Archive for the The excesses of artists Category

“…Tell your wife you love her. This is what it’s all about. Otherwise, you’ll be painting and looking at pictures like this. Your days are numbered, clowns. This is the end of the line. The end of beauty. The end of hope. What is art anyway? Decorations for museums.”

–Chuck Connelly, in the extra features on the DVD for The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, A Film by Jeff Stimmel

I realized about halfway through Jeff Stimmel’s 2008 documentary about Chuck Connelly that I had met this person before, several times. I’d heard his rants before, I’d seen his behavior, I’d witnessed in person how he lived. Through my years as a writer on art, I interviewed and wrote about a number of aging artists — perhaps 6 or 7 in sum — who were very similar to the way Connelly portrays himself in the film. They were so much alike, in fact, that it seems there must be a personality type: The Delusional Shut-in Artist, perhaps, or maybe the Quixotic Quack Painter.

Here are some of the character features of these men (all the ones I’ve met are men):

They are painters, most often.
They have a heroic vision of themselves (as a Great Artist, a warrior fighting against the cultural tides, a man on a holy quest for beauty, truth, etc).
They are so focused on their art — their quest — that not much else matters to them.
As a rule, they don’t care much about their appearance, and they often let themselves go.
They live in a kind of contained squalor, most often surrounded by the messy trappings of their art practice and the accumulated junk piles of the congenital shut-in.
They tend to believe that they’ve been cheated, somehow, out of the rewards (fame, wealth, attention) they feel is rightfully theirs.
They are misogynistic, abusive to their loved ones, and generally fail at interpersonal relationships.
Evenso, they can be very charismatic, attracting a succession of short-term acolytes, supporters, and co-dependents who eventually end up fleeing in disgust from being used.
They tend toward substance abuse.
They are verbally brilliant, though they think and speak in non-linear, associative ways.
They exhibit flashes of brilliance and great command of their own self-directed learning, but they tend to be, at best, emotionally adolescent.

We here at CAFA HQ recommend all of you check out Holland Cotter’s recent NYT article “The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!“ 

In it, he writes: “The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.” But instead of wallowing in this failure and bemoaning this decompression, an accusation that has occasionally been leveled at this site, Cotter sees this moment as mostly a hopeful one:

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Still, lest we give Cotter and his boundless hippie idealism too much credit, you should know that Cotter, and most of the New York artcritiscenti, have been salivating for this boom to be over for much of the past two or three years, as I recounted in this essay from May, 2007:

While I have been pondering, this past autumn and winter, the issues related to why a person decides to take on the artist’s mantle, numerous art critics and observers have commented of late on the wild-and-wooly nature of the current art market and the great rewards within reach of an artist who is able to “make it” today. In December, Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker called the current art market an “art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins.” In mid-January, Holland Cotter in the New York Times called contemporary art “largely a promotional scam perpetuated by—in no particular order of blame—museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam.”

Two days later, Jerry Saltz described, in eloquently jarring terms, what he thought of the art market: “A private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift… a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight… an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”

At the end of January, Charlie Finch on ArtNet.com explained that the art market’s arbitariness “disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.” And he said such distortions in turn “affect the traditional ways we think about the art market.” And Jed Perl, one day later, in an article about money in the art world subtitled “How the Art World Lost Its Mind,” bemoaned the “insane art commerce of our day” and proclaimed “the essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice this means always operating as if painting and sculpture were a dimension of popular culture.” He explained that when we see artists “whose careers are barely a decade old dominating the auction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, we are being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in a moment—and this is a pop culture idea.”

Cotter and his ilk were not really exhibiting much insight, as one of the the easiest things in the world to predict is that an overinflated bubble will eventually burst. Further, these critics didn’t really offer many useful thoughts in the midst of the market, as they seemed to prefer instead simply to kvetch and complain about the situation, revealing the sour grapes they were tasting from their loss of cultural import in the face of the market boom. Nor is Cotter particularly unique in suggesting that arts folk will get back to simple brass tacks after the dust has settled (I did the same here and here; it’s a pretty easy call).

Still, as you fans of failure know, such tawdry thoughts do make for pretty good reading…

Here’s a review of a recent failed art exhibition that I wrote for The Thousandth Word blog: “Bang a Drum for the Losers.”

