Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Art World Ennui

My parents claim that I was wearing Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas when I first declared my artistic ambition. Asked by some house guests what I planned to be when I grew up, I supposedly replied, "Either a fireman or a cartoonist." Because memories easily merge with myth (especially when your father is a writer), I'm reasonably sure that this anecdote is apocryphal. Nevertheless, it reflects a truth; early on, I was determined to make pictures for a living.

I was twelve years-old when I created my first published strip. "Porky's Paradise," an adolescent homage to Berkeley Breathed's "Bloom County," was printed weekly in the Eastern Shore News. Six years later, my last strip, "Hangin' In There," appeared regularly in the William & Mary Flat Hat. This college humor strip detailed the mundane anxieties of a long-haired undergraduate with a penchant for combat boots and flannel.

Although "Hangin' In There" was created during my freshman year of college, my career goals had by then shifted. I'd become more interested in comic books and graphic novels, and I was most excited by "The Mole" and "Raccoon-Man," comic book series that I'd begun working on in my senior year of high school. Although only my close friends read these comics (offering lukewarm reactions), I was nonetheless convinced that I was destined for a lucrative career with Marvel, D.C. or Image. At William & Mary, I helped T Campbell, later the creator of "Fans" and a major success in the world of web comics, found and edit Unstrung Fiction, the college's first publication dedicated to the graphic novel.

Focused on sequential story-telling, it wasn't until my junior year of college that my priorities shifted again. I decided to become a painter. In retrospect, I think this decision sprung from my preference for illustrating "moments" rather than weaving narratives.

One can not suddenly abandon their influences, however, and I had a hard time with the exclusionary attitudes of "fine artists." My early moves into this hallowed domain were crude exercises, essential cartoons in oil paint. When asked by art instructors to name my artistic influences, I'd name Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, and Todd McFarlane, while my classmates recited unfamiliar, European names.

Gradually, though, as I learned more about the work of twentieth century art world luminaries, I came to love the paintings of Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann and Francis Bacon. My attraction to these three artists should have come as no surprise, but it would be several years before I realized what these three painters share: a bold, graphic approach to contour and color. They are illustrators' painters every bit as much as they are painters' painters; their work points to the absurdity of the distinction.

My embrace of the graphic approach would raise the ire of my art professors. "Illustrator" was then, and to some extent remains, a four letter word in the art world. Once I was ensconced in the New York scene, the prejudice against "illustrative" works was even more apparent. If you weren't making installations, videos, sculpture or conceptual work, you were fighting uphill to find an audience. The intellectual insecurity that fed this unfortunate bias was largely a holdover from the confused nineties and an influx of young artists raised on comics and animation would soon breathe some vitality back into the increasingly insular art world.

I was perfectly positioned to take advantage of this sea change. I guess I did, too, for a hot second. As I explained in "Of Fairy Tales and Flights of Fancy," though, I tired of painting colorful, imagined wonderlands; it didn't feel wholly comfortable and, more importantly, it felt a little thoughtless or arbitrary. My current body of work is very satisfying, but I again find myself out of sync with art world preferences.

Art Forum, one of the better art magazines available, is usually a pleasure to flip through. Despite my loathing of most contemporary art writing, I even enjoy some of the articles and reviews published in its pages. The principal appeal of Art Forum, though, lies in its dimensions and heft; it presents the "reader" with lots of big pictures. The magazine is to artists what Cosmo might be to a teenage fashion queen, a collection of images you can hate, love or be decidedly ambivalent about. Also like Cosmo, Art Forum is comprised mainly of advertisements, though all of these are for galleries or shows. I dog-ear many pages in each issue and later look up the gallery or artist(s) online.

Lately, however, I've been marking only a few pages. My time spent with the magazine is no longer satisfying and, as I flip through each issue, I find myself wondering what the point is. Most of the artwork is irrelevant alongside the "real" issues of the day. Obviously, artistic likes and dislikes are subjective, but what I deal with now is best described as art world ennui. Such a position might be more understandable if I were a hugely successful, late career artist, an individual tired of the superficial art market, but I'm what they call an "emerging" artist, the equivalent of a Triple-A ball player waiting for his chance to get called to the big show, yet I already find much of the art world intensely boring, frivolous and irrelevant. If I wasn't so happy with my own work and, more importantly, so convinced that there is an awful lot of excellent work being produced by countless others, I would call this feeling an artistic crisis.

Fortunately, it is nothing of the sort. It is simply the realization that, while I do want to make a living from my artwork and therefore need to connect myself to this world, I will probably always remain at the fringes. This will surely make my career a less remarkable one, but I hope it keeps me more sane and gives me the leeway to flee New York and live in a community where I feel I can play a vital role, contributing to local conservation projects and involving myself in local governance/leadership.


Devo said...

You seem like you really need to live out West, man. Taos, Santa Fe, Portland, San Fransisco, Berkeley, Boulder, places like that. Cuz beneath your affected New York pretension (no offense, HH, but it's nigh impossible to be a "New York Artist" without having affected a modicum of their pretension... and I think perhnaps your ennui stems from being tired of doing that? Sorry, the armchair psychologist in me claws its way out at some importune moments) there's honesty and integrity. And a desire to be a part of something responsible and holistic (not necessarily in the hippie granola sense, but you know what I mean). New York just seems a bit too cutthroat and -- as you said -- superficial...

Then again, I'm pining for a more relaxed and subdued lifestyle at the moment, so I could just be projecting. If that's the case, I will humbly retract my amateur diagnosis and try not to let the door hit me in the arse on the way out...

Hungry Hyaena said...

