminism. I taught my daughters that only they have the right to decide what should be done to their bodies. We are pro-choice here in the heart of the bible belt (here we are called pro-abortion but then I refer to the anti-choice people as being pro-fetus). My daughter made a choice, she had the baby and kept him, and as promised we supported her in her decision and continue to support and help her with her choice. She knows that being a single parent is not an easy task.

It hasn’t always been easy. There are days that I want to run away from home and try to reinvent myself but I know from experience that doesn’t work. So, I suck it up, pour a glass of wine (not whine) and get on with life. The plans that my wife and I had for retirement are now being redrawn. At my age I expected that my children would be moved out and living their own lives and that my wife and I would be able to go off and have some new adventures and to be a couple again, not just parents. That I would be able to spend more time with my art and follow those dreams. I did not expect to have an infant in the house again. Cie la vie!

Financial success as an artist has eluded me my whole adult life so what’s another decade of waiting? I don’t say that glibly. Success in life, for me, is not measured but what I do or achieve but how well I have learned and how well I have lived my life. Trying not to sound like a Hallmark card, but also by how well I have learned to love. My paintings seldom end up the way that they started out. The twists, turns, and mishaps that occur are all part of the process that forces me to see things in my art that I would’ve otherwise have missed. Art imitates life and life imitates art. In the case of the artist life and art are all one in the same. We find unexpected beauty where we least expect it. All those abandoned places and piles of debris that have been discarded and forgotten. Just look at the photos of Lori Witzel and you’ll see what I mean.

This has been an interesting year for me, filled with twists, turns, and mishaps. I lost my vehicle but survived a major car crash. My disability insurance has run out and I am not able to work due to my disability so I have no income. I am locked in mortal combat with the Social Security Administration trying to deny my disability (My doctors say I cannot return to work. To do so would only make my condition worse). Loss of income has forced us to sell our retirement property in New Mexico. The future looks so much grayer and bleak. I guess it’s time to tighten my belt and make some art out of all of this shit!

The one thing that outweighs all the other stuff is that a year ago this coming Wednesday our grandson, Aidan, was born. He’s my little buddy. He never complains when I repeat my stories. He laughs at all my jokes and he never tells me that what I’m doing is stupid or looks dumb. He is the happiest and most quirky human being that I have ever been so graced to meet. He really does help me to see the world with new eyes. Take comfort, Shari, your world is changing in unexpected ways so just fasten your seat belt and hang on for the ride and what a ride it will be. You will see things and go places that you never imagined. You will also find out things about yourself and your art that may surprise you. And like myself, with pastels, you may discover materials and techniques that you may otherwise have never considered. I know I did!

The above painting is oil on panel that measure 20” X 20” and is an image of my grandson when he was 6 months old. My daughter had just gotten him goggle style sunglasses for the bright summer sunshine. The photo is Aidan with his face pressed up against the sidelight of the door. He is trying to figure out what our dogs are barking at.