The other day I was turned down as an applicant to a local art co-op. I was applying as a painter, not a textile artist, had made the first cut, and was asked in for an interview. After the interview, the group decided I should “try again next year.”
Aside from the obvious reasons for the rejection (the quality of the work itself and splits of taste within the co-op group), I realized that I had gone to the interview unprepared for what I found.
The Co-op saw the interview as an application for an exhibit or a job; I saw it as an act of collegiality and a conversation.
Here’s a review of the process and my thinking about it.
I was told to bring some of my “most recent work” (which I interpreted as “most raw”), so I pulled out a pleine aire, a few days old.
Quiznos Subs, Prineville, Oregon
I thought I would talk about various directions my art tends to go, so I took in a couple of abstracts:
a “standard” landscape:
and 4 pieces from the series depicting the trashy scene on McLoughlin Boulevard:
McLoughin Boulevard, 5 AM
None of what I showed was framed; many of the pieces I would describe as still “in progress” — i.e. likely to be tweaked later.
Showing a variety of modes (landscape, urban-scape, abstract) was a mistake. And taking in paintings still in process was another mistake. Finally, without framing, the group couldn’t assess the work as it will appear in exhibit . All this I understood or was told by various members of the co-op, who reassured me that I really should try again next year. So that was OK. But a different question occurred to me:
Why would I have thought of this appearance as “show and tell” rather than a more formal application mode? Once I got over my disappointment, that was the question I pondered. For I know and fully accept to all the white-glove advice about showing only your best work, putting your best foot forward, etc. I squampfel about the strictures, but have been around long enough to have gotten over my rebellion at the strictures. So my error of judgment this time puzzled me.
I came to realize, however, that I was imagining the co-op group as colleagues, giving input on work-in-progress, rather than as curators or gallery owners. And that, in part, probably came out of my experiences in writing (both my own and through the experiences of family and friends who are writers). In writing, nothing is final until the book comes off the press. No group expects the “reading” to be a final product; no editor imagines that the manuscript, however clean, will be the final edited version.
The end processes of writing, it turns out, are far more collegial and communal than is the case with the visual arts. A writer expects, nay begs, for a copy editor to find the misplaced comma and the erratic spelling. But the visual artist would be devastated if someone came along with a brush and added a dot of Naples yellow to her field of daisies. Once a visual artist has declared her work finished, no one would dare to touch it. But when the writer sends off the work to her publisher, she expects to have revisions suggested or demanded, paragraphs deleted, sentences rearranged, and discussions ad infinitum about what more should be done. All that comes before the actual copy editing by the comma-splice person.
Some time ago, Jay made an off-handed “admiring” remark about my willingness to show work in progress. I thought it a strange thing to say, since the paradigm in my mind was of readings by authors of work-in-progress, not of applications to museum curators. I was thinking of Clement Greenberg, visiting the studios of the Ab Ex artists in the 50’s and turning canvases around that were facing the walls, saying, “no. No. No. Yes!.” But Jay’s training is as an academic, and so, perhaps, showing work in progress has long had a hint of the amateur, the outsider, about it — if the collective mind, the “audience” the students and professors, want to see only finished work, the raw stuff will seem naive or immature. There also may be an element of competition to this process, one that goes back at least as far as the Renaissance (Rubens and Rembrandt, for example) but which also may be fostered by academic hothouse of universities and art schools.
Groups like A&P, however, take an entirely different approach to the act of making art. Here, collegiality extends to allowing each other to play around with our images, photoshopping them to see what else could happen.
And, this emphasis on creativity, now part of most public school art training, is obvious when I’m painting outside. Invariably, when I’m outside, a child will come up and look and say, “nice job!” (This remark is sometimes comic in that I can be accosted when I’ve scarcely put a line of paint on the board.)
Adults tend to use slightly different but still encouraging language — “Looking good” “You’re almost there” — phrases which come from the amateur road races and jogging events that pervade the U.S. culture. These are charming encounters, and entirely different from the analogy of job applications, where the stone faced critic examines one’s color and form and shapes and paint handling and techniques and presentation as well as one’s age and rhetorical style — and then says, “We’ll call you.” Luckily, I don’t apply for jobs any more. Unluckily, I misunderstood some of the conventions of the visual arts.
Big Vase (work in progress, an abstract that was once turned another way)
Do you see differences in the way arts are judged? Music played by performers, for example, is supposed to be utterly polished before being presented to the public. But theater has its try-outs in Bridgeport before it goes to New York. Unfinished sculptures, like unfinished symphonies, are only “unfinished” in some technical sense of the word. “Reading from the manuscript” is totally acceptable; are there similar try-outs in dance, for example?
And, further, have you ever mis-understood the context in which you were presenting yourself because you had a perfectly good but misplaced analogy that you were using to prepare?