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.


Blogger Lesly Finn said...

Dear Ed

what an interesting post - you raise a number of points issues that I've been considering too of late.

I've been doing the rounds a bit in our nearest city, visiting some of the galleries. And a couple of weeks ago I visited some others in the Central district of our region .... a fast-growing playground for the rich and well-heeled.

There are around a dozen or so artists that seem to pop up everywhere I've been. Their work is recognisable instantly (they each have a distinctive style and a definite subject preference), but they seem to be spawning quite a few 'clones' as other artists attempt to emulate their success.

And it certainly seems that the more successful they are the more 'sameness' is to be found in their style of painting. But which came first ... the 'style' or the 'success'?

Like you I am not ready to stick to one type of painting or one particular subject indefinitely. I don't know that I ever could be.

You write "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 think that this sort of artistic freedom is priceless ... and is probably lost (to a greater or lesser degree) once 'success'and 'recognition' enter the equation.

Where that leaves us with regard to a 'body of work', Ed, I don't know. But at the end of the day, we can only hope to be true to ourselves and press on regardless.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...

Lesly, a wonderful and insightful response. I know a couple of artists who enjoy some success and seem to have trapped themselves into becoming production painters because they don't want to give up the money yet complain they want to do other things. What one wants to achieve seems to play a big role in how one makes art.

11:41 AM  
Blogger martham said...

Great post, Ed. I agree with everything you say here. However, we no longer need to settle for the concept of "regional artist" now that we have such wide open internet exposure.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

A very interesting article. For my part I only ever do what pleases me. I long ago decided to ignore commercial pressures and conformity in favour of freedom of expression. It's a personal choice that I guess we all have to make. I could never make painting a 'business' as I know it would take away the pleasure for me. I refuse commissions usually and I won't work to deadlines.

I don't like doing endless variations of the same painting but in order to have some coherence when I have an exhibition I keep going round the block of things I have done before and build up a 'set' over a couple of years or so. It's my way of compromising I suppose.

Then I do something new and that becomes part of another set that I add to as I go around the block again (sometime later). I hope this makes sense.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Lori Witzel said...

Ed, just a quick drive-by to wish you a lovely new year filled with joy and happy creative adventure.

You and your blog have been one of my pleasures this year -- I'm grateful for you sharing your work, and your terrible puns.

1:19 PM  
Blogger amber said...

Dear i too wish you a happy new year i've enjoyed your blog very much I feel i can learn alot from you Thanks for sharing

6:55 PM  
Blogger amber said...

oops meant to write dear ed

6:55 PM  
Blogger jafabrit said...

that was one heck of a long post and I read every word of it,because it resonated with me so much. Sometimes I get discouraged and wonder why I do it, but I really wouldn't want to get trapped in the art market game at the cost of my artistic soul and freedom.

5:20 PM  

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