Be forewarned: My take on the show at hand, “Millions of Innocent Accidents” by the artists collective Hardland/Heartland at the Minnesota Artists Gallery (at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), is a tad harsh. But I had a point to express, related to the cause of so much artistic failure across the land of late, which was this:

Shrill gestures like breaking windows, destroying property, and flouting the rules of civilized society do not make compelling symbolism. Instead, acts of a hopeful, imaginative, empathetic, or out-reaching nature are what’s needed to attract and capture the attention and support of others….

….As soon as I walked into this gallery and saw the poorly conceived, dolefully hopeless work that this well-meaning group of artists purported to consider compelling visual art—all their random and indistinct trash and burnt paraphernalia and jumbles and piles of detritus and tossed off dreck and doodles and goats’ heads and black tar corner accretions—my spirit fell. The show was a disaster, off-putting and uninspiring, and it was clear at a glance that this loudly shouting, in-your-face visual group had failed to reach out to others in any meaningfuly to get their righteous points across….

The chief problem is that, while it’s clear that Hardland/Heartland’s hearts are in the right place and they have the energy to make a lot of work (and I mean a lot of work), they just don’t know how to make much that is compelling and symbolically relevant or that embodies and expounds on their frustrations, fears, and angst in a way that someone else would care to look at. There’s no hope here, no imagination, and certainly nothing to empathize with.

I thought now would be a good time to check back in with Gabriel Combs, the artist whose descent (into homelessness, substance abuse, and near-incarceration) I have covered here and elsewhere. Fortunately, Combs keeps a MySpace page, on which he has been updating his blog fairly frequently of late. Below are some interesting tidbits from his blog:


Date: August 16, 2008
Post title: sepulchral beatitude of a heartstring fugitive
it was a love story first, now a tale of unending loss. sometimes i don’t want the day to end, as i don’t want to face another night alone. sometimes the night seems more fruitful in its suffering dread. got to this point giving away my heart to fools and liars. i always believed and was so dedicated. so in love and so blind, regardless of my mistakes and short-comings. so in love with the world, a world i now cannot find…two stories, one loving and one hating, one living and one dying.




Date: August 20, 2008
Post title: narcissism prevalence; prima donna persona non grata
i hear there is a handbasket suitable for my transport to hell. …i checked in to the ER for many, many problems exactly three weeks ago to the day. they ejected me several hours later as i had no “actual plan to commit suicide”

i have a fistful of friends, lets call them friendly pariahs. outsider is still alive like a cultural stitch will mend a fashion trend. i harp on this issue like an instrument with passion…

…slowly reading lord jim, as after a maddening push on reading am suffering a maddening push on art making. all you generations are xyz, fool. its already been established and if you can’t follow the patterns you needs to back the fuck up because its all old news…

i’m looking for my lee krasner but i want her to be lee bontecou…




Date: August 27, 2008
Post title: Alcoholic Altruism/Augean Artiface
twelve pack goes down like gravity. falls like an anvil, falls like autumn. i can feel it heavy, more than last year. dropping further and faster. another day passes, un-named and unknown. got up half dead today, morose and numb. nose numb and red. i love how it feels to have that haze. saves me to live another day on the slow suicide savoring how i die. one with a perpetual death but still lives to tell about it. there is no pre nuptual to marriage with this ritual. i’m not sipping, just stammering and stuttering under lifes’ trauma. i don’t seem to die regardless of my planning. i wish i had some advice for someone to not end up here or to alleve some friends concern i’m too far gone. you see, i don’t have hope to make it anymore and so i have’nt a care in the world. i don’t expect to live and i can’t seem to die. i slit the wrists but the blood just keeps coming. i’m going to go lay down in the gutter amongst my filth…its an empty round in a full chamber game of russian roulette and i wear the crown of shit. hands down, quit askin questions. i got an answer for your suggestion. i’m sweatin while you’re restin. calloused while you’re guessin. curse everyone while i’m blessin.




