Monday, July 31, 2017

Mallory Bass, the poet who put on a painting show

This past month I was commissioned for a painting from someone who had secretly been a fan of my work since our college days at MSU. This came as a little bit of a shock because since graduating from the Glasgow School of Art, I really haven't painted much, maybe 4 or 5 smallish paintings a year, but I don't do anything with them, let alone exhibit them.

I should catch myself for suggesting that grad school beat the fun of painting out of me. That's not the case. There was a stigma attached to painting that I encouraged since it was such defacto "Art". Wanting to learn how to take on new risks fit the graduate program's aims; to analytically get at what kind of artist we wanted to be. From the opening line of one of the program tutor's essays: "It's best not to automatically equate painting with art. Sometimes painting is simply painting, an innocent, art-free zone."


It felt silly enough to want prove to myself that I was going to be a real artist (somewhat feeling like Pinocchio), but I did spend some time asking what it would take to become a real painter. The inquiry was short lived as one of my first studio visits by a well-established painter, was something along the lines of this: "Yes, I can see that you struggle to find yourself as a painter, but should anyone help you to make these paintings better?... there are usually two outcomes of this, either dabbling in other mediums is just a temporary fling (research for paintings), or you become known for doing lots of different things." This artist personally did not care for artists that did lots of different things, but he did at least admire conceptual artists like Douglas Gordon and recommended that I read James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake if I wanted to really engage with experimentation and constantly varying styles.

I still tell myself that much of my careerist success was part of a 'fake it til' you make it' strategy which downplays connecting my work ethic with authenticity. Amanda Palmer has done a good job of calling out this anxiety as the fraud police, but perhaps combating any kind of creative block is most effective when we can recognize ourselves doing this to ourselves.

I was pleased to find out that poet-curator-friend Joey Cannizzaro also has the same unease with Art, in his case at one point he too made a conscious break from straight forward poetry. He developed a certain criticality (aka cringing) towards Poetry and keeps his own poetry almost entirely to himself nowadays. At least for Joey, one of his mentors was able to successfully shift his thinking: aren't all of your activities essentially acts of poetry? And don't they continue the things that initially interested you about poetry, but done a way that pushes what poetry can do? It's because you are very much so thinking like a Poet. (apologies to Joey if I have butchered the re-telling of his personal story.)

I love being involved in the feedback loop of painting, especially to see the work in person and crit it, but I don't pull from the discipline into other kinds of art in the same way that I feel like I utilize my training as an art educator as a kind of toolkit. There seems to be only remote areas that I can tell I am calling forth my skills developed as a painter: determining the flow and composition while curating a show, habitually showing up (mentally) to work on art which is about having faith in a daily practice. I usually make other people cringe when I talk about the pleasure I get from certain paintings and honestly, I do talk about painting in seemingly inconsistent ways.

Like the look I get from co-workers as they travel frame Christian Rosa's paintings and I start going into how much I enjoy the minimal Miró-like marks on a large sparse canvas by Christian Rosa; how it would look great on a collector's big wall, pushing other paintings out of the way. Usually my passionate conversations go on for much longer, as another painter and myself scroll through images online getting glimpses of each others' favorite painters (which happen to be a lot of women, and usually, but not specifically, abstract painters): Charline von Heyl, Judy Pfaff, Lesley Vance, Gee's Bend Quilters, Dana Schutz, Sheila Hicks, R.H. Quaytman, Käthe Kollwitz, and of course Helen Frankenthaler.

I guess I've still got some pretty heavy baggage considering I still haven't gotten to the review of "Colors" by Mallory Bass up until August 6th at Namaste Highland Park.

This confessional prologue can't just use Helen Frankenthaler as a simple segway, that'd be a pretty epic comparison. But Bass' exhibition can't be taken at face value even if she herself says that it's just about her love of color, it's not that it may not be the case. I learned from writers like her, that you don't start off with a caveat, an apology. And, read for the sub-text. Yes, the show is easy to look at non-representational work, some stained with items you could find in a your own kitchen, displayed in a safe space of a yoga studio, in the most quickly gentrified, hipster part of LA. And she was kindof a weekend warrior making her art, churning out works on the floor of a temporarily empty office. I heard, but didn't see that she tinted the tablecloth for the wine and food at the opening with colors to match. All of these things sound downright trite, but this is Mallory's show... and she's a poet...

We became fast friends at the Vermont Studio Center because we were intrigued by each others' different practices. This comes full circle as I'm inspired to write about her visual works. Mallory wanted to learn the process of putting on an art exhibition and asked me if I could help show her how to build real wooden frames for the works. She didn't know that I would employ a tactic that I've always relied on: pretending that I know how to do something and then frantically trying to figure out how to teach myself just prior to showing someone else how to do it.

