Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Life Study, Part Three

In his book, What’s Wrong With Contemporary Art? (UNSW Press, 2004), Peter Timms describes the Australian artist Patricia Piccinnini as a designer rather than an artist. “Her installations remain at the level of concepts,” he writes. “We sense her lack of involvement”.
Actually, we more than sense it – she has boasted about it. Her best-known sculptural and photographic works are derived from concepts recycled from the discard bin of Koons’ objective, hands-off ethos. And, like the work of Koons, Hirst and other contemporary conceptualists, her works echo the glossy sheen and plasticity of high-end luxury goods, making it is easier for well-heeled consumers to associate them with more familiar brands – Chanel, Prada, Porsche, Apple, Bose – and immediately understand and accept their relative value.
Most of the artists of the generation immediately before mine are designers. Surprisingly, given that they have grown up under the insidious influence of conceptual art, their work demonstrates an astounding lack of intellectual rigour (often taking the form of a simple puzzle or an elaborate joke), and no sense of history. Individual works are so derivative as to be bordering on plagiarism – for example, Emin’s My Bed, 1998/99, is a dull reworking of Rauchenberg’s Bed, 1955 – and if you review this 40-something generation’s work together, it is revealed as obvious and superficial.
Being banal on purpose is no excuse: banality as a comment on banality is … banal.
When Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, signed it 'R. Mutt' and exhibited it as 'found art' in 1917, it was revolutionary. Not any more. The old, late-1970s punk ethos of artlessness – of playing and singing badly, sampling randomly and making ineptly – is no longer provocative.
The new punk is about raw skill and having something powerful to say. This is particularly important now that digital tools have enabled so many more people to create, even if originality has been over-run by appropriation, and artisan skills by software and processing capabilities that can’t quite replicate the slippery inexactness of the hand-made. The new punk isn’t a twenty-first century form of Luddism, nor is it a rejection of electronic facility for some idealistic, nineteenth century idea of the purity or superiority of the human touch. It’s about a restitution of subjectivity, of re-emphasising the direct relationship between an artist’s interior world and the individual work, and about the value of an artwork being determined by the skill with which the artist conveys that relationship to the viewer. The purely conceptual is not enough.
“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” Andy Warhol famously once said. I like money. It enables me to make art all the time.
At the beginning of my career, I was told by a reputable gallerist that there were two paths: I could show at artist-run or institutional spaces and gain respect; or I could show at a commercial gallery, sell my work, and be able to earn enough to make art full-time. For me, it was a no-brainer. I chose to show at a commercial gallery, creating the same works I would have if I were showing at a non-commercial space. My works at the time – the works for which I was to become well known – were large, glossy, highly structured and accessible images painted with enamel on canvas (and later on board). Populated with female stereotypes derived from advertising and entertainment, they confronted what bugged me about the increasing commodification of art. They sold well, but the critical assessment was cautious.
Two years ago, I had an exhibition at a well-regarded private gallery. At the opening party, an art critic whom I knew quite well admitted that he now saw my work in an entirely different and more meaningful way – simply because it had been presented in a different context. I couldn’t help but think that he was a bit of a prat.
I have been making and exhibiting art professionally for almost ten years now. It’s not just a vocation; it’s my way of processing the world. One of my early mid-size works, enamel on board, will fetch, according to the uncommitted circumlocution of one major auction house, “low-to-mid-five-figures” in the secondary market. In the past few years, I’ve had solo and group shows in most of Australia’s capital cities, as well as Tokyo, London and New York.
Art is big business. Many young artists – younger even than me – have ended up rich, famous and critically acclaimed very early in their careers. Too often, it all just evaporates. And maybe that’s another reason why I am conscious of walking the razor’s edge between respect and celebrity, even as I work hard to increase my prices and my base of private and institutional collectors. In a hundred years, Damien Hirst will be remembered, along with Bruno Bischofberger, Larry Gagosian and Nicholas Serota, as one of this era’s great art impresarios. Tracey Emin and Sam Taylor-Wood have a shot at being mentioned in a couple of footnotes, the sticky residue of all that high-profile publicity they courted in their lifetimes, but none of their works will be in the canon of great twenty-first century art. Over the last millennium, the few artists acknowledged as 'great' didn’t bow to passing fashion or economic imperative, let alone spend more time socialising – even with royal patrons – than making art.
I might be wrong, but I like to think that my generation is less seduced by the money and hype of art that comes easier now than ever before, and that its creators are more concerned with using it to their advantage to make art all the time, and become better artists.
Still, when it comes to business, we are also breaking new ground of our own.
I used to be represented by important galleries in Sydney and Melbourne. I left both this year when I resolved to try to work outside the traditional gallery system – which, more and more, has come to resemble the stables of champion racehorse trainers, each vying to win a season of million-dollar races. The system has never really worked for – let alone with – most young artists, even if they are making good money. I am still trying to work out whether it’s possible to have an informal relationship with a handful of gallerists in a way that shifts the balance power into my hands, rather than theirs; meanwhile, better established artists – such as England’s Stella Vine – are going so far as to found their own galleries, and to represent themselves.
My generation has an advantage: it’s the first to have globally networked electronic media at its disposal. Still, exploiting these is about more than building a website and creating an email list. I use software for client relationship and inventory management, and I subscribe to online services that track prices for my – and my peers’ – old and new work. Email encourages frequency and depth in my communication with collectors and curators, and I am able to coordinate exhibitions of my work in two or three countries simultaneously, and have direct contact with local gallerists and the press.
A fronte praecipitium,
a tergo lupi.

