It’s important not to rant on one’s blog. Still, sometimes it’s the stuff that’s wrong with the world that whips you up into a right state. I’ve mentioned before that some gallery nights in Dallas are disappointing, that most of what hangs on walls and perches on pedestals is not good art. But it’s helpful for one to keep things in perspective by seeing what’s going on in other sectors of the art world, or really, other art worlds.
Saturday the kids and I met some friends at the Cottonwood Art Festival in Richardson, TX, for an afternoon of looking at what these artists are up to, not to mention eating kettle corn and drinking $5 beers in small plastic cups. Mmmm, it tastes so good in that plastic cup. We all had a good time; it helps to have low expectations. I can’t expect to be amazed by the art at this kind of art-under-a-tent public event. But, as it turns out, I was amazed… amazed at the crushing terribleness of the wares on display.
The photo above of a Thomas Moran-esque romantic, bluebonnet-strewn landscape, framed and leaning against a tree, was the one photo that seemed to need taking. (It’s priced at five figures, and it’s leaning on a tree!) Not that I didn’t try to take other photos during our stroll; I figured there was no harm in snapping pics of artwork that’s already in direct outdoor sunlight, especially if I said that I wanted to put it on my blog. Hell, you can take photos at the Fort Worth Modern, so surely you can photograph the mannequin figures shellacked with magazine pages, right? Wrong. I was framing my photo of said display, really digging for anything redeeming about what I was seeing at the festival–in this tent, along with the actual papered mannequin sculptures, there were photos of the figures in various settings, and I like it when people make something then take pictures of it on location–when the artist emerged from behind me to interrupt the shot. I told him I did an art blog, and he said no photos please. “We have prints available, and that’s kinda what they’re for,” he says.
Yes, this guy was patronizing me. I was nonplussed. I thought artists craved attention and press, even if it’s in a piddly blog like this one. But, as he seemed to see it, I was taking a photo in lieu of purchasing a piece, as if a snapshot taken of artwork in a tent at an outdoor community festival were like an mp3 on an illegal file sharing site, and I was about to shaft him out of a legitimate, purchased download. If it was just a concern of flash exposure damaging the artwork, I’d be more sympathetic, though the persistent sunlight all weekend would seem to be the bigger threat. But, it was a proprietary move by the artist: if you like it, buy it, because photos hurt his livelihood.
Maybe he’s right; I don’t know how things work in his art world. But, as our browsing the tents made very clear, engaging with the contemporary world, pushing the limits of our expressive capacities, and trying to say something new about “what it’s like to be a fucking human being,” as David F. Wallace puts it, is not how things work there.
These encounters with sub-par art always get me trying to articulate what distinguishes good art from bad art. The whole issue is complex, though this festival art isn’t. There is no complexity to be found there. There is technique, there are nice frames, and I’m grasping for a third attribute to add, but I have nothing to say that not mean-spirited, so I’ll hush up.
Since I was a kid, utterly ignorant of modern art past Picasso, I remember attending these events, like Mayfest in Tulsa, strolling through the tents, looking closely at everything for clues about what art was and how I could do it better, and I was always underwhelmed. It was like someone who has vague dreams of becoming a U.S. senator but, for all he knows, there is only his rural city council to aspire to. “Well heck,” he says, “I want to be part of governing, so I guess I’ll go for Catoosa City Council when I’m old enough.” Seeing all this uninspired, uninspiring visual product as a kid didn’t change my mind about wanting to be an artist, but it did make me wonder if this was all I had to look forward to.
Luckily, when I moved to Denton, TX, to go to college with the future Mrs. Public I ran face-first into actual contemporary art, and as much as I sometimes question the value of going to college to be an artist, I sure learned that there is this whole other incredible realm where strange and brilliant people strive to make strange and brilliant objects, basically for their own sake.
So, I attend these fairs to have a good time with friends and family, to be out in the early autumn air, to drink beer, to ponder whether or not Jim Public could do an event like this; and, even as my expectations for the art are immeasurably low, I’m always struck be the terrifying mediocrity of it all. For example, I was intrigued by the black scratchboard technique of rendering animals and then glazing over it with color to make them more lifelike; technically there was something to look at there. But, as we went on, I began to wonder how long it would be till we arrived at the next booth that featured the exact same stuff by a different artist: it happened within 30 minutes.
