“One of the reasons there’s so much talk about money is that it’s so much easier to talk about than the art.”
- David Zwirner, in the recent profile in the New Yorker
“One of the reasons there’s so much talk about money is that it’s so much easier to talk about than the art.”
- David Zwirner, in the recent profile in the New Yorker
0 to 60: The Experience of
Time through Contemporary Art
Pratt Manhattan Gallery, 144 West 14th Street, 2nd Floor
November 22, 2013 to January 25, 2014
Gallery hours: Monday–Saturday, 11 AM–6 PM; Thursdays, 11 AM–8 PM
Opening reception: Thursday, November 21, 6-8 PM
In busy days like these, I’ll take any bit of sanity I can, any way to get my brain thinking about “smart” things (Art, Time) instead of “dumb” things (Money, Objects). Therefore, I was happy to take a much-needed break from a mind-numbing job last week to sit at lunch with photographer Jason Langer. He and I had been emailing back and forth about galleries and the current state of the photography market – as we’ve been experiencing it anyway. Discussing it in person, we kept up a quick volley between Jason’s very reasonable frustrations with the way things are changing and my stubborn (and probably rather unreasonable) optimism in the face of it.
Without a doubt, the art market is changing to reflect the polarization of incomes in the general economy. (You know, that 99% vs. 1% thing you may have heard about.) The “mega-galleries” are expanding and squeezing out the mid-size dealers (see here or here for more on this), while artists scramble to find new ways to make a living. If you are not fortunate enough to be an artist already in the top tier, there is suddenly much less support for your career. Fewer galleries can afford to take a chance on building an artist’s career over time, especially when that artist, if successful, will most likely be jumping ship to a bigger gallery the first chance she or he gets. Meanwhile small galleries are in direct competition with each other for more and more artists, and new models of selling work – especially online – are undercutting all of them. I have certainly seen a difference in my own career, noticing that the smaller collectors (i.e. the ones who buy relatively inexpensive work like mine) are now often saving their money only for bigger names on not buying work at all, but that’s just me. However, I have had a similar discussion with other artists several times in the last few years, well before Jason and I started in on it. Fact is, it’s just tougher for the little guy.
So, what is to be done? Jason identified a couple of artists he knows who have used the so-called “social media” to sell work. One artist he knows has sold quite a few prints to universities and museums, without having any gallery representation. Another sells tons of prints directly through his own website, often quite inexpensively. But I don’t think either of these options is a viable strategy for a long career. The former has her work well-placed, but no real exhibition record or other support, while the latter must sell his work at low prices without much investment (intellectually or monetarily) from his collectors. My question to Jason was, What is your definition of Success? Simply selling more prints, no matter how or how cheaply, doesn’t seem to be the point. (At least not to me.) However, it appears there is less interest in smaller contemplative work (like mine and Jason’s) that demands a little more time, perhaps. Hell, there just isn’t “a little more time” anymore.
For me, success is about Time and Attention. That means Time to stick with a long career, developing work and ideas over many years; and enough Attention to have one’s work and ideas taken seriously, by critics, curators, collectors and the public. Yes, I want it all, but I don’t need it all from everybody. One could easily argue that I am overly tied to the old model – that uncomfortable dance between Commerce and Content that defined the “old” art world. I mean, it’s not like there were never popular artists who sold meaningless things before, nor plenty of more heady works that no one would buy, but it does seem like slowness, smallness and a meditative pace are qualities that can’t survive in this climate. There is a very strange conundrum within all this: a more Egalitarian art world – something many would agree is a good and necessary thing – seems to lead directly to cheap populism; while the old, bad Elitist model may have been the last best chance for individual content and contemplation. More artists selling more work for less money means simpler ideas and more purely decorative work – easier to like or just more “sensational” and easier to notice. This is just the math of the many: the lowest common denominator of ideas, as compared to a discrete group of works and the people who get them. Meanwhile, the frustratingly closed Ivory Towers of yesteryear at least supported some more difficult subject matter, including, at times, a real critique of the system that paradoxically supported it. One might be tempted to think that the old model is still in place, just moved up a tier. But the mega-galleries can no longer afford to have a show that is difficult or doesn’t sell, and collectors are following the money. As in Hollywood, the blockbuster movie model is at play: you spend a lot of money producing big work that gets a lot of attention to sell for a lot more money. There are no small blockbusters, so smallness is out. They can’t afford it.
My own answer is the lesson I learned as an adolescent punk rocker – “build your own scene,” as we used to say. I am going to stand by what I think is important, and do my best to proselytize where I can (especially through teaching and lecturing.) I am not going to tie my work to the economy, nor change what I make in order to sell more widgets. I don’t need the adoration of millions, nor a million dollars. At some point, perhaps I will have to let go of the dregs of the old model, but meanwhile I have the support of a few good galleries, and opportunities to talk and teach all over the country (and sometimes in others…) Still, I guess I’ll have to keep the day job. Maybe I can’t get away from Money and Objects afterall, but I can make the work my way, and show it to those who care, no matter how few or how many.