Alis volat propriis.
In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies with her own wings. When I left art school, I had these words tattooed in an unelaborate sans serif font on the inside of my left arm – a promise to myself to succeed in art, whatever the obstacles. These days I operate as both an individual and a virtual corporation – an evolution of Warhol’s reconfiguring of the artist’s studio as a factory – and the functions of each are discrete. As an individual, I make the art I want. As a corporation, I shift product. Three and half months before my next solo exhibition, thirty per cent of the works to be shown have already been sold.
There is reward, after all, in thinking differently.


Charles Thomson said...

Indeed. You are obviously stuck. Or, or as Tracey might put it, "stuck! stuck! stuck!"

Anonymous said...

I always thought the point behind Duchamp's urinal was that every day things are works of art the craftsmanship of which we normally take for granted and ignore. The question and answer to "what is art" is always relevant and even more so now. Even if Piccinini and Hennessy are artists in concept only their designs which are produced by paid craftsmen are not less for that. I believe Rembrandt and others of his era did the same thing, directing teams of paid art workers to complete their enormous works which they would have taken inordinate time to complete alone. Architects are the artists behind their designs but they don't have to be the constructors and builders to claim their right to put their name to their creation.

Jasper said...

I wonder what Stuckist co-founder and agitator, Thomson, would say to Anonymous? One essential thing that is not said in the above comment is that Rembrandt himself was a master painter, a craftsman in his own right. The same cannot be said of Picinnini. As for architects, I'm not sure that they deserve quite the same respect as artists, given the industrialised, intensely collaborative nature of their processes – but I'll admit to a personal bias there.

Anonymous said...

I'm lately developing a big passion for the fine ceramic arts where the handwork is everything. There are some pretty amazing ideas to be discovered as well. A lot of work is understandably visually connected to the environment which is natural as their materials are so earth sourced. Its also refreshing to get away from the flat surface of paintings for walls and deal with things one can pick up, turn right around, feel and examine corners of inside & out. I can see why Picasso decided to dabble in ceramics. Sculpture is coming into its own too suddenly I am told.

Lisa Rasmussen said...

Great insights into your philosophy and drive. As an artist I am curious how does one marry the artist with the corporation within? Is there ever conflict? How do you keep one foot each world with out compromise?
It is a holistic world view, which I personally as an artist am striving for.
Artists have to business minded to achieve in this climate..If that is a priority
How does one not sacrifice the creative spirit and conform to the market?

Jennie Rosenbaum said...

thankyou for this wonderful and thought provoking series, it's been a very interesting read and quite enlightening.

Diana L. said...

Maybe the trick is, Lisa, spend less time thinking about it and more time doing it. The answers to all your questions are answered in Hazel's career. It takes a lot of time and effort (and experience) to have the success she's had and make it look as easy as she does. She might measure her income in bigger units than most artists but she also appears to be enormously disciplined, very professional in her business relationships, and driven even in media beyond painting (such as this blog!).

d.edlen said...

You are inspirational to say the least with a crude single word. If my brain were functioning better these days, I'd blather on more with big words, but suffice it to say "thanks". Certainly hadn't thought of myself as punk...

Paul Harvey (Stuckist) said...

I think you talk a lot of sense.