Sunday, May 13, 2007

The "Post-Studio Approach" vs. art made by the artist’s OWN HANDS....

Before that, let me share with you our first peonies of the year......
Friday night's opening was great, lots of wonderful work, and it is always a treat to see my friend Carol. We both make very obsessive work in traditional media, informed by, but somewhat resistant to, contemporary art practice. We are also perfectly matched in our definitions of art world success, and frustrations with the system, so whenever we meet, we are always comparing notes and sharing information. We were joined for dinner by two other artists from the show, and Carol was telling me that she went to hear a very prominent NY gallerist speak, and learned that for every artist they represent, there are several people in the gallery working for that particular artist, and one of the things that the gallery people do is coordinate production of the work, much of which is done overseas, to cut expenses. In art, as in life.... outsourcing. We all ruminated on how an artist, alone in the studio, could possibly compete with that kind of art-making machine? (As we were discussing this, it became particularly resonant to me that I had spent most of Thursday making a crate.)

We discussed the employment of assistants, and the frightening implication of surrendered control. I have employed assistants before, usually in some fit of desperation: when I was finishing the Defense Mechanism Coat, my wrists started to give out from spending 12+ hours a day pushing nails through a wool coat. I wanted to finish the piece for a show, and it would have been physically impossible to do so without help.

When finishing “My Young Lover” for the Frost Museum show, (a piece made by threading thousands of strands of my ex-boyfriend’s hair through a pillow so it would appear to "grow" out of the pillow), I hired a few students to come to the studio in shifts and put drops of glue on the individual hairs before I threaded them through.

Back in the days of teaching full time, it was easy to find an assistant whenever I reached a crunch… I hired ex-students, so I always had an established sense of whether they possessed the necessary fastidiousness. With the coat, I was blessed to find Simone, who not only shared my perfectionsim, but had a tremendous work ethic. In the final weeks of the project, when we were pushing to finish, I would try to get her to leave at a reasonable hour, but she knew I would be working through most of the night, so she often worked alongside me into the wee hours of the morning, refusing to go home until I gave up and crashed for a few hours.

It might be time to start looking for some help again, (at the very least, for things like crate-building). A general posting to the local art departments may or may not yield a good match: I am basically looking for someone with the same borderline OC tendencies as myself, the kind of person who will bring a compulsive care to the activity. As an ex-Catholic, there is a part of me that believes that the work is supposed to be born of MY sweat, MY blood, MY tears, or it is not authentic. I guess that when other artists have assistants totally fabricate their concepts, they "bless" the object at the end of the process instead. Yes, I know that there have been artist workshops for hundreds of years... but cathexis (thanks, Sarah) is such an essential part of my artmaking process, it is hard to imagine where I would be comfortable drawing the line.

In related news, I will be going to California in a few weeks: I started researching what is showing in the Los Angeles area, and stumbled upon an exhibition entitled "Poetics of the Handmade", showing at MOCA.

According to the press release, "Poetics of the Handmade features a group of artists based in Latin America whose works of art are made by the artists’ own hands. While many of the artists' contemporaries tend toward a post-studio approach with assistants producing their work, this group explores the close relationship that exists between a person and his or her craft. The artists' interest in transformation and process has led them to produce works that are painstakingly handcrafted from a wide range of materials."

Between the demands of the ever-crazy art market (take advantage while it lasts?) and the careerism and artist-as-project-manager-approach being taught in MFA programs, art that is hand made by the artist is in danger of becoming a niche market. With the artist's "hand" taken out of the equation, I wonder how they will be able to detect forgeries of these million dollar artworks in the years to come? More importantly, what satisfaction does the artist gain? I have always felt like a five-year-old whenever a project reaches completion: I want to say, "Look what I made!". Sometimes, it is even more magical than that: I get involved in the process and my hands ache and I am exhausted from pulling a few late or all-nighters, and finally, it is finished. I look at the piece and say "wow... did I really make that?!"

As opposed to, "you have executed the design perfectly, according to my specifications.... thank you."


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