Saturday, August 13, 2016

On Being a Professional Artist

First off, let me write that this is not a how to guide about how to become a professional artist.  There are hundreds, if not thousands of those out there, most of them geared toward commodifying the artist personality and by extension the artwork.  I’m not sure if following those guides actually help or not, just like I’m not sure whether my two years in an MFA program actually prepared me for a life of a professional artist.  What I can say is that after the MFA professionalism is something that is not given over by a degree or title but acquired, and even if one doesn’t sell the work they make, does that make them a lesser artist?  I suppose that to be a professional in western culture means to make money off of what one does, but does that immediately negate all the artists that slave away in and out of their studios daily who do not have gallery representation or sell their work, do not appear in flashy magazines, do not get to exhibit in the art fairs and biennials around the world, do not have long write ups on art blogs and are generally ignored? 
For me to believe that I am a professional artist I have to have certain criteria met.  I have to be able to make work, which means that I have to have a space to do it, preferably a studio.  I have to be able to communicate with the people I know like and enjoy my work and to get it out to those that may one day like and enjoy my work.  Easy enough I suppose, I have a studio and a computer.  But sending off random emails to curators and galleries is like knocking on a stranger’s door, first you don’t know if anyone is home and second what do you say if they open up?  The elevator speech? The ultimate in self-presentation and commodification?  Give me a run-down of what you do and what you are about in 30 seconds. Go! Fair enough, even I understand the merits of this type of presentation.
The road to being a professional artist is a long and arduous one.  But the question is what is wrong with just calling oneself an artist and leaving the word professional out of it?  Some people get there by walking over others, by screaming the loudest, by kissing enough ass along the way.  It would be naïve to think that those people do not exist.  Those artists are not bothered by ethics or common decency, or the dignity of those they callously throw under the bus just so they can get a short step ahead.  But for myself I have to be somewhat naïve to think that those artists will one day end up in the trash heap of history, that their behavior will get them excommunicated, because the reality is that the artworld is filled with people of the most terrible sort, many of whom are at the top of the pile, but just as many are the rank and file, waiting to fill the few spots that might one day become available at the top.
My naiveté is that I believe that the alternative is also possible, that the alternative to the commercial artworld is not only the academic profession, where you have to watch what you say and how you say it. My advice, if one can call it that, is to read whatever you can and listen to whoever you can about being an artist and as soon as you do that, forget everything you read and heard, because those people don’t know shit.  Only you know how to make your work and what’s best for you.  Professionalism destroys art.  An artist has to be first and foremost, free.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Made In LA

I can’t stand the word archive anymore.  Every curator is an artist and every artist is a wannabe curator.  The tables have flipped almost perfectly against the artist in every imaginable way when it comes to vanguardism and edginess.  No longer, it seems, does the average artist work with any complex issues, though they may appear that way at first. The artist of today is content with towing the line of populist sentiment, pop and pseudo-philosophy, not even commenting on these issues as much as simply cleverly regurgitating what everyone already knows.  The archive is just one of these recent developments that the artworld better soon forget because it is fucking up a whole generation of artists that could have otherwise been helpful in other lines of work, like the food and service industry.   The ridiculousness of the archive is that as a term it has the right tone and desirability for the elite.  It reeks of academicism, and importance.

But this importance is also very tenuous, for not every archive is necessarily equal in importance to the next, especially when considering the varied nature of archives such they are found in libraries, museums, or the Vatican.  The body as archive is a bullshit term made to inflate the importance of any mediocre performance art and artist. The artist as curator and archivist is another delusion favored by many in the artworld in “this most foul year of our lord,” 2016.  No longer has the artist make anything or have anything made for them.  The artist as archivist needs only to select existing objects with added importance and provenance in order to make a work and by magic the meaning is extracted via various juxtapositions.  This method ought to work even if supposedly all the objects on display have no intrinsic provenance, description or when nobody really knows what they are as is the case in the work by Gala Porras-Kim. Not only is this approach not new by some 100 years, or conceptual, or even interesting.   Duchamp routinely selected objects for display in the early 20th century, with a major but important difference, he did so in order to upset and disrupt the status quo. One could always call a Duchampian ready-made into question, but it was far from bullshit and did not conflate itself with false importance.  Duchamp was much too aware of the false position of the elevated artwork and artist. In the 1970s, the conceptualist’s approach to objects and indeed the archive would have been their total dissolution.  Here in Made in LA, an archive of questionable provenance is presented via a few selections by Porras-Kim who then attempts to pull some sort of immanent meaning out of their choices, or perhaps the audience is meant to do the pulling.  Either way, the false import of most of the objects presented, seem to want to force a meaning, indeed any meaning at all, even if as the review in LA times suggests, “the show shrugs its shoulders,” and the resulting reaction is a so what?”