I don't mind your attempts to psychoanalyze me, but moving out west seems unlikely. I haven't knocked Oregon and Washington state off the Future Home list, but there is something about west coast culture that rubs me the wrong way. I like dreams, but I prefer they not carry over into your waking life, particularly your productive waking life. The attitudes out there are just a little too ...well, relaxed for my liking.

I would consider heading back south before heading to northern California and a move below the Mason-Dixon Line is about as likely as a move to the northwest corner. More and more, it's looking like the northeast corner will be my landing point.

Devo said...

I think I follow. So you're thinkin' a bit o' New Hampshire or Vermont then? I suppose I could see that, if not for the brutal winters. Earthquakes, I think I can deal with. Sorta. Fog Of Steel? no worries. I love fog. Rain all the time.... eh, I'd rather deal with fog and moving earth. And the suicide rate in Seattle is just a notch below comfortable (actually, I totally made that one up, I have no idea how many people up there off themselves). But eight feet of snow, and I'm outta there. I want a long growing season and a bunch of fruitcakes. I guess I'm more suited to the WEstern approach. I'd like to have an ocean nearby, if at all possible, but outside of that, I think I'd like the Southwest the best.

Except for Utah. Man, that place creeps me out.

paddalumpakins said...

I have a lot to say about this post - but I am in a bit of a rush...I will write tomorrow.

paddalumpakins said...

Hurray for art posts!

It seems like most art boys I know came upon art through a love of comic books. It's not a surprise to read that this was your first love.

Also, I really connect with your identification of your preference for illustrating moments, rather than weaving narratives, because it was in grad school that I too had to define my preference using the same opposition. Mind you I have opted for narrative - I've always been a sucker it.

As for the writing in Artforum, I find the writing in that magazine to be very uneven. For a while I was much more interested in Bookforum, until I started buying some of the books they reviewed. Upon doing so I decided their book reviews were worth crap, since that's what I was reading.

Finally, on the topic of art world ennui, I don't agree with the sentiment that it might be more understandable to be dealing with that if you were a hugely successful artist. I think no matter how successful you are as an artist, one who is steeped in that environment is going to grow tired the superficiality of the contemporary art market. I'm not a very successful artist - at least if we are defining success by the market - and I have grown very tired of the art world. Not because of any feeling of failure, but because the art world is so much about cool parties these days. You're right, it's really boring.

paddalumpakins said...

PS I can't imagine Hungry Hyaena on the West coast. Too much yoga.

Hungry Hyaena said...

The "feeling of failure" is often called upon, though, by the artists who are experiencing some degree of success. It seems reasonable that someone who has been embraced by the Art World will imagine that complaining by those at the fringe is spawned by jealousy.

It sounds as though you, like me, are not so much jealous as you are disaapointed. I feel like I've been invited to enter the club, but am standing in the doorway, looking over the bouncer's shoulder at a writhing mass of superficial twits. Granted, there are plenty of brilliant, good people somewhere in the mix, but I'm uncertain as to whether it's worth wading through the bodies and dealing with the misanthropic thoughts.

Cool parties and cool clothes, the Art World "scene" is essentially an extension of the fashion/music industry, or at least it likes to imagine itself as such.

A couple of years ago, an up-and-coming curator approached my friend Brian (also a painter) and me and commented that Brian "didn't dress like an artist." What the curator was really observing is that Brian didn't wear hipster outfits and bedazzled belts. Fortunately, I was wearing an Ecko Unlmtd t-shirt - you know, the ones with the rhino - that my roommate had given me and this curator felt it qualified as "artist clothing." My guess is that the little man just thought I was cute.

A few months back, a part owner of a gallery asked me if I was an artist. He did so skeptically. When I replied in the affirmative he shook his head and said, "But you look like a professional football player. I mean, you're the All-American ball player guy. You don't look anything like an artist." A few people nearby chuckled.

While I don't think my shaggy hair, stubbled face and 165 pound frame qualify me for the NFL tryouts (maybe he was thinking baseball?), it's a familiar suggestion. That is to say people often say I don't dress "like an artist" or that my interest in wildlife biology doesn't seem "normal for an artist" and so on. Since when does being cursed with the creative monkey mean you have to fall into a particular demographic? My crazy co-worker even thinks it strange that I like baseball and basketball. "Artists aren't supposed to like sports," she tells me. When I tell her that I know many artists who are big basketball fans and a few who like football, baseball, soccer, and so on, she shakes her head. "You know some weird artists then."

But, hey, I guess she should know. She's getting a master's in art history and wants to be an Art World player one day.

Well, this "All-American ball player guy" DID go see his favorite team play his second favorite team at Shea tonight...and I had fun. Maybe these cognoscenti are on to something?

Finally, St. SNAFU, you'll be disappointed to learn that, in yet another weird twist, Hungry Hyaena loves him some yoga, though I do need to be alone or practicing in a small group. The idea of social yoga practice creeps me out and seems to defeat the purpose. That said, I'm supposed to go to a group class in a couple of weeks, to be the "adjustment" guinea pig for a good friend of mine who is getting his Yogi Badge, or whatever they call it when you officially become a licensed yoga teacher.

Still, I'm not so sure the West Coast would work for me.

deborah said...

As another illustrative, biology, animal-loving artist staring over the same bouncer with a sense of longing and disgust (why do I want so much to be apart of an art world where so much of the art disappoints me?), I'd also like to say that I am a big football fan.

Go Patriots.

PS - you'd be misreable in San Francisco. To much of an intellectual wasteland compared to NYC.

T Campbell said...

Found this while ego-surfing. C.R., that is you, isn't it? I wondered what you were up to! Drop me a line sometime: tc[at]