Happy Holidays and best wishes in the new year!
Happy Holidays and best wishes in the new year!
This spring I will be relaunching my website and introducing an online shop for direct sales. Despite the enormous complexities and risks of starting a business, it’s an exciting time and a wonderful opportunity to put all my efforts into something I truly believe in and can wholeheartedly stand behind.
One of the most intriguing challenges in setting up a business is determining the way it can reflect my values and ethics. I’ve been thinking a lot about what selling art means to me, and I’ve been particularly concerned with egalitarianism, specifically can affordability and accessibility make art more egalitarian?
However necessary I believe art to be in life, it is fundamentally a luxury item. Selling art is a capitalist exchange, a trade of money for a physical commodity. To paraphrase Dave Hickey from his brilliant book Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, art and money never really touch, which is to say, the money exchanged has nothing to do with the actual value of a work of art. The price of art is usually determined by what the market will bear. Looking at the big-time Art World, buying art is often treated primarily as a financial transaction, where a painting or sculpture is purchased for its calculated return on investment and it doesn’t particularly matter what it looks like. Every friend who has worked in a blue chip gallery has stories about hedge fund guys who buy art sight unseen based on an artist’s brand value and have it delivered directly to climate-controlled storage vaults. I would rather never sell another painting again than have something I produced with my heart and soul be part of such a cold, emotionally sterile transaction.
Last spring I attended the VIP preview of a fine art fair in the city. Many of the guests in attendance had limitless money to spend on art, but seemed dismayed by a lack of new or interesting things to buy. Gallerists and dealers were working their hardest to sell them on the work they were presenting, but all the conversations I heard seemed to center around the artist’s rising prominence, recent critical acclaim, and resale value. I was stricken by a complete lack of discussion of aesthetics, beauty, or why someone would want to own and live with a piece – it was more like acquiring a designer handbag that could be hung on the wall to broadcast how much disposable income a person had and, presumably, how sophisticated a purchase could be made with it, based on what the best consultants advised. I walked around the fair feeling like what I was seeing had nothing to do with art and everything to do with money. I enjoyed seeing a few nice Chagalls and some decorative pieces I hadn’t seen in person before, but the vast majority of this fair (and most of the others I’ve attended) was a hollow, artless experience, showcasing expensive pieces with little to no emotion. I wanted nothing to do with that elitist iteration of “art,” but I was also never more certain that I needed to be working as an artist myself.
I decided I would like to make my art accessible and affordable for normal people, not just upper-1%ers. I want my art to be purchased by people who actually like it and want to live with it in their homes, not turn around and resell it at auction in a few years for a profit. I plan to make a range of products available including prints and decorative items at various price points so that someone like me or my family could own my work. I want to make pieces where a portion of the proceeds is donated to support environmental conservation efforts and charities I believe in. The financial pressure will switch to needing to sell several more pieces in a month, but I’m okay taking that on if it means that my art is affordable to more people that way.
As for accessibility, I have never believed in the esoteric coding and gimmicky obscurity that seems to predominate contemporary art. That’s not to say that art shouldn’t be challenging, but it feels deeply cynical to create pieces that can’t be understood without a pretentious manifesto, or where the ignorance of the viewer is thrown back in his face as part of the “concept” of the piece. My experience in grad school revealed a lot of dilettante philosophy wrapped up in artist’s statements, where the physical creation was secondary or tertiary to the text, always making me wonder why the art was made at all instead of writing a more intellectually rigorous text. I don’t believe art has to be “dumbed down” to make it more generally accessible either, as there are centuries of extraordinary art that can be loved and appreciated by the general public. I know it is fashionable to sneer at anything popular or mainstream, but the average viewer is actually quite sophisticated in the capacity to make and communicate observations and express emotions evoked by art. And sometimes great art is popular for a reason – everyone can see why it’s good.
Nature is a central tenant of my art, in large part because it is universally and primally understood. I think the more my art reflects the shapes, rhythms, patterns, and proportions of nature through the lens of imagination, the more accessible it becomes. When people describe visceral reactions they have to my paintings, I know I’ve done something right, and that’s what I want to keep doing.
The core values of my personal and business ethics are quality (using archival materials and techniques), environmentalism (by running a paperless office or using recycled / eco-friendly materials as much as possible), ecology (promoting awareness and connection to nature), honesty, integrity, kindness, civic-mindedness, spiritual mindfulness, and egalitarianism through accessibility and affordability. I am so excited to put these values into practice in my art and the way I run my business, and I hope to show that this system of ethics is sustainable and brings people pure, extraordinary joy.
When I moved to the Bronx a year ago, I was excited to find a 2-bedroom apartment in my budget so that I could use the second bedroom as a studio space. It also functions as an exercise studio, housing my elliptical machine, yoga mats, free weights, and hula hoop. This is how it looked when it was first set up, on the day the movers brought everything:
(Obviously I didn’t need two fans.)
I replaced the stacked end tables with a proper taboret table (visible in the photos below) but the space was still functioning more like an overflow closet than a really workable art studio. As it became increasingly crowded and I had paintings leaning on every wall of my apartment (yes, even the bathroom), I realized it was time to reorganize things.