I leave you with a photo of the kids in the creative zone glazing their ceramic tiles which will soon hang in our kitchens or protect our tables from boiling saucepans. And I leave you with a final analogy. I usually avoid conversations about why so much art isn’t real or good, because I don’t like looking pretentious. But, imagine you’ve been immersed in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, enjoying all the latest advancements in graphics, player interface, sophistication of game play, and just having a great time: you’re a hard-core gamer, and the game developers have come through for you. Later you attend a local gaming convention and when you arrive you’re confronted with checkerboards created in different colors and sizes, and variations of those wooden games with golf tees like they have at the Cracker Barrel, and marbles. You finally see a plugged-in screen and a crowd of people gathered around two players actually holding joysticks; approaching, you realize that they’re playing a poorly re-made version of Pong, and, what’s more, no one seems to think that this is lame on every level of lameness. You try to strike up a conversation about Call of Duty and not only does no one know what you’re talking about, but they’re eying your camera suspiciously.
This is what it’s like, my friends.
As I was painting and sanding in turn, trying to build up a good-looking surface on this painting, I eventually started to see the image of a baboon running across the top of the canvas. Normally I don’t go seeking imagery in abstract artwork, especially my own; usually it’s impressions, visual and emotional, that I’m seeking. But, these paintings emerge through a process a lot like excavation, so when I see in them things that look like symbols or archetypes, it’s fitting to go with it and see if the image and the paint work together in the end. The image and the paint both feel primal, so I think it works.
Run Big Monkey is a big painting that took a lot of elbow grease. A friend of mine has this interesting idea that maybe I should set my prices by adding up the labor hours and multiplying that number by an hourly wage, which is an elegant theory; I like how it demystifies the way we assign value to artwork, at least monetary value. Paintings like these, however, for all their size and complexity, would probably have too high a price tag with that method. It is a cool idea, though, charging by the hour. What do you think?
I made this painting on top of an old canvas from a series of nine paintings I did in 2005 for a big LA show at Patricia Faure Gallery, which has since passed away with its long-beloved owner Patty. Those paintings were labor-intensive themselves, though less so than Big Monkey. I had the same idea then about pricing my artwork as I do now: the lower the price, the more likely it is to sell. I talked to the gallery people about the price for the pieces. I wanted them to be $4000 each. They talked me up to $6500, using the argument, which sounded great at the time, that a gallery of Faure’s prestige has to maintain a certain baseline price level; in other words, the fact that my paintings had been chosen by that gallery made them more valuable right off the bat. By the time I arrived for the reception the price sheet showed that they were $8000 each. None of them sold. Now, I take my share of the responsibility for this: had I made them better, they would have had a better chance with collectors. But, had they been priced lower, they also would have had a better chance.
Running an art career on my own, as I am right now, I feel a nice sense of empowerment. I can set my prices as I deem appropriate. On the other hand, lacking the connections that a good gallery provides, I am much less likely to sell any of these larger paintings, even at the fraction of gallery market value that I have priced them at.
It’s an odd dilemma that I’m in. $4000 is a lot for most of us to spend on a painting, even at the large scale of Big Monkey. Yet $4000 is a suspiciously small amount for seasoned art collectors to spend on a painting like this. In either case, something seems fishy. In fact, sometimes I think the best move would be to double my prices across the board so that they seem more legit. This quest of mine to make serious contemporary art at a decent price may be doomed from the outset. Perhaps if I can eventually persuade an art dealer to lend them some legitimacy and partner with me, then things will go more smoothly. In the meantime, I’ll just keep working toward my goal and try to make interesting things happen.
Run Big Monkey is acrylic on canvas, 87″ x 67.″ It resides in our living room, on the only wall that can hold it. Because it’s so big the bottom foot and a half is obscured by the loveseat in front of it, so it feels like it’s part of the household, vying for its own space like everything else in here.
