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Monday 01.20.14

« Powell - Basquiat Links | Main | Tuesday Links »

The Fail

Gallerist Edward Winkleman has a great post on young artists and how seriously they approach their next show... and the difference between being an art star and a rock star. It is also about how shows fail and my sense is that it is always "both" the gallery and artist who fail in their understanding of one another. This results in a massive dud of an exhibition because neither side understands their own position in relation to the other (which is what really matters). Of course both will usually try to distract blame away from themselves but at the root is a kind of dysfunctional collaboration. For non profit shows the situation works the same...

Ed's take (as always) is very New York centric, cogent and makes a point about the necessary game of self-deluding that most young (and old) artists make about their lifestyle choices but it applies to Portland as well.


It really applies to any place with a scene, i.e. somewhere where enough artists and other art world resources have congregated so that a "Community of Desire" as Dave Hickey calls them in his essay My Weimar are capable of creating an ecosystem where peer review and audience are generated. The professional critics are both of this community and intentionally separate and its why we tend to either piss people off or delight them (with nothing in between). It's why so many artists think critics are either crazy or crucial champions (I get into that a little here).

Back on the main topic, in Portland the art world consists mostly of artists generating their own atmosphere to breath and presenters doing much the same. Nobody is getting rich off art in Portland. This makes it a hermetic enterprise and sometimes that means artists have breathed to many of their own fumes...

This is crucial because curators and critics track artists and are always evaluating them. As an artist you want to get our attention but if that next big exhibition is a letdown or seems like more of the same, rather than an attempt at stepping things up... then we either lose interest or if it is high enough profile, the critics will jump in and write a highly critical review.

Here are some ways artists often fail in these big statement exhibitions:

1) Hyperfocusing on certain technical details rather than the overall statement or effect. The exhibition might have merits but it gets bogged down in the minutia so that something gets lost in the shuffle (for video or computer based artists this can be a new technology that the artist underestimates or leaves till the last dog is hung). This isn't the worst type of failing... It is more of an Icarus-like moment where the pre-defined goals override the end product. It is a learning moment, where the artist can step back and see where they ran out of time or resources because they were doing something new and too complicated. Always leave room for flexibility. In hindsight, if an artist is really stretching themselves they should tackle the most difficult challenge first and be prepared to simplify to make the end product more seamless or working whole (as you age this becomes easier). A simple moment of triage of what is crucial, even during the last few weeks before a show can make or break a statement exhibition. Be open to it. Once again, stumbling a little here isn't horrible, a failure of too much ambition does keep critics and curators interested.

2) Over Exposure: Often artists have an incredible pressure to create and put their work in front of people all of the time, lest they be forgotten. As I mentioned earlier this is fine for recent grads but overall it is bad to say yes to everything. If you are doing more than 2-3 group or solo shows a year in a city the size of Portland you aren't editing enough or being selective. If you are already an established name or have a gallery, but have 3 shows in the same city withing 8 months then you've got a self confidence problem. One exception, Winter or Summer group shows at your gallery don't count, they are simply trying to sell your work. Everyone has got to eat.

Also, critics and other artists can get incredibly tired of seeing you everywhere, especially is it's the same old same old. In Portland your gallery or other curators might not see this because they have tunnel vision tuned to their own spaces and have blinders on. An over-exposed artist is ripe for critical pushback if their statement solo show is already overly familiar. Critical pushback is something earned and isn't a purely negative thing either. It means people care about your work and most critics wont bother if they don't see any potential. Typically critics are listening to a large swath of people in the scene and this helps them determine if there is broader interest and concern for the artist's work.

Sometimes, too many shifts in your style can cause people to lose the plot as well. In those cases a group show or two can help signal dramatic shifts in your work and lay down a thread of development to follow. Still, a charge of capriciousness isn't really a negative or critical failure. Instead, it is an indicator of interest and concern... which is a good thing.

3) The Blow Off is much more serious... and what Winkleman describes in his piece. Basically it is treating the big show with the same sense of denial of reality that all art world people (except collectors with $) use to get by. This denial is a slipperiness, looks cool in art school and keeps you in the game but remember these statement shows are moments where you are trying to not only show what you have done but also your ability to telegraph your future potential. I call it amplitude, kind of like seismograph ie tremors before a major eruption.

4) The Undercooked: Sometimes a show fails because it simply lacks the originality that the reputation of the artist seems to command. The best artists in Portland put a lot of pressure on themselves to outdo their previous efforts... and as a rule those who feel too comfortable with their position are the ones most ripe for failure. In those cases the gallerist/curator might catch the need for another dimension or more rigor but are unlikely to. Curators and gallerists are proponents of the work they present and as such are frequently not looking for faults by the time the decide to do a show. In cities like New York or London, the curators and gallerist will generally be more critical but only to a degree (that usually comes into play during the vetting process). Sometimes, a gallerist or curator might unwittingly sabotage a show by misunderstanding what the artist needed. In those cases of undercutting, the artist needs to be a clear advocate for their needs. Sometimes it takes learning things the hard way in those situations. The good news there is that all of Portland's curators and gallerists are pretty genuine. So if things go south, they are open to seeing where an exhibition was compromised to being a point of having a crucial flaw.

Overall, it is best to have a few people who you trust to be critical and objective about your work... discuss your show at length say 6 months before the exhibition and keep what they say in mind. Definitely this is easier said than done, keep your options supple... rigid thinking will sink you. Remember, it is a chess match not checkers so don't consider one bad review a horrendous thing. In fact, they are usually indications that something very right was done to earn the critical backlash. Criticism can be wrong and isn't the final word but a prompt and a thesis from which to set up discussion.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on January 20, 2014 at 10:00 | Comments (0)


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