Yes, some changes are afoot… and more are ahead. I’ve left my old site and server, for new territory and a simplified layout, in order to concentrate on one of the two reasons I started this sporadic blog so many years ago: the writing. (The other reason was to learn some web design; I’m still unsure which headache is more painful.) Obviously it’s going to take some time to get everything back up and properly formatted (one post at a time!), but meanwhile, here are a few of the things I’ve been working on, which led me to the change.
There are, in fact, a few pieces of writing coming out soon. One is an essay in the upcoming book, Photography Beyond Technique: Essays from F295 on the Informed Use of Alternative and Historical Photographic Processes. I also have another essay on my work and my own views on Time, called “A Brief History of the Future”, coming out in a journal from New Zealand called Scope: Contemporary Research Topics. In addition, I’m working slowly but surely on a bigger piece for the fascinating folks at The Developing Room, to come out next year
Meanwhile, if you’re anywhere near Charlotte, NC next month, come hear me speak on a few of these topics at the Southeast Regional Conference for the Society for Photographic Education, where I will be the keynote speaker on the evening of October 19th. An exhibition of related work, including my Nine Symptoms series and other works, just opened at the Center City Gallery downtown.
If you’re in Atlanta and want to heckle me sooner, I’ll be doing a panel discussion next week at SCAD Atlanta, for the opening of Manipulated: contemporary conceptual photography at Gallery See. Moderated by Curator Alexandra Sachs, I will be speaking with the amazing Radcliffe Bailey, Art History Professor Dr. Emily Webb and artist and Professor Elizabeth Turk.
I also have work up for another week in Remains to be Seen, a group exhibition at the Susquehanna University Lore Degenstein Gallery in Pennsylvania.
Then there’s Poland, and New Zealand, and all good things… Stay tuned.
My new show opens tomorrow night at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York. Here’s what I wrote for it:
Every history is built of bits and pieces, an incomplete puzzle forming a picture just clear enough to see. With a few well-defined corners, a recognizable building, a credible chunk of sky, we figure we can fill in the rest. Any gaps and spaces still missing, well, certainly they only prove what we already know, don’t they?
Our Song in Twenty-Six Parts is a personal history told in scraps and fragments, some found, some made. It is a love story of sorts, told over and over, embodied in relics and images from a parallel history of photography. Inspired in part by old medical photographs, it is not intended to revive some older and weirder time, but to use my own present point of view to tease out from the past the obsessions and desires – imagined or not – that match and justify mine.
There is a strange gut reaction to viewing old photographs, especially medical photographs – something truly visceral that I just don’t think happens with drawings or paintings. When looking at pictures of bodies, even parts of bodies, it is difficult not to identify, project, empathize, stare. I think, This body is my body (except when it’s yours…) To look at old photographs like these, or sometimes even ones that just look old, I wonder how these little objects could inspire such fear, such lust. After all, isn’t it just chemistry?
Oh, and here’s my Rob Brezny horoscope for the week:
Aquarius Horoscope for week of May 9, 2013
“I know not what my past still has in store for me,” testified the Indian spiritual poet Tukaram. I believe most of us can say the same thing, and here’s why: The events that happened to us once upon a time keep transforming as we ripen. They come to have different meanings in light of the ever-new experiences we have. What seemed like a setback when it first occurred may eventually reveal itself to have been the seed of a blessing. A wish fulfilled at a certain point in our history might come back to haunt us later on. I bring up these ideas, Aquarius, because I think you’re primed to reinterpret your own past.
I didn’t mean to disappear, although I have had to admit finally just how much I travel for art and teaching…
For this Spring semester, I am mostly settled in at Hollins University, in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, trying to stay quiet and still when I can. It’s an amazing gig, really – I have more time and resources to work than I have had in years, with just one class to teach as my weekly obligation (and my escape from daily solitude…) Now, Hollins is women-only at the undergraduate level, and while there are conflicting arguments on the benefits of single-sex education for girls (in high-school), I am inclined to believe those benefits are real for the students here. My class of eighteen young women is one of the most comfortably outspoken I’ve had in years, without the usual slow start to the discussions… They’re great, and it’s already been a lot of fun.
What we’re discussing is “How to Talk About Art.” My subtitle seems to be “Big Thoughts in Plain English”, and it’s squarely set against the proliferation of often meaningless jargon in recent Art writing in favor of telling the truth about their work. It’s always tough going, but writing clearly for oneself can make a huge difference – not only can good writing clarify what an artist is after, but it tends to feed back positively, inspiring more and better work. (For what we’re up against, look back at this.) I’m trying my best to take my own advice, and to write new things for my next show at Daniel Cooney in New York, coming in May.
