Friday, April 2, 2010

Virtually sedentary (but not dead yet): toward an explication

(Warning: one long spew of a post ahead!)

I’ve been home, what, five days? I’m almost settled back into a routine, nearly caught up with all that I do in a day that went neglected while in Vegas: emails, blogroll, twit links, facebook soundbites, Craig’s List and State of Oregon job listings, and a review of hits on my website and this here blog. I started a flickr account and prepared for a book discussion tomorrow. I picked up mail, hauled firewood, walked the dog and kissed DW a zillion times.

Something feels unfinished. Let’s see where this notion takes us.

Before I left for Vegas, a friend, another artist who is a lot more involved with social media than I (he refers to it as “trafficking”) gave me the heads-up on a regional foundation art fellowship grant that I should apply for. It’s a big chunk of change that could make life a little easier in the near term, so I’ve been working on it since I came home.

By and large, I like what I’ve written. The artist’s statement portion of the application is almost rote at this point, having used basically the same text for nearly every teaching job app and grant request in the last year. I’m presenting the “Field Burning” series as a body of work and I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it is that I want to convey in the work.

Farming in our area is going through a major transformation, specifically for grass seed farmers. Recent legislation severely limits the amount of field burning that farmers can do after 2009. The farmers maintain that field burning is the most efficient way to insure a healthy crop; others see the burning as a significant source of pollution and a health risk. While I see both points of view, I see another effect: the burned landscape is actually quite spectacular. “Field Burnings” is part photo-documentary, part reference to painters like Clyfford Still, Anselm Kiefer, and Richard Diebenkorn, and records the end of an era for some farmers while highlighting the beauty that can be found in a controversial farming practice.

I have to tread lightly and strategically in how I describe the body of work. The foundation that is offering the grant comes from old lumber money, so there is the possibility of a particular politic that I may have to dance around; yet there is something else that may present a higher hurdle. The application information obliquely indicates that there will be a preference given to painting and crafts. Those pursuits, it seems, were the favorites of the foundation’s founder. Abstract painting is within her esthetic taste, so I may stand a chance.

While in Vegas, I spent a fair amount of the first couple days visiting with an old friend from Chicago. Mike used to be a big wig in the City of Chicago art program. He is also a fairly successful artist and has taken his show, as it were, to NYC, where, within a short period of time, he has established a presence. We hadn’t seen each other in eight years or so, yet, as is often the case with old friends, we picked up right where we left off and had a great time.

We were on our way over to the Imperial Palace’s notorious Geisha Bar to look at hookers when Mike remarked that he really liked the “Field Burning” series. “They’re beautiful, “ he said, “and remind me of Kiefer, but what are they beyond that?” Now, to some that might seem to be an odd statement, but I knew what he meant. We both come from a conceptual art background, one where my recent text-based photos have more resonance than my landscapes.

“It’s a regional thing,” I responded, and proceeded to outline the recent legislative battle. He understood. I then began to explain the struggle that I have with the landscape as subject matter, the seduction it has, a siren song, for it entrances one to be content with mere re-presentation.

“What’s wrong with that?” one might ask. Nothing. Absolutely nothing, except it’s not all what I see, or more specifically, think about when I look at the terrain before me.

Now, after farming for over six years, I have a new understanding of what is meant by “landscape,” namely that the geography has been shaped, and is as much about human impact on the land as it is about the contour and flora.

It is what makes me takes photos like this:
Hoover (Damn) Trash

Yet such a photo does nothing except make the blatant statement, “Litter bad!” and therefore has no esthetic value. It is extreme, closed, and has no elegance to it. There is no art.

The key word is ‘closed’. Likewise, a photo like the next one is closed: “Waterfall pretty!”

Still, such realizations do not prevent me from clicking the shutter, nor publishing the photo on my flickr page or website. It has a certain appeal, and may be marketable, yet has no more appeal than thousands of other photos of waterfalls. That is what I am up against in the world of contemporary fine art.

Again, another key word is ‘contemporary’, for ultimately, my preferred venue is not flickr, nor a stock photography site, but galleries and museums.

Allow me to illustrate another example. My daily readers might remember a local exhibit I was part of in February. My work  was unlike any of the other participants’ and received acclaim and notice by viewers and the local media. (If you don't know my real name, guess which piece.) Yesterday I found out it did not get sold.

“Don’t feel bad,” the gallerist told me, “a lot of other pieces didn’t sell either.” Yeah, we’re in difficult financial times right now, and art is understandably not a high purchase priority. Yet, if she had let it go at that, I might not have had given it another thought. “You know, everyone raves about something that is avant-garde (a very, very relative, out-dated and ambiguous term), but when it comes to paying to own that art, it’s a different story.” Tell me something I don’t already know.

I have been making art for nearly thirty years. In that time I have sold perhaps two or three pieces, despite having a fairly extensive exhibition list. (I believe I have mentioned this fact before on this blog.) There was a time in the not too distant past that I saw this as unjust, and in fact, developed a rather intricate self-myth around it. I won’t go into it except to say that it was very unproductive.