I worked out a fairly simple design for a storage rack that would hold two sizes of paintings and my massive photo printer. I bought about $70 of lumber and borrowed my father’s truck and tools. My mother generously spent her day off with me schlepping paintings from their attic into the truck, then everything up into my apartment, and she endured my stream of expletives when I realized I’d calculated half the measurements wrong and needed to adjust the design on the fly.
The rack stands 8 feet high, and its footprint is 30″x36″. The two most common sizes of canvas I work on are 24″x30″ and 30″x40″, so this is a perfect and efficient accommodation for both. I am planning to reinforce the top portion with another set of horizontals (not sure what I was thinking there), but it’s quite sturdy as it is.
Because I goofed the measurements, the shelves I had pre-cut didn’t fit the way I’d anticipated, but they function well enough with some overlap. After breaking two bits trying to drill the masonite shelves, I left them unattached, but that is another modification I have planned, along with painting the whole thing with a “vintage aqua” wood stain.
I was delighted to fit 52 paintings on the rack, which is most of my current inventory plus some blank canvas to move forward. I squeezed an additional 12 canvases in the base of the easel and beside it, to bring the total to 64, not counting the stack of 12″x12″ panels under my taboret.
To make room for the rack, I moved the bookcase that holds most of my paint-making and drawing supplies to the wall that the elliptical machine faces. Frankly I’m stunned it took me a year to think of this solution, but it works so much better for mixing paint on the taboret. Moving the easel out of the corner and angled against the wall opens a lot of space side to side, so that I no longer feel claustrophobic or crowded when I’m working.
I’m really delighted with the studio reorganization and feel endlessly thankful to have had so much help and support in building the rack and working out a better use of the space. I have a few further improvements planned, including setting up lighting and a space on the wall opposite the easel for photographing finished pieces, but I’m incredibly happy with the way things are progressing.
Visiting my parents over the holidays, I’ve become keenly aware of how physical and vulnerable my art is, and it’s made me think about what role physical presence plays in one’s creative energy.
The first condition is storage, and my parents’ attic is currently starting to swell with all the oil paintings I did in grad school. Many canvases are nowhere near finished, or to put it in more pragmatic terms, a sellable state, so I can’t honestly consider them “product” or “inventory,” so much as… these things taking up a lot of space. Knowing that they are there, lurking above my childhood bedroom and gaining several grams of dust a year, fills me with a sense of queasiness and dread. They make me reluctant to buy new canvases or start new work, and they serve as a heavy physical to-do list. Before I move forward in painting, I feel like I have to somehow deal with those.
The second condition is fragility, which is ironically one of the themes of my paintings. Among the fallout from Hurricane Irene was a moving box in the basement full of sketchbooks, all my negatives, and almost all the black and white photographs I’ve ever printed. The flood water ruined all but a handful of prints made on RC paper (and I can’t forget the professors who harped on about how much more archival and long-lasting the fiber-based photographic papers were). Leaving aside how this particularly delicate box got into the basement in the first place, I was kind of wrecked to think of all the hours – no, days – I spent shooting, processing film, pulling prints, burning and dodging, organizing… it’s all gone.
Losing all my black and white photography felt a bit like a metaphor for the shift from print to digital photography. I no longer have access to a darkroom, so it’s not like I was going to make more prints from those lovely negatives any time soon, but it stings to have them gone forever. I’ve heard similar stories of people losing hard drives full of digital images, or dropping a camera and erasing a memory card after a day’s shooting at a wedding, so I realize this loss of images is not confined to the more archaic photo processing techniques.
As I stood in the cold basement pulling apart moldy, disintegrated prints and tossing them in garbage bags, it kind of hit me that everything physical will eventually end up this way. No matter how carefully prepared, what quality of materials are used, how arduously and well-intentioned their preservation and conservation, everything we make and touch and use will fall to pieces and return to the earth. And somehow, that idea became much more beautiful and important than any of the student-quality photographs I was bitterly discarding.
Another thought crept into my mind, which has been something of a refrain since the time I learned to draw, “I can always make more art.”
What’s remarkable about artists, musicians, writers, and creators of all types is the ability to constantly produce more, new, better art. Our hands and minds pull from the elements, recycling the masterpieces of years gone by, and dredge up novel inventions, shiny and alluring new materials, new ways to answer the questions posed by a constantly new and old world.
The physicality of art contains both its eternal hope and its perpetual undoing. In the sometimes sisyphean task of being human, we watch things fall apart, then we pick them back up and try again. It doesn’t matter what’s come before, or what’s coming next: all we have is what’s in our hands right now.
I have finally added some new content to my art website, which is sorely outdated and continues to lag at least 3-6 years behind what I’m currently doing.
I’ve got lots of good excuses, but the fact is, I like making art more than websites. I hand-coded that site in 2003 using tables and HTML, so it is slow and laborious to update. I usually put off updating it because I claim I’m going to redesign the whole site any day now, but that day still has not come in half a decade, so it’s probably time to quit pretending.
So what did I add?
And because I am apparently in a race to occupy the most bandwidth possible, I updated the Contact section with links to my other websites and places I can be found on social media. I haven’t decided if this is a good idea or not, since I do tend to say a lot of silly and unprofessional things, but I am who I am, so I might as well own it.
I’d love any comments, questions, suggestions, or other feedback you may have about the updates or the work itself, and I hope to have more updates coming soon.