I have an exhibition of some 30-odd works (or is that “30 odd works”?) that just opened last week at the Museum here at Hollins, and will be giving a public lecture on April 18th. If you’re anywhere nearby, do come…
Also, in other news, here’s an interview I did with an online magazine from Germany: SEEANCE MAGAZIN.
Is this what the future will be like? The long-faded memory of Past Horrors, erased by sunshine, whiskey and Bicycle-Powered Cinema ? Will there truly be a time when we don’t have to fear, not watch our backs? Even the Zombie Sympathizers seem quiet, lost in their own world up the hill to develop whatever diabolical plans they might have. We, too, have been busy.
Yesterday was a fog, and began gray as the day before, but we barely noticed. Everyone, including me, was busy building, re-building and perfecting their homemade cameras. The highs of the day before were surpassed, new ideas gave birth to new ideas, and by the afternoon it was as if we had willed the sun to appear. And it did. I took the opportunity to delve into some of our leftover chemistry and, drawing from the items in our First Aid kit, was able to show them simple Salt Printing. Soon they’d be able to take their homemade negatives and print them as many times as they liked. The whole world would once again see beautiful images from the Mountain.
All is not exactly back to the Old Peace, however, and there is enough strangeness afoot to keep me wary. We have received some Mysterious Messages, from one Javier Mojundo of “Schlafwandler Industries”, that match several sheets we had found the night we reclaimed the studio, yet had ignored. Most of them seem to be tracking the rise and fall of the Infection’s spread, but others contained strange codes. It seems that Señor Mojundo was the one last here before us, and whether trapped and Changed or now Free, he has left help to guide us. By the end of the day, just as we were running out of the last film and paper for our cameras, the latest missive was deciphered. 039039039039… It was a code for the combination to locker 12. (0+3+9=12) Inside were two boxes of late-21st-Century Lith film. The work shall continue.
The evening was full of entertainment, reminiscent of days older than I, even. The Rural Academy’s stage was drawn up by two horses onto the lawn outside the Pines, and after dinner we all sat wrapped in blankets and warmed by tea, whiskey and each other while our visitors told stories from our distant History. They said nothing of Zombies or Danger or Death, and everything seemed right again.
Spirits were high on this new morning after our successful night, despite a sudden challenge to our authority. Some other new recruits, here to remember the dead or something, have declared their allegiance with the Zombies, though they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. Aside from Whatever we have locked in our back darkroom, the school seems quite clear – although the Infected could be among us. To be honest, I have no idea what these Zombie Sympathizers are after. A zombie knows no allegiance but to devouring the Living, so whomever they think they’re “protecting” are impostors, or worse. I fear they have some devious plans of their own… I was personally called out over breakfast in an awkward moment – me, barely conscious from rather pleasant dreams – and I had to stop and steel my eyes. “Challenge accepted,” I said as calmly as I could, and went to get some eggs.
Nevertheless we Photo Phighters had a great day. The power was still out through the morning, but we don’t need it anyway. The first step now that the studio is ours was to build up our defenses, and with military speed and precision, our teams whipped up a room-sized Zombie Observation Station, faster than I have ever seen it done. Not only can we secretly spy on the wide world below Northlight, but I can also demonstrate how to build our own cameras from found objects. Each element of the Station can be used to explain the physics of simple optics and camera-building, and offer ideas on how to alter these elements for individual expression. The students end up even more fired up for getting to work than I could have expected.
It was a busy day of scrounging and building and cutting and painting and taping until every team had at least one camera, and some had three! We used up almost all of the found paper, and some started in on the few leftover sheets of film. This may be the last film any of us will ever see, so I suppose it’s time to show them how to make their own negatives from scratch. We’ll have to go through all our available chemistry first…
There was no further word from our Enemies, so we were able to work in peace until well after dinner. Some plans for attack and defense are being worked out, but nothing is clear yet. It has become all the more important to gather more to our side, and I have given many white armbands to the trusted Others… They have all ben invited to tonight’s Training Film, too: Night of the Living Dead. Despite its misinformed understanding of zombie-ism (not to mention its sexist depiction of female fear, and the harsh commentary on American Racism) it’s a useful movie for us all to watch. There are key lessons here: how important it is for Survivors to work together; how dangerous it is to leave a Safe House not thoroughly cleared; and how Fear and Panic can cause good plans to go awry. I hope my students – and our new comrades – were paying close attention.
