A new path at Arcadia Contemporary

Steve Diamant, owner of Arcadia Contemporary, takes a look at the work I left with him.

On Tuesday, week before last, I turned a significant corner in my life as a painter.

Two days earlier, I’d filled a minivan with more than a dozen large paintings. I picked up my friend Tim Farrell and drove my work down to Manhattan to deliver them to Arcadia Contemporary. I was hoping Steve Diamant would keep a few of the taffy paintings to see if they would sell as readily as three smaller ones he sold at the Five and Under show in August. I also brought four of my older candy jar paintings.

This was something I’d decided to do only a couple days earlier. When I emailed Steve and said I was coming to town and would check in to see the new group show, he said “Bring those candy jar paintings we discussed.” This was a pleasant, but puzzling surprise. My plans had been to visit New York for two days of entertainment. Tim and I had tickets to a Rick Beato talk at Gramercy Theater, (Tim had played briefly in a band with Beato in high school) as well as tickets to the Rangers in their season opener at Madison Square Garden. During the day, I was going to get a look, as well, at the superb exhibition of paired work from Degas and Manet at the Metropolitan. This trip had originated as Tim’s first venture out since his wife passed away of ALS this year, one step toward getting back in stride, and he agreed to help with this additional venture.

My puzzlement at first was in determining which candy jar paintings we had discussed. He hadn’t indicated he liked any of them specifically. For the next day, he didn’t respond to requests for clarification. I realized this is his way: let the artist put forth his or her best effort and see what happens. Require the painter to show the initiative. Who better to know what work represents his or her best effort? After a day, I decided to load all the ones I thought were good enough and then bring another ten or so taffy paintings. In other words, I went all in. Now or never. Most of the ones I picked were three feet square or larger. I looked at rental family minivans online, rather than cargo vans, and found a Chrysler at the Avis site that looked big enough. I drove to a nearby dealer and measured the rear gate and cargo area to confirm it would work. Then I spent a day preparing the work for travel. I went to U-Haul and bought mattress bags—a trick I learned from Rick Harrington for paintings I transport myself—bagging all 14. I then took five-foot square cardboard sheets I bought in bulk a couple years ago to create shells for paintings when they go into a crate. This time I cut them down to a size that let me use them as flat protective dividers between the paintings.

All of this took a day. Once I rented the van, it turned out to be a Honda, smaller than what I’d expected, barely large enough for the whole load. I had to find a way to slide all of the work into the cargo area after figuring out how to remove the entire second row of seats, storing them them in my garage. Those captain’s chairs, as the automakers call them, were heavy, and I ended up using a dolly to move them around when I re-installed them after coming back home. The biggest paintings went in through the rear gate. The midsize and smaller work turned out to be a tighter fit, barely sliding into the vehicle diagonally through the passenger side door. I had to use bungie cards stretched between the ceiling grab handles as a cradle to keep the upper end of the rear-most painting from resting on the diagonal stack of layered candy jar paintings behind inserted first through the rear gate.

The logistics surrounding the act of painting are mostly physical—not only in constructing stretchers, stretching canvas, building frames, but especially in delivering work to exhibitions, galleries and buyers. You keep putting minerals on cloth until they look the way you want them to, and then this object has to be lifted, boxed, driven, unpacked, hung. Then repeat, whenever it changes hands. Measure twice, cut once, is a rule for carpenters but also for painters: measure and measure again, and even then you’ll forget something in building a wooden crate to ship a painting to Europe or California–or in getting the dimensions of a minivan’s cargo area. Complications multiply like fractals, problems within problems, in getting a painting from Point A to Point B. A small still life spent a week held up in European customs on its way to Prague this year, requiring email after email to Fed Ex and to officials in the Czech Republic until it finally was released for its destination in a group show there.