Last fall, while I was working on God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, I was also at work on a painting similar in size and technique. I was looking a lot at the mid-to-late-20th century American painters Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston while I painted, seeking to be inspired and educated by these makers of beautiful messes. The particular Mitchell I studied over and over was a tiny reproduction of La Grande Vallée (1983) from an AbEx series of commemorative stamps (as seen below, bottom row, second from the left, between Motherwell and Gottlieb). The blues and yellows in that painting were all the more arresting and mysterious because of the small scale of the stamp; it was like looking at a glorious painting across a football field.
The Guston I had in mind while I worked on the painting that ended up being Jormungand is called The Light (1964) from the collection of the Modern in Fort Worth. Like the Mitchell above, this painting is so much about vigorous, broad, wriggling brushwork, this time in grey and pink.
What happens when you look at a lot of art over a lot of years is you start to see how some people just know how to make things look good; this description, “one who makes things look good,” is for me the best definition of what an artist does. Of course, determining what looks good is a subjective process, and this is kind of the point. If we all liked the same stuff, or if we could apply objective criteria to a visual object to determine its “good-looking” grade, then making and looking at and talking about art wouldn’t be much fun. Because the experience of beauty is elusive and specific to the individual, the pursuit of beauty can make life an adventure. And, when two people stand before a giant, scribbled canvas by Guston or Mitchell, for example, they can draw on their memories and intuition, exercise their senses of taste and judgment, and come to know better their own and each other’s notions of truth and beauty, which I think is as worthy an experience as any.
And, the art doesn’t mind our scrutiny and judgment, because it’s inanimate, perched on the wall, exposed fully, intended for as much gazing as we have to give it. The arts in general provide the perfect outlet for our innately human compulsion to judge others in order to understand ourselves better. And it is an excellent antidote for the more pervasive and, I think, malignant forms of judgment we indulge in when we watch reality tv or skim the pages of glossy magazines, calling on our ideas of beauty and righteousness as we repudiate or extoll, depending on how much they confirm or subvert our individual visions for the way things and people ought to be, the images of real human beings before us. In this way, art, which is both amoral and inhuman, can make us more moral humans.
Mitchell and Guston just make things look good. Their individual senses of scale and color, the way they each handle paint, and everything else they bring to their canvases, despite their abstract messiness, makes them distinct and lovely. These two painters continue to give me a lot of material to work with in my own studio. Looking at Jormungand now, you would hardly think that it started as an homage to The Light, but a painting has to start somewhere. As I built up layers of acrylic and sanded them down, transforming the surface slowly into what it ended up looking like, with the tans and blacks swirling up a wicked froth, it felt more and more Norse in character. And, having been watching the live simulcasts of the Met’s Ring cycle, I went in the direction of the epic (rather than the cosmic, as with Covenant) when I was titling the painting. In Norse myth, Jormungand is the world serpent who encircles the Earth and holds the conflicting universal forces in check by holding his tail in his mouth, making of himself a protective ring for our planet. It is said that when he one day lets go of his tail, the Norse version of Armageddon will begin. Which sounds wicked and fits the vibe I get from this painting.
Jormungand is acrylic on canvas, 45.25″ x 41.25.″ Like Covenant, it also lives in our bedroom, and I’m happy to report that I have yet to get tired of looking at it, which for me is a good sign that I’m on the right track in the studio. I’ve destroyed a lot of old artwork over the years as they age before my eyes and start to look stupid; I don’t foresee that happening with these paintings.
I want to catch you up on some of the larger artworks I’ve made in the last year since we moved to Garland. A lot of the paintings I’ve done over the years are in the medium-to-large size range–between about 3′ and 8′ in one dimension–which doesn’t lend itself either to ease of shipping or modesty of price; they are a bit heavy, and they take a lot of time to make. As you know, I have a broad commitment to finding ways of making reasonably-priced artwork and connecting to an audience that includes, but is not restricted to, the traditional contemporary art world. But, I am also committed to making the best artwork I can, and this pursuit sometimes takes me beyond parameters such as pricing, weight, scale, and so on.