Made in LA’s affair with the archive continues with a vitrine display of hundreds of images collected in three ring binders.  Again the question comes up, so what? Another archive was Daniel Small’s installation of artifacts of a Cecil B Demille’s film The Ten Commandments. Though this was a pretty interesting part of the show, its hidden meaning is of obvious self-referentiality. Where else but in LA could we get a museum display of fake Egyptian artifacts, excavated from a film from the 1920s for which they were made and that depicted a more or less fanciful and faked Egypt, and presented as the real thing in a sacrosanct way, with tags that spell out descriptions like “circa 1923?” The display is actually quite fetching and funny, though I’m not sure that this is the point.  The exhibit of artifacts is also complemented with drapery paintings from the old Las Vegas Luxor Hotel.  On the back of the disappointing Matthew Barney Geffen show, where the artist coopted Egyptian themes of alchemy and gold making for his brand of art made from cash, Small’s show is much more complicated, even self-reflexive, aware of the tenuous line between art and farce. 
I cannot even fathom what is the current state of painting in and around Los Angeles, if the paintings that are now being show at the Hammer Museum are some sort of a representative sample, but I will venture a guess that all is not well in the painting world.  The paintings in this show are far from good or interesting.  Anti-aesthetic, maybe, but aligning oneself with a once-over fashion because the 1980s are so in right now shows only the regressive nature of the paintings rather than their edginess.  Like the archive, the paintings do nothing else other than reference themselves and this is what makes them boring and unneccesary.  What is the purpose of a painting of a home page other than superficially raise the importance of one of the most superficial of mediums? To comment on the now or the medium?  So what? Too much bad art was already made in the service of raising up a lowly practice into the exalted and noble realms of fine art.  It seems as though the exhibition was made with an assumption that the general visitor to the show is either an art tourist or an idiot because neither takes actual history into account.  Stealing, appropriation, wordsmithing, these are the tools of the modern artist and curator because it does not matter whether someone actually did the same exact thing before, what matters is the renaming of a practice and framing it in contemporary terminology, perhaps as unintelligible as possible, with enough pomp to embarrass even the most staunch Marxist cultural critic and the public will believe that what they are looking at must be important. 

Made in LA suggests that it is a platform for “emerging and under-recognized artists” and for the most part it delivers, but what part of emerging and under-recognized does Sterling Ruby fit?  If there was one artist in LA who needs less exposure and validation, it would have to be Ruby. His selection in the show is almost obvious from the standpoint of a representative LA artist and his installation of welding tables is quite nice, not amazing or mind-blowing, but nice.  

On the other hand, Kenzi Shiokava’s selection can only serve as a good omen in the way that art in LA could be heading or be seen.  Shiokava’s totemic sculptures are substantial and engrossing, suggesting a long term engagement with assemblage and art from trash in the vein of Noah Purifoy.  At 78, I wonder how long he’s been making the kind of work that is now getting public attention through artists like Theaster Gates?  Skiokava’s work deals with the sacred and the absurd at the same time.  His is a work in which 20th century existentialism goes out to dinner with the newly refound 21st century spiritualism and the meal is on the house. 

Other notable hits of the show are Labor Link and Fred Lonidier’s video installation, a much needed antidote to the ultra-right wing saturated presidential campaigns and their obsessive media feeding frenzy.  And then there is Kenneth Tam’s funny Breakfast in Bed, a video of a small group of men, all strangers who answered one of Tam’s Craigslist ads, participating in strange games and horseplay, lots of times naked from the waist up.  The video is shot in a 70s style small wood paneled studio, immediately bringing up comparisons with exploitation videos of the most terrible kind, but what happens on screen is nothing of the sort.  During most of the filming the humanity of the men is what is palpable.  The film never resorts to a wanton ridicule of the participants.  Why would it need to?  The participants are all men between 20 and 50, mostly white, but they never come off as anything but, even if the activities they engage in are completely ridiculous.