The rewards of painting

My work at the Memorial Art Gallery

My work at the Memorial Art Gallery

I have to admit it’s cool to see my work hanging on a wall in our local museum only a few steps away from the spot where I stood when I was 18 and saw my first Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Man. As part of the permanent collection, Rembrandt’s painting will be inhabiting the Memorial Art Gallery far longer than my work will. I’m on view for a couple months. (When you stand in a museum whose website tagline is “Fifty Centuries of World Art” you become hyper-aware of how little time you spend doing anything.) The 64th Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition, which accepted three of my paintings, will last until Sept. 9.  Yet, as evanescent as my tenancy is there, my second participation in this exhibition (I sold my entry in the same exhibition four years ago) has given me a sense that the decades I’ve spent practicing, experimenting, learning, and building up one side of my back muscles from holding a brush aloft (I kid you not) have resulted in work that offers something of value to other people. I’ve had confirmation of this over the past five years, as I’ve begun to exhibit around the country and even in London, and I’ve sold a fair number of paintings, but this show always feels like the highest honor to me. Maybe because it happens here in what has become my home town, and maybe because the quality of the work, especially this year, and the quality of this museum, seems equal to anything I see anywhere I’ve looked at contemporary art. So the honor of being in this biennial show gives me a sense of achievement, but it also gives me a keen awareness of the humbling ironies implicit in being a visual artist now. Or almost any sort of dedicated, disciplined artist.

Artists in any field–poet, painter, musician, novelist, short story writer, actor, photographer, comic–do something that can represent a genuinely rare achievement (given the population of the world) and yet still be almost totally unknown and obscure (given the population of the world). Take it up to the highest notch, and this still holds true. You can even make a lot of money at what you do, be highly recognized in a given field, get profiles in glossy magazines and still labor in almost total obscurity when it comes to the human race as a whole. Part of the drive to be creative is to fashion something that could potentially have meaning or be a part of almost anyone’s life, in any time. Universal and timeless are a tired pair of adjectives that describe great art. Postmodernism aside, that’s the unspoken hope and dream of every artist: to make something that deserves those adjectives. And yet even the most celebrated and lucrative work, the art that reaches the most people and has the greatest chance of being seen years into the future, has little impact on most people. Jeff Koons is probably one of the most publicized and controversial artists now living and yet almost no one would recognize his face on the street. Nor would most people be familiar with his name or his work. I think those who devote their lives to art tend to forget how much it takes place in a comparatively tiny social bubble, at various levels–local, regional, national, even international. The global audience even for the big international art fairs is an elite sliver of the globe’s human cargo. Popular movies have become the visual art most people know.

So, as an artist, you end up living a sort of double life. You may feel accomplished, and you may know you’ve developed comparatively rare skills with a given medium, and yet you realize that it means nothing to almost anyone you will ever meet. I’m not sad about this. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it makes art a discipline that can refine your character more than ever before: more akin to Tibetan sand painting than, say, preparing a spectacular new academic scene for a Paris salon in the 19th century. Being an artist–unless you’re a member of that tiny coterie of people who have been embraced by the rich and the powerful figures in the art world, or at least the critics–puts you into the same mental world, in terms of ego, as the highly-skilled fellow who repaired the stucco facade of  our Tudor house, when my wife and I happened to own one. (The less ego the better, in any activity.) He was among a tiny, rare set of tradesmen who actually knew how to work with stucco, learned it in Europe, and did it perfectly, but unless you paid for his work you probably didn’t know he was alive. And what that means can be good: the inner imperative to make art becomes the only thing driving it, rather than concerns about feeding a market what it expects and demands. (As Cobain sang, in fear of popularity, “Here we are now. Entertain us.”) But oh to have the problem of popularity . . .

Still, when I went back to the Memorial Art Gallery yesterday to take pictures of the work I intend to write about in my next post–a pointless errand since I’ve since realized each one is available online at the museum’s website–I saw a steady trickle of people coming into the show, maybe a dozen at a time moving from room to room, new ones filing in, others finishing up and wandering off to see the permanent collection: retirees, workers on a break, children, couples, someone in a wheelchair. If you extrapolate that trickle and compound it over the course of two months, that’s a lot of eyes and a lot of awareness. So the impact is there, the reward of having people linger in front of your work and study it, is definitely there. Few artists expect the income to add up to a living, if there’s income at all. There are always exceptions, the ones who find a market and stay true to their talent while keeping up with a demand for their work up, but not many, because that can’t be the point of doing it. It’s one of the hard parts of making art, at first, and then it’s liberating, as long as you can find other ways to pay bills.

This has always been the case, in varying degrees, but the nature of being an artist has changed in many ways over the past fifty years. One thing that’s been lost is that dream of being able to communicate with the widest possible audience. If you pay attention to art, you’ll know some “big” names: Koons, Ruscha, Hirst, Cai Guo-Qiang and others, who get plenty of income and varying degrees of respect. And you know those names only because you’re part of an exclusive cohort of art lovers and artists. No one plays the role Warhol or Picasso did in their time. That sort of universality and global awareness is gone. So you have to make art because the activity itself is worthwhile and ask no more of it, hoping that the people who might get the most out of your work will actually, at some point, have a chance to see it. (The Internet will make this more and more likely as time goes on, I think.) As I’ve said, I don’t believe any of this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a sobering reality. It would be nice to be able to support the making of art solely through selling the art you make. But when that isn’t the case, you have to do it without any reward in mind other than the impact it can have when a pair of eyes rest briefly on what you’ve done. Ultimately, though, you do it simply because you aren’t happy unless you are doing it, because no other productive activity feels quite as rewarding or as real.

1 Response to “The rewards of painting”

  1. Jody Taylor (Lonely Furniture)

    Well said, Dave. Wonderful paintings.