Monday, May 25, 2009

Making the grade


"Fickle though the tastes of the gallery world may be, its methods for interacting with artists are relatively consistent."

Memorial Day affected both my train and bus schedules this morning, leaving me with a window of forty minutes and nothing to do. I decided to tackle the lengthy questionnaire in the book, Art and Reality: The New Standard Reference Guide and Business Plan by Robert J. Abbott (Seven Locks Press, 1997).

I checked the book out from the school library not for my personal use but to see if it had become outdated, as there is a later edition that is not in our collection. If I deemed it to be outdated, it would be set aside for ‘deselection’ (that’s the PC replacement librarians have chosen for the arguably gauche term ‘weeding’).

In fact, Abbott’s book has held up very well over time. Fickle though the tastes of the gallery world may be, its methods for interacting with artists are relatively consistent. If you are an artist trying to make sense of how to get your work out of your studio and into galleries, you will likely find this book very useful.

The questionnaire consists of 61 questions, ranging from philosophical questions to extremely practical ones, such as asking the reader to pinpoint time-based goals. I found the most interesting questions to be about output, particularly the question asking about the percentage of the reader’s work that is high quality and suitable for exhibition. It’s difficult to be objective about artwork since it is, by its very nature, subjective, but if you narrow it down to several factors it becomes a manageable task. (If you’re stuck, there’s always the elements and principles of design to be considered). When I’m assessing my cocoon sculptures, I like to think of people grading tobacco in my hometown in southern Ontario: after the harvest, the leaves are graded according to factors like colour and ripeness. Sure, farmers would like it to all be top grade, but that is impossible, so it’s best to be systematic about it.

Without significant output, an artist is unlikely to have a strong pool of work to present to galleries. Abbott notes that artists frequently insist they aren’t ready yet for whatever their next step is; for myself, I can identify the culprit as lack of time for increasing my output. I once read that Hannah Wilke credited her productivity in part to her former partner, Claes Oldenburg, who had said that an artist can’t become successful by making a few pieces a year. After reading that, I stopped seeing my part-time approach as a luxury and began to perceive it as a threat.

Another benefit to being productive is having more opportunities to learn. Last night, I was twisting pink fabric into umbilical cords for some cocoon sculptures. Distracted by Dirty Dancing playing on the television, I acccidentally wound too much and was faced with excess cord. I chose to play with it instead of chopping it off, and ended up winding it around the feet of each layette so that the cord acted as a sort of shackle. I thought I had a static formula for the umbilical cords, but I was wrong. I can only hope that the more work I make, the more I will learn, and the better my work will become, shifting the ratio of work made to quality work in my favour.

Even on a holiday week-end, work hard, play hard: it’s what helps an artist make the grade.

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