Monday, April 16, 2007

Plastic, Paper, Scissors

I know a lot of artists who face this dilemma. I'm not saying I'm one of them, and I'm not saying I'm not. It's kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don't sort of thing. We have too many of these paper/plastic, lose/lose scenarios in our lives. Bad options, or really no options. Artists are faced with the choice of following a dream that is going to break their heart, or breaking their heart by not following their dream. Again, paper/plastic.

Because no matter what you think of someone's work, or what they tell you about it, what they hang out there is their heart. It may look like a lump of coal, but it is their heart. At one time I made a living writing about art in New York City, the big art dormitory, in the late Seventies/early Eighties, and the only reason I was a success, and I was, was not because I could write, because I couldn't, but because what I wrote about was just that: the heart that they hung out there. Maybe it was masked in rhetoric, wrapped in armor, buried in code, but it was their heart, and I could see it and write about it. I made seasoned, tough-minded artists CRY! You could see that, feel that, they would ask. How? It made what they were doing a success.

The other thing would happen too, and it did. Some artists felt exposed, and as a result, angry. They didn't want anyone to know that their heart was there, and that they could therefore get it broken.

Because that is what happens. You hang your heart out there and it is going to get broken. Sooner or later. Just happens that way. Goes with the territory. Comes with the job. Sure, some artists think that by trying to hide it or guard it they can protect it. Maybe for a while. But some night they are going to wake up and feel it breaking. And then what are they going to do?

What does everybody think has been happening all these years with all these artists who hang themselves or drive their car into a tree. Sure, I came from the other school of thought, that art was the thing that saved them, but in the end, yes, twas beauty that killed the beast!

As Charles Giuliano, the former Boston art critic, said in print somewhere, or maybe in an interview with me, I can't remember, the worst thing that can happen to an artist is to be ignored. I thought the worst thing was not to be an artist. Paper/Plastic.

The reason I bring all this up is because I am dumbfounded by the striking resemblance the life of the artist bears to the mental disorder they call bipolar. What we have here is the artist as yo-yo lurching between the giddy heights of glorious grandiosity and the loathsome self-pity of a bottomless depression. There isn't an in-between. No artist sets their sights on anything less than world fame. Picasso is the bar. Nothing less. It is like the kid shooting free throws pretending that there are two seconds left and the championship rides on his shot. BUT, we're talking about grown-ups. There should be an in-between. Not paper/plastic.

I spoke to two artists last week, and got a message from a third. We're all in the same boat. We all want to keep afloat, keeping our dream of the artist in us alive. But we need something no one can give us. We need a ringing world class endorsement of our greatness. Again, nothing less will do. Aspiring to anything else is what is called embracing mediocrity. Oooouu! There is no such thing, of course, as proof of being a great artist, which is why even seemingly successful artists perish by their own hand. Gregory Gillespie did it at this time a few years ago. It is probably in his honor that I write this; it is certainly because of him that at this time every year since, what he did is on my mind. There is something wrong with the art world that this happens. There needs to be a voice, somewhere, but we don't hear it in the academy or the media, quite the contrary. The message we do hear instead is all or nothing.

Recently I was berated by some art curator for my lack of ambition. He started to quote something about small ambitions when I reminded him that I had said I had NO ambitions, and then he got it.

“Most people would succeed in small things if they were not troubled with great ambitions." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The question, of course, is who cares about small things? I'll say it again: who cares about small things?

“I'd rather have roses on my table than diamonds around my neck.” Emma Goldman

While I was sitting outside thinking about these things a Great Blue Heron flew over head with its giant wing span like a prehistoric beast, like a god, really. It was a humbling experience, and at the same time inspiring. Made me ashamed that I could ever get caught up in stupid stuff. I like to tell the story of how when my oldest was little and we were looking for interesting rocks on a hike one day, he reminded me that when you're looking for just one rock you miss out on all of the others.

Seems to me as artists we could all breathe a little easier if at the very least we could tell ourselves and somehow believe it that Picasso is not the bar; that the bar is sharing what is in that "small thing" that beats in our chest, that we can only hold it out in front of us, cupped in our hands, like a bird. That if we can share that sweetness, with perhaps only those closest to us, we have made the world a better place, and only good can come from that.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

An Inside The Park Homer

As a boy my dreams were of Homer's Odyssey(that's me painting a mural about it in Rome in 1964), but as an adult I have more in common with Homer Simpson. What happened? Good question. Life happened, as they say. We all have boyhood dreams, and then one day we have to put them away, and maybe, if we're lucky, we can make room for the dreams of our children.

My dad was a modern day Odysseus of sorts, business man, flying all over the world poking out the eyes of cyclopses. And sure, I was Telemachus, and I never saw him, literally. In my first marriage I was still Odysseus, still the artist, but I dragged my first son around on my adventures. He seemed to enjoy it, but he knew nothing of stability, because niether did I.

I still paint, I did this morning, but only because I enjoy it, because it connects with another kind of dreaming; a kind of musing. My kids, second marriage, second chance, seem to like what I do, but it stops there. Who knows? But you make choices, and I wouldn't do this one any other way. These Telemachuses are going to have a father, and this Odysseus is going to have them, even if, doh!, he is just a Homer Simpson.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Art Charade

Sol LeWitt gouache, Addison Parks oil
(Courtesy Bow Street Gallery, Winter Salon, 2007)

ArtDeal is not called ArtCharade for a reason, although maybe it should be. The charade is out there for all of us to see and be a part of all the time--the deal is something else. The charade calls to us, and we are alone facing it. Everyone else is urging us on, saying come on in, the water is fine. The bigger the better. If we are concerned about getting swallowed up by the charade, big or small, the one or many, we are pretty much on our own.