Date: August 30, 2008
Post title: minnesota mediocre; fair game midwest manifesto
five months homeless now. sold everything just about. i think i can make six months. trying hard to set shit up to go back to ohio (cue pretenders song) for a minute after september. wur um frum, lotsa folks in graves there. never seen my moms grave yet. might find where abouts some other family, down in kentucky, virginia, ect. back in them mountains…when a fly comes in my studio my tendency is to maim it and offer it to my pet spiders. i did so today but busted it open and it fell thru the web and the maggots came out and consumed the corpse. i imagine they began to die and there was like one fat one left in the end. i did’nt bother to observe the end of it. reminds me of the art world.

i’ve enjoyed the recent thoughts of mr. fallon, for the record. at times the thoughts stray from the track i’m on, but we seem to converge here and there as i do with a number of the other under rated minds around here. i like the new thousandth word vicious guest article. funny how the consensus is growing that this art scene needs to change and one needs to talk about this *shit*, or it will stay in the hands of those that need to *go*. get out now, or get kicked out hard. i gots boots fool. …

i know exactly who i am in my time and while i’m actually still alive. just like those before me did. fall down drunk and don’t get paid for the art i do but you gotta make prints to get out as much work as i do. 85 or so pieces sold in the last sixty days plus a couple give aways. this is’nt ego this is the facts. i’m just building up, still humbly following the tracks of pollock, van gogh, ect. those that went to fucking hell for this shit without a flinch. i’m not leaving it for you to decide. hell no, you’ll tell me piss in a jar is it.




Date: September 4, 2008
Post title: troubled water torrent/noli me tangere via tantalos
woke up on the sidewalk the other morning. i lose days here and there. if you’ve seen the jackson pollock moving picture the scene where he wakes up on the (as i remember it) cement platform underneath a window with some kids looking at him. dirty and deranged. i was in a block that was mostly a school, lying on sidewalk that was paralell to black asphalt. i remember drinking with a couple of guys from tibet. learned a thing or two before the blackout set in. things about my thinking and spirituality while speaking with a buddhist. (one guy i think was not speaking english and was deaf anyways) …sold the engagement ring yesterday, took it off my key-ring. got ripped off for gold but freed from a trap of sentiment. being in my mind is being a cat herder. i keep up and multiply ideas like bacteria. beneficial parasites. yo, you got the sun in your eyes in this show down and am i an artist or a writer. leave you guessing as your eyes narrow and mine grow wider.

bring it to fruition, notice i’m quiet but my knuckles are swollen and scarred.
cut my eyekon teeth and my art comes up in you rough and hard…

you ignored the artists like us in the past and now we are aware. you’ll wait for us to die like vincent but we will teach you like hoffman.

you fucking a hole.

FU

“The lives of artists are as a rule unsatisfactory—not to say tragic—because of their inferiority on the human and personal side—there is hardly any exception to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.”

—Carl Gustav Jung

On my Minneapolis-based arts blog, The Thousandth Word, I recently collaborated with Minneapolis artist-warrior, Gabe Combs, on a piece called  “Dried Blood and Dandelion Wine.”  It reveals, in the artist’s own words, much about the raw details of his present life (as an artist recently made homeless); here’s a sample:

Being an artist is not a fashion statement that passes with the season; it’s not something that hinges on gas prices. Art is something that combines with the culture to establish roots that intertwine with and break up the cement of society so the wildflowers can grow.Art breaks up a false foundation and replaces it with dirt. I wonder if it’s really possible to make dandelion wine…

Regular readers of CAFA will recognize that I have been following Gabe’s story, as best I can, since just before he was made homeless in March. You can read about the early stages of this artist’s self-destruction here, here, and here.

Also, here’s an informational post that tells you what’s up with this new Thousandth Word blog on Rakemag.com. I suggest you visit this site often (perhaps nearly as often as you visit the Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America) to read more such stories by me and five other capable and informed local arts writers.

The cartoon below says everything you need to know about why artist are doomed to failure. (Side effects of creativity include: “poverty, impaired judgement, poor health, difficulty with relationships, delusions of grandeur, alienation, anxiety, dependence on the approval of strangers, and bad reviews.”)

tmcm051017.gif


Just to check back in, below is pasted the most recent online forum post by Gabriel Combs, the artist who self-destructed (and went homeless) a few months ago.

Note: I haven’t seen Combs since just before he was evicted from his apartment. He was not particularly pleased with what I wrote about his experiences, so I don’t imagine he’d have any interest in meeting with me again. Therefore, unfortunately, the only way I have of knowing how well the now-homeless artist is doing is by reading the scant words he writes on this online forum. (And these words don’t paint a pretty picture.)

i sold my soul for a bowl of soup, and there was a fly in it.
cuts don’t heal
slow seeping blood
its death and it creeps

testosterone and adrenaline mixed with alcohol
my senses have gone animal. survival explicitly dictates it. its a fine line from here to hell, and i’m aware of every instinct, sight and smell. dreams are theatre and threatening and nostalgic nightmare with beauty and godpleasesomeonehelpmeplease. sleep face down arms crossed in a coffin with the process of suffocation. radiate light in the day, solar cell (prison) becomes anemic until after midnight shadows confiscate lack of contrast.

an ideal balance of alienation and abstracted nostalgia.