I don’t dare go in the Studio yet. There are enough signs and warnings about (and I mean, like, actual Signs and Warnings!) to keep me from being foolish. From now on, no more mistakes, only caution. I have other lives to look out for.
My students are trickling in today, and we will gather at Northlight before dinner. Tonight, the real work begins. There is a pile of desks barricading the entry from the old Print Studio, and a solid 2×6 nailed to the Photo Doors. Who knows what they were keeping out, or, I fear, keeping in… I won’t do anything more until we’re all here. We can move safely in numbers and, I hope, restore power to the rooms and reclaim the Studio as our own.
There has been nervous laughter from the others at the School, as they know what we’re here to do. My white arm-band lets everyone know that I am still healthy and Living, though I wish others would follow my lead here. Nevertheless, I know that any remaining threat can be quickly taken care of, and in days we will be a well-trained Art Squad, ready to bring Truth and Beauty back to a world reborn. It will be primitive, of course, but I aim to show the pure wonder of the simple and the small, like a tiny bud pushing through the frost.
I have a good group of twelve comrades, including Jimmy The Fix. They may not all look strong, but I already sense a breadth of knowledge and a seriousness of purpose in each, and I am given hope. We meet briefly before dinner to make a plan of attack, and to assess each other’s best skills and strengths. While eight people have experience in Photography – and many of them having been here at Penland – only two admit to any experience fighting zombies: Mark, a veteran of both worlds, and clearly a formidable ally; and Crystal, a local with a deep understanding of life since the Apocalypse. She is the Loremistress. She is the Knowledge.
At dinner I sense a real pleasure at the days to come, and it makes me happy. Other new Warriors have arrived at the school (although I cannot trust them yet) and the extra noise and camaraderie in the Pines is joyful to hear. I already love my students, and seeing them gather on the couches before we attack, I feel like a proud father. I had put out the call, and they answered. We joke and laugh and tease, as only those who know no fear can do, and bond our group with a White Armband for each – we are Pure, and Unbitten and Alive.
It is dark – not a time one usually wants to clear an infected area – but it is a good time for us. I make sure everyone has a partner and a light, and I give a few pointers on the dangers of zombie combat in close quarters. My heavy tripod, for instance, has seen me through many scary situations, but it will be no good in the gang darkroom. We shall move slowly and carefully to clear the place and see what we can scavenge for our Art.
The studio is a mess. It was no short massacre here, I think, but a few humans battling the Turned. Tables and cabinets are tossed about and upended. Was someone trying to flee? Was someone trying to hole up here? It’s not clear – the windows are papered from the inside, suggesting hiding, but the doors are barricaded from the outside. Either someone thought they could survive a bite and keep doing their work here, or another person sealed up someone they knew and loved, unable to finish what must be done. I have seen it so many times, and it never ends up well for anyone.
With only two small exceptions, it seems safe and clear in here. There is no power yet, but we are Photographers and unafraid of the dark. Hell, we’re used to it. With our few torches and lanterns we manage to clean the place up and go through what’s been left behind. First, however, I must deal with the chunk of bloodied flesh sitting almost ceremoniously on the steel table. (Why was it left here? Why not eaten?) The second problem is the last small darkroom, which is locked and taped with warnings. A long smudge of reddish-brown leads from the door down the hall. Several students swear they hear breathing inside, but nothing shuffles or thrashes behind the door. We will board it up and leave it until daylight.
There are eight or nine boxes on the palette. One has white towels, although two are bloodied. Another one, knocked over and spilled, seems full of sweets, and beer, and little bottles of vodka – and one sad shoe. There is a box of paints and tapes and rolls that say Caution and Danger. We can use these to mark our safe territories, I guess. (Are there other studios we should quarantine…?) One box has a 35mm camera, but it is smashed; the lenses could be useful for us, however. Another small box has a compass, magnifiers and a map with disturbing markings – numbers and whole cities of the United States circled and highlighted. There is a sad box of Christmas gifts and lights, and one with just beans and coffee in it. The biggest box is a treasure trove of First Aid supplies… We can certainly use these to make our work.
The last box is a small plastic bin, padlocked tightly. It seems battered but unopened. We search the dark studio for a key, but find none. Someone suggests unscrewing the hinges, but it looks to be rather complicated. Finally Crystal takes the hatchet to it, cleanly snapping the hasp with the lock on it. Inside is the saddest sight yet: the last personal effects of someone – probably a younger boy – who just couldn’t leave them behind, I guess. There are playing cards and toys and odd meaningful knick-knacks, a strange group of Japanese Anime pictures of girls, some sparklers… There are also several keys. These, it turns out, open a few of our cabinets, which hold papers, bottles, and chemistry of all kinds. It’s not a full treasure for us, but much of it will be useful.
We will have to go through it all in the morning when we have light. For now, the studio is safe, and ours.