There are the individual ones, and the collective. Ones we do to prove something to ourselves, and ones we do to prove something to everyone else. Sometimes we aim high or low, raising or lowering the stakes, raising or lowering the bar; or we target particular groups: maybe our peers, maybe our family, maybe our colleagues, maybe our community, maybe THE WORLD!. I live in suburban Boston(It is rural in feel and abutts Walden Pond, so there is that charade). Suburbia is famous for its unrelenting, muscle-flexing, to-the-death parade of charades, one on top of another like some giant ice cream sundae.

The art world is also pretty grand when it comes to these same kinds of human performances, these same kinds of HYPE; they come in all forms, some more convincing than others, and sometimes it seems that being more convincing is all that matters(more charade to the charade!). What are we to do with them all? Do we give our best performance? Do we strip ourselves naked? My first thought is that whatever we do, the thing that we don't want to do is to believe the charade to be true. If we could dismantle all charades that would be great, but it is not going to happen. I suspect the answer is, as in all things, awareness. As long as we don't buy into the hype, our own or anyone else's, then maybe, just maybe, we stand a chance.

I remember as a boy getting very nervous when people started putting me on a pedestal. I immediately wanted to get down. Often I would behave destructively in order to be removed. I had seen how far others had fallen, and I didn't want to be knocked off when I least expected it. I thought it better to get down by myself. I'm still not sure why.

I read today that the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt died. I was saddened by the news. I've always had a soft spot for him, for his works. I have some. About fifteen years ago I even "drew" some of his wall drawings, at the Addison Gallery no less(all the installations are done by assistants--he doesn't actually physically make them), so that I could write a feature about him for the Christian Science Monitor--see Artdeal Magazine: Features. In that article I raised questions about his role in the careerism(charade!) that obsesses the art world. I regretted that attack today. Apparently he was a very private, shy, and humble person. I didn't know that. I regretted that anything I said might have caused him or anyone close to him pain.

So I asked myself why I had written what I wrote. Why I had found it necessary to end this grand feature I had invested so much time in with a knife to the gut. And then I remembered.

About thirty something years ago LeWitt had come to speak to my school. The way I remember it, that is, the impression he made, was entirely careerist. I was young and hungry for talk of the mysteries of ART, and all he did was boast about how many shows he had had around the world, including Japan, in just one year. I believe the number was 105 or 6. Nothing else. No insight, no chunks of wisdom, no art lore. Just what a successful guy he was. All I saw at that moment was a showman, and I never quite forgave him until today. At that moment I was shocked and dumbfounded and disillusioned, and as a result I never really felt the same way about him again after that. When I read the sweet send-off the Times gave him this morning I asked myself if this could even be the same person. How did I get it so wrong? He didn't even look like the same guy I saw over thirty years ago(and of course neither do I).

Just a few years later, I'm not sure how many, I saw the painter Alex Katz speak and I had a similar reaction. All he did was talk career. Sounded like a merchant--the Music Man--right here in River City. I left the auditorium reeling and that was when I bumped into Richard Tuttle, and went on that bumby ride. He was up to something else, Tuttle was, and I wanted what he was selling. A different type of hype.

Now I don't know if life is a cabaret old chum, but it seems to me that we all have our own charades, and we need not rain on one another's. Tuttle liked to live like a hillbilly in New York. For whatever reason I found that charming. Who knows what kind of issues I was compensating for or surrendering to. Did I think careerism and commercialism were bad where art was concerned? Evidently. Do I still feel that way? I'd say the chances are that I'm worse than ever.

The art world has endless charade possibilities. Commercial, academic, idealistic, and eccentric. Made of bricks, sticks, or straw. More ego, libido, or id. Just step on board. There are guises and masks to suit every shape and size, and every appetite or inclination. One can be a rebel, a maverick, a troublemaker, a malcontent; a visionary, an artiste, an inventor, a philosopher; a charlatan, a hedonist, a sexist, a wiseman, a fool; a purist, a witness, a reformer, a problem solver, a realist, a voyeur; a seducer, a victim, a misunderstood, a truth-seeker, a truth-sayer, a nay-sayer; a liar, a magician, a creator, a destroyer; a classicist, a romanticist, a hero, a saint; a feeler, a healer, a warrior, a peacemaker; a thinker, a perfectionist, a craftsman, a shaman; a god, a demon, a comedian, a whiner; a pessimist, an optimist, an expressionist, an exhibitionist, an explorer; a poet, a dreamer, a naturalist, a spiritualist, a teacher; a uniter, a divider, an entertainer, a communicator, a genius, a catalyst. One and all! All and one! Pick your poison. I can only speak for myself; I know I'm in there.

I just have to keep my eyes open.

Thank You Sol LeWitt

A giant in the art world died. Sol LeWitt. It reminds me how sad it is for someone to have to die before they are not so much given their due as honored for being who they were and what they gave the rest of us. Thank you Sol LeWitt. Thank you for being who you were and we wave goodbye knowing somehow that wherever you're going, that place is going to be better for it--and probably have some great wall drawings too!