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.