I am trying to wean myself off of bad habits where exhibitions are an excuse to get no sleep, and get crazy stressed which probably goes hand in hand with the dogmatic aspects of Real Art that requires Real Suffering. It's so hard to get out of that solipsistic sense of worth because subconsciously we don't want to be thinking about other more uncomfortable things. So exhibitions, even Rachel's, would throw me into a panic, (i.e. Shit SHIT SHIT, the work isn't finished yet, but I still need to make a facebook invite to tell people about the show) but Mallory did it with a lightness that proves that exhibiting sellable paintings is only as alienating as our intentions, but we need to talk about the acts as a whole, not as the pursuit of Real Painting for Real Success. It also makes me reconsider an instinct I have which is to default to heightening all aspects of amateurism so that I can have a self-effacing out.

I know that she too struggles with her creative output, like so many of us with full time jobs. But putting on a painting exhibition was a breakthrough of creativity. These are not "paintings about painting" That's the lame go-to explanation for contemporary and/or confusing wall pieces. When you don't like the paintings then you it's "zombie formalism". Some of the paintings were in the scale and proportion of Polaroids, which reminds me of the way friends and I would decorate our walls with friendly familiar faces.

When she sent everyone an invitation, they too were unique paintings, as were all of the neighborhood advertisements that she put up on light poles. Even the little tour she gave us about what the process of making the paintings meant to her, all the energy connected to a Gesamtkunstwerk.

I have to say this again, because I enjoy thinking about it so much. At a time where I couldn't imagine myself putting on painting into a show unless it was as a conceptual exhibition, she thought she would just put on a painting show because it helps her imagination. I have a word painting she gave me, one of many painted notes that she wrote to herself and pinned up on her walls. This one says "the imagination is the beloved". When she first moved to LA and I was telling her how tough it was for me to figure out how to make art here she told me that the visiting poet at VSC, Steve Scafidi had some prime advice: Take a little bit of pleasure, then a little bit more.

In a conversation between Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari and Liam Gillick, they each described a personal issue they struggled with in art making, something that could get at a wider Art World crisis. For Baldessari it was that he could potentially be making trinkets for rich people, for Liam Gillick, it was that he had to work with the marketing department first to describe what the work was before the work was finished. (I don't remember what Lawrence Weiner said, but maybe it was about how no one actually understands what he was getting at). I personally felt like I rarely saw working models of the kind of artists and artistic career I'd want to emulate, and I also only felt successful if my friends were able to make the best work possible too. But I should flip this. I have always been inspired more by friends and what they do everyday and so are the people that come to shows for a sense of community. I enjoyed seeing all the little gold stars next to the works that sold, which seemed to surprise Mallory. She must have only considered having them up for sale as little more than a formality in the greater experiment of donning the identity of painter who has to let their children go.  I don't know how to make this not so patronizing, but I sincerely wish that sales could always be this feeling, not pretending that we didn't really want that speculative sold-out-before-the-opening kind of momentum, but that somehow, a purchase was tangible appreciation for a felt connection between the buyer and the maker. They may have bought the work because it was pretty, but probably, those who showed up in the first place were there because they wanted to show their support for Mallory Bass' overall creative life. "Cool, you actually made something I can buy that will definitely remind me of you, here's some cash, keep working!"

Back in Vermont we discussed the nuances between the different disciplines. Often other artists usually refuse to entertain my vague qualifications for fear that it might end with some pointless generalizing. All I can say is that if I could have put it more simply with more clarity, I would've. The field of writing is weird because after works are finished they usually get sorted into categories such as Fiction and Non-fiction, coloring the way that someone approaches the work. I recently heard this dilemma from someone in a writing MFA that knows that they are a better editor than a writer, but they're both referred to as the same thing: writing. I wonder if the visual art equivalent of this is that talking about conceptual art and doing conceptual art is referred to as the same thing: conceptual art.

I recall one of the first times we talked at a long communal table, she actually snapped at someone who said to us, "wait, are you still talking about this?" She was as into talking about process as I was. I also recall that she read an amazing private e-mail to her lover John, presented as creative writing piece, and it blew my mind that one could so easily blur the line between ones art and ones life without being a workaholic where every moment/interaction was capitalized on (Looking at you Instagram). Actually, now that I think about it, part of the romantic reason I've always admired my poet friends was because I thought they were brave for sticking with a discipline that has no clear careerist goal. One didn't do it to become a millionaire through sales, they're less deluded about their prospects within very limited institutional positions, and there wasn't the same pressure to get an MFA so that it might lead to gallery representation and more sales. I recall a vintage poster that read: "POETRY DEMANDS UNEMPLOYMENT".