Now that I’ve begun the Camelot quest and I’m making the effort to meet the members of my community here in the Dallas area, as well as on the web, I want to make these larger, more intensive pieces of art available for your viewing and, because there’s always a chance, purchase. If a neighbor did one day decide to buy one of my larger paintings, the collector, being local, is all-too-easy to reach for delivery, so shipping would be a non-issue. For now, and for simplicity, there will be no Paypal buttons for these pieces, as I don’t expect those of you who live far away to want a painting shipped to you at a cost somewhere in the low $100s, considering crate-building, weight, and insurance. And for you local potential collectors, cash or check is an easier form of payment, and I don’t have to cough up a percentage to Paypal for handling it. If one of you would like to subvert my expectations and pay for the crating and shipping of this or another large piece to you, please show me the error of my ways, and I’ll accommodate you posthaste.
That long preface behind us, let’s turn our attention to the painting above. It was one of the two paintings I first made once we got settled here. Some of you may have seen it on my former blog, Look On My Works. It’s comprised of many layers of paint which I alternately built up and sanded down until I liked what I was looking at, which is a kind of supernatural cosmic landscape, and I titled it with the kind of language Wayne Coyne uses to name Flaming Lips songs.
Covenant is acrylic on canvas, 48.5 ” x 41.5.” It lives in our bedroom, as it has since last autumn, and, unlike most of the stuff I’ve made as an artist, I haven’t gotten tired of looking at it. In fact, like the best work an artist does, it makes me say to myself, “Wow. I can’t believe I made that.”
I’m happy to announce two extensions of the Jimiverse!
First, I’ve made this blog available for Kindle at Amazon.com. The cost, set by Amazon, is $1.99/month, and you get a 14-day free trial. If you click the Amazon link in the sidebar, just there to the left, not only will you be taken to the Amazon page where you can subscribe to Jim Public: Your Local Artist, but I think I get a couple of cents if you end up subscribing to it after having clicked that specific link! I can already feel the weight of those pennies jingling in my pockets…
Next, I created a Twitter account. I’m @jimpublic. As I make blog posts, I will tweet the link over there in addition to providing a link on Facebook. If any of you can suggest some good folks to follow on Twitter, shout them out. So far I’ve already stopped following a lot of comedians who keep spouting out mean-spirited one-liners that just don’t work for me.
It’s thundering outside! Our crunchy corpse of a lawn may just have a second chance at life.
I’ve stated that I am a hyper-local artist, and I see two aspects of what this means.
First, I am a geographically local artist, a person who does creative work in my suburban neighborhood and attempts to connect the work to the life of the neighborhood. True, I am still in the planning stages of the Facelife door-knocking campaign, which I’ll be starting as soon as it’s under 100 degrees by 5pm, probably next week if we’re lucky. My daughter JPG starts school next Tuesday, which seems as good a time as any for me to start my own autumn adventure.
Because Art refers to a broad, shape-shifting array of activities, artists have perfect freedom to give whatever form they want to their practices. My own values of community living, grassroots engagement, and making affordable artwork all feed into this hyper-local shape I’m giving to my practice. At this point I know what I think is important to leading a worthwhile life and I have a good idea of the kinds of artwork I want to do, but as I proceed with my values guiding me, my oeuvre could look and sound and feel like pretty much anything, and I love the sense of adventure in that.
Next, I’m a local artist on the web. Because of its virtual nature, the web is simultaneously vast and local because all web content is a mere URL (and maybe a password) away. As I do what I do here, my goal is to reach out to my geographical neighbors here in Garland and to my virtual neighbors here on the web. Reaching out to fellow internet-users is a big challenge obviously, because my web content comprises a near-undetectable trace of all the information on the web. But, as anyone who has started a business from scratch will tell you, of course it’s all hard work, and it may all come to nothing, forcing me to seek a living elsewhere. At this early stage of my conquest I am still full of optimism that persistence will win the day for Jim Public, that as I pound the cement pavement outside my front door and the digital pavement beyond my computer monitor, I will nurture this thing and make something that is meaningful to enough people that I will earn the privilege to keep doing it.
