Archive for the Drinks with artists Category

I’m just back from a whirlwind trip to Pittsburgh to check out the 2008 Carnegie International, and I’ve also been scrambling to get a few projects done this week, so I’ve been unable to post to CAFA for the past week. To make up for this recent blog-lull (blull?), below are a few quick Bullet Points of Failure for June–this miserable month of miserably (so far) gloomy weather.

  • Last night, at a dreary-wet, underattended Art Happy Hour (my side-project designed to counterbalance the constant depressive pull of failure from this site), I got to speaking with a local artist named Jim. He’d just come back to live in Minneapolis, where he is from, after spending five years teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is, it seems, a regular reader of CAFA (the first I’ve ever met, actually), so we got to talking about failure and local art, and he said something brilliantly perceptive: “Here’s what I think about Minneapolis now that I’ve been away and come back: I’ve never been in a place filled with so many brilliant, capable, and creative people who are going nowhere.”
  • I didn’t realize this at the time, but back in November, 2007–about the time I was starting up this blog on artistic failure–a Carnegie Mellon University art professor started The Museum of Modern Failure, as a project for a class called “Art in Context.” The idea was to celebrate people’s personal failures, and the “museum” was a black wall on which people post a wide range of “failures”: whether technological (the Hindenburg, the Titanic), unpopular inventions (Segway, Firestone tires, Comanche helicopters, the DeLorean), cultural flops (Milli Vanilli, Ebonics, the mullet), or so on. The concept was suggested by student Rachael Brown, a 22-year-old creative-writing major. She noticed that the store that would come to house the museum, located at 2628 E. Carson St., had a “history of failure… The most recent failure was Bookends, a used computer store operated by the adjacent Goodwill, where old Epsons and educational CD-ROMs had failed to keep the business afloat. ‘I just find it really humorous that blunders aren’t what we celebrate in museums, just big successes,’ Brown explain[ed].” In a perfect coda to the project, the temporary museum close just shortly after it opened, in December of last year.
  • My review of the Carnegie International, as well as a long Q&A-style interview with its curator Douglas Fogle, went live on another new side-project of mine–a blog of visual arts writing on the Rakemag.com site called The Thousandth Word. I didn’t realize it until later, but my take on this big blockbuster international survey exhibition reflected something about the clouds of failure that hang over these times:
  • The best work in the 2008 Carnegie International reflects intimate, eccentric, often uncertain moments even as it hints at deeper and vast problems in the society. This is art of the resigned, pitiful shoulder-shrug variety, not of the noisy (and perhaps useless) hammer-thud variety–such as what was on display in such blustery recent shows as, say, the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Many of the personal and intimate gestures of these artists are designed, in fact, to spill out over from the private mind into a public realm, perhaps like pond ripples or a zen butterfly’s wings flapping or other suitable metaphor.

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I’ve been busy with administrative tasks on CAFA the past four days, so I’ve not had time to think any new thoughts about failure. (I promise, by the way, to have my blogroll back up soon…)

However, here are some interesting links from sundry Friends of Failure:

—One of my favorite artist blogs, SELLOUT, which is an examination of the hard issues facing artists—written by artists—declared suddenly yesterday it’s going on a hiatus to refine and retool. The reason for this sudden stoppage, despite the quick notoriety the site has gained: Overwhelmed with email… Hey, SELLOUT, I hear ya. If you figure that one out, let me know. But hurry back!

—Sharon Butler, author of the arts blog Two Coats of Paint, which recently went through its own retooling, just published an expose-style article in the Brooklyn Rail, called Swimming in Pigment, about the lollapollooza art fairs that occur in Miami Beach. Her conclusions about the events? They’re a mixed bag, but mostly, when you take into account only the good art that was there, she found the experience positive:

It’s too easy to scorn Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellites as a vulgar coalescence of dilettantes and profiteers. Beneath that veneer, they provide an invaluable one-stop annual inventory of the art world: a dazzlingly broad array of artwork, much of it vigorous and thoughtful, in two nearby neighborhoods geared for high-intensity viewing, through which art becomes a proud rallying point for an entire city. On an individual level, accepting the challenge of apprehending such a vast ocean of work without props, as it were, is to rediscover the very process by which you first figured out what you loved about looking at, and making, art. The opportunity to redefine and articulate your passion is a lot more than just a good party.

—Meanwhile, Art Happy Hour!, which also just retooled (must be the season for it), wrote that it is holding its inaugural gathering in Minneapolis. If you’re anywhere near the area, you simply have to come check this out—the first artist community-wide happy hour in the country (that I know of)!

–And, finally, your favorite CAFA administrator, Michael Fallon, has just caused himself no small amount of trouble by publishing an essay about the artistic drive in artists, titled (provocatively, on purpose) “The (Endlessly Annoying, Horribly Consuming, Creepily Off-Putting) Drive in Artists to Make Art.” Here’s just a little teaser, in which I take to task a pretentiously wannabe-artist, and former friend, named Mike:

EVERYONE AT SOME TIME IN LIFE ENDS UP WITH A FRIEND LIKE MIKE. Mike wanted desperately to be a screenwriter. Or, to put it more accurately, he wanted you to think of him as a screenwriter.

Another friend of mine, G. (who wouldn’t care much whether or not you knew how accomplished an arts writer, artist, and craftsperson he actually is), first encountered Mike after a meeting which was initiated for the purposes of “screenplay research.” “Man,” he said, “that’s a guy who’s just desperate for attention. Do me a favor and keep me out of the loop next time.” S., yet another friend and a self-taught artist who earned his skills by hard toil over band saw and workbench, after a few months’ acquaintance took to calling Mike an intellectual Baby Huey. “You know Baby Huey, right? Always wanting attention, always bumbling into every situation like an attention-seeking whale in a wading pool. That’s Mike!”