The way that people talk about marks as gestures, is the way that I see the act of putting on an exhibition are gestures. I actually thought that the Underground Museum's "Artists of Color" was going to be a bold gesture where there wasn't a single black artist, where Noah Davis was making some kind of cruel joke or  statement about how we would rather get into a deep conversation about  abstraction than one about race relations in an art context. Can you imagine if it had only had these artists?

I like that I tend to come back to a few personal truths about art, namely that a successful artist is one that continues to make art, that the viewer/audience (not the artist or an institution) can ultimately decide if something is art or not, and that I really enjoy trying to figure out how to best support other creative peoples' work and that can be a fundamental part of my practice. In that way, my writing is like Mallory's paintings, I definitely get something out of it; in a way that feels much less blocked than other creative outputs. It seemed like a fun thing to do to get out of my own head, it was only as hard as I thought it would be considering that I kindof do write all the time, just not in any official capacity, and now I felt like sharing this with you because I'm proud of it and I hope you like it too, simple as that.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Top 10 things to do in LA

When we first moved to LA there just wasn't the same kind of instant immersion that I was used to living in the much smaller cities of Detroit and Glasgow. Someone informed us that it takes about three years to acclimate to living in LA, but we had not yet learned about the pervasive FOMO (fear of missing out). I understood this concept as the main psychological symptom of using Facebook, but I didn't know that this was the kind of mythmaking that bigger cities produce. Either everyone you know actually was there, or the event was necessarily exclusive so that it wouldn't be as overwhelming as the crowds at Disneyland.

What I must concede after learning key lessons, (lessons which someday soon I will make into a top 10 things that artists should prepare for before moving to LA), is that of course I am part of the problem.

From the day we officially became Angelenos by moving into 90033 we were gentrifiers. We finally found a decent place in our price range as Rachel set aside two full weeks to looking for our next place to live and part time work. Just a few hours prior to our tour of the place we're in now, someone else offered $100 dollars more per month than it was listed for, cash deposit in hand. I had lied about where we lived to get a decent job, but my pay stubs could be a red flag (Rachel wasn't really working yet) so we had to be as attractive as possible. We were just beginning to understand how buying a home was much more affordable than renting, a concept much more palpable seeing that our potential landlords were our age, and also just winging it.

Buying a home actually actually sounds laughable now. On the radio I heard that the average home price in LA is over 600,000 and the situation in our part of Boyle Heights became much more sad when a unit down the street from us with much less perks is advertising for $2,300 per month for a one bedroom.

It's hard to imagine living anywhere else in LA considering that we were priced out of every other part of Los Angeles besides Koreatown and going much farther East. But since moving here we drastically altered my commute from a 1¼ drive to a 15 minute bike ride. My work's woodshop also doubled as my only studio. This has been some next-level quality of life shit, but I also realize now that this is essentially my non-monetary standard of living that I developed since college. I can't work without air conditioning or a studio outside of my home close at hand.

When Ham Poe called me up out of the blue as some tend to do, it wasn't until he asked me what to check out that I realize that I have shifted into feeling at home here. This month we renewed our lease to enter our third year, it comes with the 3% rent-controlled increase, and at work I've asked for and gotten a raise three times. Since coming back from our Documenta trip (Berlin/Athens), our mindset is engaged again with being more light and spontaneous, so not only do we have spaces we can go that may provide some inspiration, but there is more of a balance between weekdays and weekends. There is less of an urge to see what there is to explore and so staying in no longer feels like a FOMO. Also Rachel is looking forward to making work for two exhibitions, the first opportunities not related to CalArts alumni.

I told Ham to grab a piece of paper because I wanted to see if I could come up with a top 10 in order off the top of my head and was about to rattle them all off like I did for Detroit and Glasgow. With annotations/corrections below, here it is in Ham's own handwriting, in order of must-see:

  1. The Museum of Jurassic Technology
  2. Hiking
  3. The Underground Museum
  4. Korean Spas
  5. Reserve Ames (art gallery)
  6. Chris Burden's Metropolis ii @ LACMA
  7. Commonwealth & Council / Human Resources (bit more community oriented art galleries)
  8. Frog Town: Women's Center for Creative WorkBiking the LA river, Zebulon
  9. Little Tokyo for food / Retrokitsch Divebar in Chinatown for drinks
  10. Relaxing on the Beaches
Apps for tips on getting around - Waze, 5 Everyday