This time, all the complications clustered at the start, and once on the road, the whole trek felt charmed, from getting out onto the road until we returned home on Wednesday—though what Jimi Hendrix sang about crosstown traffic remains as true as ever. At our midtown hotel, I left all the work in the van when the valet drove it to the parking garage, which served as a vault for my paintings on Monday. On Tuesday morning,  we retrieved the vehicle and drove it down Park Avenue to SoHo, delighted to see several spots actually vacant near the gallery on West Broadway. We parked at the door and Steve’s two assistants quietly helped us slide the work out of the minivan, leaning it against available wall space inside the front door. They slipped the large plastic bags to the floor on one painting after another. When they’d removed about half the bags, one of them glanced at Steve and asked, “Do you want me to take off the rest?”

Steve is solidly built, with a closely-cropped pate, a friendly demeanor. He looks as if he could have been a wrestler in school, but he’s full of energy and delight, all of it contained and tersely communicated.

“No, that won’t be necessary.” I looked over. He was smiling. Once he’d seen several of them exposed, the consistency of paint handling was visible clearly enough through the plastic.

With an extremely tactful decline of the candy jars, he asked, “When were they done?”

I said, vaguely, “Much earlier than the taffy.”

“You’ve become a better painter. The taffy is wonderful.” His view was that the candy jars were painterly in a way that isn’t consistent with the newer work. He was right.

“I expected that,” I said.

What I hadn’t expected was that he’d want to keep all the taffy paintings.

This was the culmination of nearly a decade of visiting Arcadia and talking briefly with him—he’s almost always on hand when anyone walks through the door, usually back in his office. Whenever I have been in the city, Arcadia one of the first galleries I check out. This has been true both in New York and back when he was located in Culver City and Pasadena, I would visit whenever we flew to L.A. to see our kids and grandkids. It got to the point where Steve would recognize me and we’d have brief casual conversations. He once invited me back to his office to show me the work of a Russian artist he’d just discovered. But I was shy to approach him in the past about my own work because I knew what I was doing didn’t have a consistency of subject or treatment, and sometimes of paint handling, that would enable him to see a future path showing and selling what I was doing. I’ve been working on the salt water taffy series for more than three years in the hope that I could pitch it as a solo show to the Butler Institute or Manifest or a good gallery once I’d done enough work to fill the available space. I hadn’t completed quite enough to have a full solo show in a space like Arcadia’s. But over the past year, I’d had my work accepted into nine juried shows, two in museums, one in the Czech Republic, two of the exhibitions juried respectively by curators from the Guggenheim and the National Gallery of Art. I knew the time was right to finally pitch my efforts to Arcadia. I’ve been exhibiting for fifteen years around the country and in Europe, though my history of solo shows is quite short. The problem is that my work sells, so it’s hard to build up enough of an inventory, as it were, to mount a good show. (Jim Hall, who owns Oxford Gallery, and who has been selling my work for a decade likes to put it into perspective: “It’s a nice problem to have.”)

Steve said: “There’s an art fair we attend every year in Los Angeles. It’s the L.A. Art Show . . .”

“I know. I’ve been there. I’ve seen your booth.”

He laughed and nodded as if to say, of course you have.

“I want to take these and see how we do with them. They’ll have a wall to themselves.”

I left without asking for anything in receipt of the paintings. That’s how much I trust Arcadia.

In August, after seeing the red dots on my three smaller taffy paintings there and looking at the work of the other artists in the show, I walked north on Broadway, feeling weightless, hiking back to where I’d parked on W. 26th St. This time, as we drove back to the hotel, I felt an enormous wave of relief. Everything had gone as smoothly as I could have hoped, I was about ten paintings lighter than when I’d driven downtown, Steve was still gazing at the paintings as I walked out the door and took the picture I posted up above.

Of course, if the paintings don’t sell, then a path forward won’t seem quite as obvious as it may be now, but there will be a path, regardless. I couldn’t be happier or more grateful than to have Arcadia’s support and willingness to see where this opportunity leads. It’s a moment I’ve been working towards for 15 years, with the help of so many painter friends and organizations that have shown my work. Yet, for all that, having the enthusiasm of a gallerist with skills and reputation and ethics as rare as Steve Diamant’s is a big step forward. The only problem is that if he sells the work, I’ll just have to start again working on a group of paintings for a solo show. As problems go, it’s a good one to have.

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