Because this site by design is concerned with the lofty idea of chronicling systemic artistic failure–following developments in arts policy, art world economics, the social condition of art, and the like–it may sometimes seem disconnected from the struggles of real artists on the ground. But of course, the reason I look at and write about these forces is because I am truly concerned about their effect on artists.

What I mean to say is, in the midst of my rants and deep investigations of this country’s unjust treatment of the arts I do realize we should remember the struggling artists who have come and gone and are still yet to fail. We should remember them and try to keep others from following in their miserable footsteps.

So, to remember the struggles of artists I’m introducing a new regular feature on CAFA, Favorite Failed Artist Stories.

And here’s the first story, Amedeo Modigliani:

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (1884–1920) was an Italian artist who, following the long-standing tradition, moved to Paris in 1906 to work as a painter. He worked furiously when he arrived in that town, making myriad images first influenced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, then, in 1907, by Paul Cezanne. Eventually he developed his own unique style, one that cannot really be grouped with other avant garde artists of the time.

Not only was Modigliani’s style unique, but his behavior also stood out among his peers of the time, even considering the Bohemian standards they upheld. He carried on frequent affairs, drank heavily, and used absinthe and hashish. While drunk at social gatherings, he would sometimes strip himself naked. In time, his childhood tendency toward illness was exacerbated by poverty, overwork, and self-abuse. His health declined. On January 24, 1920, Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis. He was 35. The following evening, his common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, leapt to her death from a fifth-story window. She was eight months’ pregnant with their second child,

And here’s the kicker of the story:

During the 1920s, in the wake of Modigliani’s early death and spurred on by comments by the critic Andre Salmon, who credited hashish and absinthe as the progenitors of Modigliani’s unique style, many hopeful young artists tried to emulate this “success” by embarking on a path of Modiglianian substance abuse and bohemian excess. This was encouraged by Salmon’s claim that whereas Modigliani was a rather pedestrian artist when sober, “…from the day he abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art.”

This rallying cry—toward debauchery and excess—has grown to become the modern hallmark of the romantic soul longing to be a tragic, doomed artist. For this—the great seed source of failed artists everywhere—we can thank Modigliani and his posthumous propagandist Salmon!

This is a personal story.

I had a drink with an artist friend (let’s call her Esme) the other evening. I don’t do this very often, because A) These days I work too many freggin’ hours during the week and spend all weekend trying to catch up on things; B) I don’t often get friendly enough with artists (in an effort to keep my arts writing as “unbiased” as possible) to have drinks with them; and C) In my experience having drinks with artist-types proves unrewarding, because they often stiff you on the bill.

None of these rules applied with this artist. Not only did I have a rare chunk of time and felt safe from being stiffed by Esme, but she had become a somewhat friendly and respectful acquaintance even after I wrote a somewhat complete story about all the good, bad, and ugly aspects of work several years ago. She said she wanted to talk about whether she should take a job as a gallery coordinator at a Minneapolis outsider art gallery. I told her yes, she should, and people who dismiss outsider art are deluding themselves that the art they espouse (contemporary or historical, their own or their friends’, real or imaginary) is any more crucial or worthy (or likely to succeed) than outsider art. The art scene is fueled by rivalry and contention. After awhile, it seemed likely she’d accept the job, and we moved onto the crux of our conversation.

That was this: Should either of us continue participating in the local (sometimes national) art scenes?

Now, I say this with no bias–having written about Esme’s work before I came to know her, and not having written about her work after I came to know her–Esme is a pretty kick-ass artist. She’s petite and blond and pretty, which is unusual enough for a sculptor, and she has the plainly foul mouth of a coal worker. Having hung in the cultural scene here in Minnesota for years, she is friends with local luminaries like Chris Mars and Steve Foley (both of the drummers of The Replacements, who were actually such good friends that they both, at one point or another, tutored her son on the drums), Grant Hart, and Mason Jennings. She is also mother to grown children very close to her own age (having married a man somewhat older than her), as well as children she bore herself.

But Esme’s sculpture is the thing that’s truly impressive. I won’t say much about it, lest I give away her true identity too readily, but it is installational and very in-touch and in-tune with the world, even as it presents visions that are quite visionary and magical to behold.

As we talked about our careers, we discovered that we had both coincidentally reached a cross roads. I had been feeling less and less inclination to hustle to write significant numbers of art reviews about Minneapolis artists of late, and had let my production of such dwindle from highs during my peak of 30 articles per year down to about 5-6 pieces over the past year. I won’t go into my reasons for this decline, except to say it wasn’t out of lack of demand.  Meanwhile, she revealed that, although she had tons of ideas for work and a standing offer for a solo show at a prominent local gallery, she had not really thrown herself into making anything for the past two years or so–ever since she became disillusioned by the bullshit she saw and heard while serving on a prominent local artist panel.

By the end of the evening, we both bemoaned the loss of each other’s work. She said, “I wish you wouldn’t stop writing; the community needs a voice like yours to keep writing about the work that’s being made.” And I said, “I wish you wouldn’t stop making art; the community needs to see the fabulous work you still have left to make.”

Still, neither of these statements was the most remarkable thing spoken this evening. Instead, that was this: At one point, after I asked how her son was doing (last time I saw her two years before he had just begun his drum lessons and was writing movie reviews online) she paused and said, “He’s doing photography now.” Photography? I asked. “Yes, and when he told me that’s what he wanted to do I swear I started crying. I went into art because I didn’t have any choice. It’s what I simply had to do. But I never wanted this for him…”

Another round of drinks came, and we were both silent. “And the thing about it?” She continued, “He’s actually really good. I mean really good. So I don’t know what to do….”