There was an article this summer on Glasstire, the Texas-based art site, that discusses the lack of urban density in DFW and the impact of this lack on the art scene. The author suggests that it takes geographical and social density to create the kind of energy that gives spark to a vital art scene, and that Dallas’s art scene isn’t so vital because the city and its inhabitants are too thinly and broadly spread. Reading that article was a signal moment for me. I think it was the tipping point that helped me to gather my ideas about what I want to do as an artist and put those ideas into action, rather than tuck them away in the corner of my mind labeled “crazy” and continue pushing for a more conventional art career of making expensive artwork and wiggling through the social channels to get it seen by the right people so that the wealthy can fee secure in bestowing a purchase on this youngish, strange artist among many young, strange artists.
I believe that by going hyper-local, both in the neighborhood and on the web, I can make artwork that means something to people and that makes me the kind of modest living that will let me keep doing this. And don’t mistake my talk of making a living for a call to support you local artists or whatever. An artist is owed nothing by his community, and you should feel no obligation to support him just because he’s locally-based and engaged in some socially special activity. Art is like anything else: if you like what I do and you want some of it, you can choose to buy some. It is my job, the artist’s job, to make something that people care about, not the public’s job to care about what the artist is up to.
That said, talk to y’all next time!
August has truly been a summer travel extravaganza for the Public family. During the weeks prior to our camping in the New Mexico mountains we spent 5 days each in Austin and Tulsa. Then after one day of recovery from New Mexico (and Carlsbad Caverns, which was beautiful both underground in the caves and on top of the mesa looking out over a hundred miles of desert disrupted by the sudden majesty of the Guadalupe Mountains) the four of us headed to DFW airport for our final summer trip to Salt Lake City. Salt Lake in the summer is so absurdly beautiful that it exists outside of my personal conception of time and space. Living as I have in Oklahoma, Texas, and southern Nevada, I cannot conceive of summer as being anything but mostly miserable outside. So, while our yard in Garland now has a fault-line of dry earth stretching across it, baked by intense heat and drought, the yards here in Utah are lush and dewy, water flowing copiously through the city’s network of streams and channels. It’s way refreshing.
On the plane heading out here, I opted out of sliding my credit card for $6 worth of Direct TV programming, but I did get to watch a handful of ads promoting the upcoming fall season of mostly reality programming. The X Factor and one of those Top Chef type shows both caught my attention. The bevy of talent-seeking programming is a sign of the times, obviously. The internet and our growing capacity for narcissism are part of this trend in which many of us can seek, if we choose to, our fame and fortune and vindicate our latent certainty that each of us has something special to offer the world. I am totally part of this trend.
However, I don’t want to be the next Kelly Clarkson or celebrity chef. My ego craves recognition, but my quality of life requires that I spend much of my time with loved ones, or reading, or making stuff. To be a superstar you have to make sacrifices; to make millions demands more than I’m willing to give. But, I do want to use the contemporary media landscape to transform myself into a ministar. To hell with megastardom: I’m aiming for a middle-class living here.
For me, choosing to be a visual artist is about working hard to make up new content all the time, to find an audience for it, and to make enough money that I don’t have to get a day job. It’s a lifestyle about maximizing work time, because the work is its own reward. So, if I can create interesting content and make it available in different formats for the enjoyment, edification, and purchase of a relatively small number of people in my local and internet communities, and I can pay my bills, then I have a the life I want.
The internet has the potential to redistribute stardom into a scenario in which the are many more of us making a far more reasonable amount of money. I love Gaga, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and a lot of other arena acts that have monopolized stardom in recent decades; I want those crazy fame-seekers to continue to blow our minds and make piles of cash. There is no Gaga without a heavy revenue stream to support the operation. On the other hand, and on the other end of the income spectrum, I’m eager to take my place among the broad, diverse scene of cultural acts who pull in an annual haul somewhere in the mid-five-figures. This would constitute a huge success for me and my endeavor.
The X Factor talent series, and those like it, represents one phase of the transition toward everyone having the opportunity to be famous entertainers. What people like me are shooting for is the next extension of that trend, toward a cultural landscape in which thousands of small acts work hard to make their art and to build their audience so we can make are modest living doing what we love.