Sunday 4 May 2014

Learning the Symbols

The Journey
photo collage

One of my favourite tasks as an artist who is also a curator of an art gallery is to visit artists’ studios. It’s complicated though, because it can also be the most difficult. I have to turn aside that part of my awareness where my own imagery and motivation lie to be able to receive what I see without distraction. An artist’s brain is like a Venus fly trap, it is always poised to catch at stimulation, always hungry for the things that will trigger the imagination and set an idea in motion. It’s instinctive before it’s intellectual and it doesn’t take much, everything is always a potential, everything is an inspiration.
So I stand outside the artist’s door and go through my little ritual, my little shift from ‘artist’ to ‘curator’. I have to be careful because I don’t want to shut down the very things about me, the artist, that make me, the curator, connect with other people’s work. The moment I cross the threshold I am stepping into the other’s world and seeing it with the other’s eyes; I don’t want to blind myself to any part of the experience. I am there, after all, to become familiar with the artist’s body of work and to ascertain whether I can exhibit it then or at a later date in the context of a not-for-profit, educational gallery in a municipal complex.
Sometimes the mesh of artist and gallery is obvious, and I can offer the artist an exhibition on the spot. At other times there are impediments, the artist isn’t financially ready to tackle a solo exhibition, for instance, or there isn’t enough of work. In that case I have to ask her/him to re-apply at a later date. It’s stressful when I have to refuse the work because it doesn’t live up to the submission, though it is rare that I conduct a studio visit if I have not already ascertained the work’s consistency and the artist’s level by examining the dossier. I know what all three scenarios feel like from the artist’s end, so I try to proceed as the best curators I have dealt with have proceeded with me.
However, while I am there to select artists and works for exhibition, my approach is of a fact-finding nature: Whether I offer them an exhibition or not, I seek to meet and become familiar with the artists whose progress I can then follow.
These days, it is rare for artists to be able to present their body of work directly, and to do so in their studios, amid their work in progress, the tools, materials, even the mess of their creative process and one-on-one with an attentive, informed viewer. Most of us aren’t used to it. When I arrive at their studios, therefore, most artists receive me warily, with some trepidation. They see me only as The Curator, that is, as someone who is there only to judge them and their work. After all they’ve invited me in hoping to get an exhibition out of it. They might compensate by adopting a kind of show-off attitude or a too-casual one. Some become self-deprecating, finding fault with their own work before I even have a chance to see it, others try to impress me with the sales they’ve had or their CVs as if these things will enhance the work’s value in my eyes.
You’d think that this would be true only of the beginner artists, the amateurs, or the ‘emerging’ ones who haven’t much experience with ‘the public’ and who meet a curator or dealer for the first time. It is not. I have dealt with some remarkable, renowned artists who have a solid body of work yet who have been as nervous as if they fear I will doubt the quality of their work.
Luckily the discomfort doesn’t usually last once we begin to talk, except with those artists who don’t care about anything but the ‘yes’ they want to hear, those who only want me to take their imagery, do all the work to show and market it, sell it for high prices and make them famous. There’s no possible dialogue with them: despite my explanation that my gallery is not-for-profit, educational, that I am not a dealer, and that anyway, today’s art market doesn’t work that way. The ‘it’s not that kind of gallery’ is a bitter disappointment to them, and I leave their studios feeling like the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz …)
The best studio visits are those that focus on the imagery itself, if artists view their work not as marketable commodities but as living entities, as denizens of their creative world. They, however, have a different anxiety about my visit. It’s not the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ they worry about but my pre-conceptions and expectations. Do I come to actually LOOK at their work or do I have my own blinders on, my own agenda? Curators, after all, often select artists who and work that will support their own aesthetic or academic premise: the work can be dismissed offhand, for instance because it is ‘too ‘narrative’ or because it does not incorporate electronic components or address social issues, or any other of the popular or current concerns.
On the other hand, and way too often, some people who are invited by artists to ‘look at my work” or who are asked for a ‘critique’ assume they are expected to praise or correct what they see, focusing on the technical or skill level, or on whether they ‘like’ the work. Comments often are preceded by such statements as, “You should…”., or “Why didn’t you…?” or “I’d have…”, or suggestions about how much better the work would work in another medium. Vague statements about images needing to have ‘meaning’ or to aim for ‘contemporary’ ideas communicate nothing at all.
I am clear about the gallery’s mandate, but I am also clear about my interest in the artist and the work, because I believe that fi art is meant to evoke emotion, provoke thought, provide therapy, give pleasure, inspire change, enlighten, create desire, refer to history, be inspiring or therapeutic, and serve all the other functions assigned to it by critics and historians (man, what responsibility!), it would be good it all artists, each and every one, were actually to see and know how people felt, what they thought, in what way they were enlightened by their work, and so on.
How many people actually ask questions about the visual art they see, and really probe the work they’re looking at, even within the profession? And how often do the artists get to know that someone has actually gone the distance with their work, even when it has been bought? From my conversations with artists over the years, I’d say not many and not often if they aren’t interviewed for catalogues or articles or the guests in programs or classrooms.
We artists do sometimes fear what people will see in our work, how they’ll interpret it, what terrible reviews or critiques will be written, and we suffer terrible agony wondering ‘why?” if it doesn’t get selected for exhibition, even when we are ‘famous’. As a result, many claim they don’t care to know the impact of their work. They say they dissociate from what they’ve made the minute they finish it, all they want then is to move on. To them, it apparently doesn’t matter what people ‘read’ in the work as long as they connect to it on their own level.
Perhaps, but I have yet to visit artists’ studios with whom dialogue is possible and been able to just look and leave. They want me to receive, to react to what I see, and they watch me closely as I do; they want me to make associations and to relate their work to art criticism and art history. They want me to perceive their technique, their style and their symbolism and to understand what they are sharing or communicating. They want me to share my insights, emotions, thoughts and reactions. If I can also exhibit their work, they receive the news as a bonus.
Happily, I can spend time in the artists’ studios. I can look at as much of their work that is available that they are willing to show me. We can visit past images, respond to current work, and imagine future directions. The artists can reveal the original triggers for their work, those experiences or people in their lives that inspired their imagery, drew them to their medium and shaped their artistic philosophies. We can look at how the artists use their media, their tools, how they set themselves up to work. We can find those things in the imagery that connect us as human beings. All these things help me become a better viewer and a better advocate for their work, no matter what the immediate outcome of the studio visit.

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