“i don’t care about my bad reputation
never said i wanted to improve my station…”

choooke…. my body is afflicted with this heartttttt…… brokenbreakcrookedandstraight

“runnin through the field where all my tracks will be concealed

and theres no where to go…”

nothing is making much sense. i don’t know where i am.

here are three 3″ x 4″ statik kinetic tortoise, now up on ebay for only .99 cents. i gotta get out of here soon…

(posted on mnartists.org by Gabriel Combs, May 18, 06:35 PM)

An article called “Failure Makes a Comeback,” which recently appeared in the Western Washington University student newspaper, describes an exhibition of work, at the Viking Union Gallery, by seniors at the school who have all but resigned themselves to lives of artistic failure.

The show’s title–”F’ It”–is perhaps revealing of a prevailing attitude among young artists today.  The story explains that the show, organized by Western students Heidi Norgaard and Abby Wilson, is dedicated to “abandoned, damaged, or altogether failed artwork submissions” from the school’s students.

“We wanted to do a show where an artist put their heart and soul into [a piece of artwork], and it just didn’t turn out how they planned,” Wilson said. “They just had to say fuck it”…

To emphasize this approach, the coordinators requested a written description of what went wrong with the piece with each submission. They said the effect of seeing a failed piece of art next to the story of its demise adds depth to the exhibit.

The idea was inspired by a fiber-art major, who had started countless art projects that began as exciting concepts but ended up as big disappointments. “But that’s the process you have to go through,” she said. “Ninety percent of the projects artists make are really crappy. The other 10 percent are what you see in galleries… I’m tired of being mad about having shitty art, and I decided to start being happy about the mistakes I make.”

“People put too much emphasis on grades and getting things right the first time,” Norgaard said. “If every college was open to failure, we could learn a lot more.”

Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present. It cannot regret the past; it is dangerous to prophesy the future. It can, and does, draw on the past in its use of existing heritages but it only does so to give point to a modern argument. In no sense is documentary a historical reconstruction and attempts to make it so are destined to failure. Rather it is contemporary fact and event expressed in relation to human associations.
–Paul Rotha (1935)

It’s a testament to the power of the new documentary by Amir Bar-Lev, “My Kid Could Paint That,”  that people (at least the ones that I’ve talked to) tend to see what that want to see in the film. The documentary, about the recent fifteen minutes of fame of a four-year-old abstract painter, is a strange kind of mirror, reflecting back at each of its viewers an individual reality of the viewer’s choosing. That is, some see it as an indictment of the fickle art world, which has the power to create fads and just as quickly to relegate them to the junk pile. Some see it as an exploration of the enduring power of creativity—particularly of the most pure and innocent (and cherubic) kind—even in the face of the cynical economics of creativity in this country. Still others see it as an American fable about average people trying to get ahead in a field of endeavor they scarcely understand, a sort of Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches genre turned on its head…

To me, this film, as well as two other recent documentaries—Esther Robinson’s “A Walk Into the Sea” and Matt Ogen’s  “Confessions of a Superhero”—reveal all of these contradictory realities, and, in the process, explore the complicated  and troubled relationship that Americans have with creativity, fame and fortune, and the ever-present will to stand out above the ordinary masses. Each film reveals something about the the absolute lengths that real people will go to just to get their name in the record books, their work up on screen or gallery wall, or their pictures splashed on a page of the  24-hour news cycle.

“My Kid Could Paint That” tells the story of the Olmstead family from Binghamton, New York. Mark and Laura are the middle-American parents—she a dental assistant, he a manager at a Frito Lay Plant—of two children, Zane and Marla. At age 2, in 2002, perhaps imitating her father, a hobbyist painter, Marla Olmstead began to paint. At age 3, a family friend suggested that they should let him hang Marla’s paintings in his coffee shop. In 2004, a local photorealist painter and gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, mounted a show of Marla’s work, prompting local journalist Elizabeth Cohen to write an article on the painting prodigy that eventually turned Marla—after the New York Times put a “match under a fuse” by picking up the story—into a national, even international, sensation.