As I sat with the information I received from the gallerist, I recognized the bad tendency rising again, and avoided it. Instead, I began to think of ways that I might get the piece sold. Mind you, I made it as a contribution to a fundraiser, so I would not see any of the proceeds; yet that was not the point. The point was that if the piece was so well-received, then it must be of value to someone, and a little extra effort on my part might get it sold.

I thought about putting the piece on facebook, and linking the gallery. I even thought one of my twenty readers might be interested. But neither place would be appropriate as it would almost be like asking a favor. Then I remembered an email I received when the show first opened.

I was lucky enough to get an early look at 100 artists show at the Marylou Zeeks Gallery in Salem.

I was completely blown away by your piece!!  I think it is the best one by far.

This got me doing some looking around and came across your website.  Very cool!!!  The lawnmowers driving across America is Brilliant.  The field burns are also fantastic!
I REALLY like your work!

So I wrote the guy to inform him that the piece was still available. We’ll see if he acts on it.

I wouldn’t have done that a year ago. Nor would I have had a facebook or twitter account; and I wouldn’t have reconnected with my buddy, Mike. Two years ago I wouldn’t have walked into Zeek Gallery and introduced myself or bothered to update my website. Three years ago I wouldn’t have had this blog*. And I wouldn’t have started a flickr account yesterday. Three years ago I wouldn’t have had the time or inclination.

When my spouse and I moved to Oregon seven years ago, we intended to start an organic farm and artist’s residency program. We soon discovered that the farming itself involved an eighty-hour week and therefore dropped the residency from our plans. I continued making art, yet still had little time to seek exhibition opportunities. The last two years have found us farming less, which has given me time to pursue my art on a more full-time basis and get more involved with the art community in Salem and Portland. After a relatively successful career as a Chicago artist seven years ago, I am, in essence, a re-emerging artist in Oregon.

I look back over my work from back in Chicago, and I see connections to the work I do now with the photography and video of landscapes and about farming. The connections are tenuous, yet they are there, particularly in the work that incorporated crafts like wood carving/burning with photography. It is not so much the art that has changed as the artist. The feelings of disillusionment that partially precipitated a move from Chicago to rural Oregon were not alleviated with the move. If anything, they were aggravated, and culminated into a nearly complete retreat from the art world, partly because I was too busy with the farm, and also because I was certain my art was destined to be ignored and had no hope of being resurrected.

Yet, when it became clear that the farm was not going to be the answer we had hoped it would be, I was forced to reconsider what it was I was doing with my life, if only by default, for there was a pressing need to make a living. With no idea of ‘what next’, I had to rely on what I already knew and see if there might be a way to rebuild with a revisit to what had been my one passion of making art. I spend my days in a sort of re-education program of reading and more reading (online and off), looking at and making art (online and off), and writing (online and off).

So, to return to the beginning of this tome, if my day is so full, what is unfinished? The answer may very well be that I have just begun anew so there is much left to do. It is not what is unfinished but what else I can and should add to my day, and what must be put aside. The initial question is the wrong question. The answer and question are one in the same.

* I want thank those readers who have come along for this ride and offered encouragement along the way. I am eternally grateful.


Memphis MOJO said...

I went to the photos from the local exhibit. I intentionally didn't look at the names, just looked through the photos to see if I could pick out yours. I could not (until I looked for your name). Both are very nice to my untrained eye, and it must be disappointing to have them well-recieved, then not sell. I'm sorry. Obviously the way the economy has a lot to do with that.

and kissed DW a zillion times.
Only a zillion? Come on, you can do better than that.

joxum said...

It's strange, how the mind sometimes forgets how much work the body has to do during a regular daily schedule.

PS: I admit to skipping a few paragraphs, but that's mostly to do with tired eyes.

Crash said...

It's frustrating to see the box you are in and not be able to come up with a way to help you out. All I can offer is a generality: When in a situation like this, it is important to keep doing things, any things, that keep you moving forward. Eventually, you will emerge from the box, but maybe not where you thought you would.

TenMile said...

Resident: Seattle
Reason: Net Working

lightning36 said...

But dammit -- what about the hookers?

bastinptc said...

DW is now reviewing app materials and says I'm too guarded. The irony.

36 - I couldn't distinguish the hookers from a bachelorette party if my life depended on it.

Anonymous said...

We are in a no holds barred charm contest, where the person who dies with the most friends wins.

I must have shared with you a book on the economics of the art world. It is like the church of scientology, you get the outer church for the masses and the inner church for the keepers of the flame.

as always, i don't stand by any of my statements. they are just mumblings in a jam packed subway.


bastinptc said...

Aki - I am very familiar with the inner circle, etc. Since it has very little to do with art, and is more about how that particular consensus is built, it would serve no purpose to go into it here.

BWoP said...

I am clueless when it comes to the art world, but please know that I wish you all the best and am here to provide any support that I can.