To his credit, Bar-Lev keeps his camera level while exploring the competing forces and desires that end up acting on the family after being hit by the storm. Even as the balloon of hype and hoopla inevitably bursts, after a damning 60 Minute profile of the family suggests that an overbearing Mark has been prompting Marla’s creative output, Bar-Lev does not appear interesting in digging into the riddles that are plentiful in Marla’s story. Most of his film flat-footedly follows the agony of the family, and especially of the mother, as they deal with the charges of dishonesty and exploitation and wonder if they’re giving Marla a “normal” upbringing. “I want to take a polygraph,” Laura Olmstead says at one point in the film, “I don’t want to let anyone come in and dissect us again… What have I done to my children?”

Tellingly, throughout the film, Bar-Lev refuses glorify Marla, unlike the initial media stories, as a genius prodigy and natural creative force—preferring to show her most often in her natural state as a goofy and preoccupied four-year-old, pushing paint around like mud with her hands or chasing after butterflies in the yard. Bar-Lev seems to see his role as an unbiased and unjudging observer of one particularly noteworthy example of the country’s troubled love-affair with fame and its misunderstanding of the nature of creative output. 

The most interesting portrayal in “My Kid Could Paint That” is of the father, Mark Olmstead. And while Bar-Lev neither reveals Mark Olmstead as a gray eminence nor completely swallows the family’s explanations of Marla’s pure creative process (he voices his doubts to the family on film), there is enough questioning that we’re not really sure what to believe in the end. After all, the camera records the mother’s saying early on, “Mark always wanted to be in the spotlight.” Like many people, Olmstead is a former athlete who’s always been artistically adept and who seems disappointed by his lot in life. “I would have been better off if I had become an NFL quarterback. That’s what I wanted to do… But I’m proud as hell of my daughter, as far as her painting ability goes.”

Observing the toll that fame and fortune, or the desire to touch the candlelight flame of each, takes on people is of utmost interest to Bar-Lev, and it also appears to drive the makers of two other recent documentary films.

I’ve already written a bit about the first, “A Walk into the Sea,” and I plan to write more once the DVD is available (apparently in early July), so I won’t dwell on it hear. The second, “Confessions of a Superhero,” is beautifully filmed, but ultimately much more lightweight, than either of the other films. “When we were kids,” says a superhero character to introduce the film, “we all dreamt about what it would be like to be a superhero, to have superpowers like x-ray vision or superhuman strength… But we all grow up. And sometimes we turn out to be not that super. And maybe we’re just plain ordinary. [This film] is a look at what people will do to be famous. And what they’ll settle for when they’re not.”

“Superhero” traces the life trajectories of four people who spend their days dressed up in superhero costumes to take pictures, for “tips,” with tourists on Hollywood Boulevard. Interestingly, all of them want to be actors and have minor (very minor) screen credits. Also interestingly, they all seem to be standing just a bit on this side of the sanity smokestack. One in particular, Christopher Lloyd Dennis, who looks somewhat like Christopher Reeves and, of course, plays Superman, is described by the others as fairly nuts. “Yes, obsessed,” says a man who dresses at Batman, “he is very obsessed. That would be the one world for Superman.” He claims at one point that his apartment holds at least a “million dollars” worth of Superman memorabilia, and he claims (dubiously) several times on film that he is the son of the actress Sandy Dennis (who told him on her “death bed” that he should get into the “business”—thus, kicking of his entertainment “career.” “He’s suffocating in the world of Superman,” says a friend from the Boulevard who dresses as Wonder Woman.

But in fact, they all seem, in their own way, rather driven to distraction by the effort to keep stoking the flames of their dreams to make it in Hollywood. “I feel so much like a loser,” says a fourth character, who dresses up as the Hulk, “because I didn’t come out here to get in a costume and stand on Hollywood Boulevard for chump change. I’m out here seriously to make a name for myself.”

In the end, “Confessions of a Superhero” peters out simply because the characters develop no “arc” during the story. All four simply end the film as they started, as people who are burdened by a hopeless dream. Some get married, some divorced; one gets counseling, one lands a role in a cheesy kung fu spoof; one is arrested, another ends up on Jimmy Kimmel. But that’s it. Their dreams live on, pathetically never to be realized.