Help Desk

HELP DESK: Personal Development

Welcome to HELP DESK, where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to–contemporary art. Together, we’ll sort through some of art’s thornier issues. Email helpdesk@dailyserving.com with your questions and save the comments section to chime in on the topics of the day. If you’ve submitted a question using an anonymizer, we regret that it may not have made it into our inbox (it has come to our attention that questions have gone missing). Please resend your query using a regular email service. All submissions remain anonymous. HELP DESK is sponsored in part by KQED.org.

Your counselor, hard at work.

Lately I’ve been seeing works of contemporary art that aren’t really aesthetically pleasing, most of them are just really simple and plain. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful art pieces that are unrecognized and have a lot of meaning behind them. Why do galleries/art blogs publicize contemporary art that is so simple but not the ones that obviously take more time and provoke deep meanings/thoughts?

You’re forgetting that perception is extremely subjective. To reply to your question, I’m going to rephrase it. Read it slowly (and then please read it again) and you’ll have your answer:

Lately I’ve been seeing works of contemporary art that aren’t really aesthetically pleasing to me. I think that most of them are just really simple and plain. I’ve seen a lot of things that I thought were beautiful art pieces that are unrecognized but I believe that they have a lot of meaning behind them. Why do galleries/art blogs publicize contemporary art that I think is so simple, but not the ones that I obviously think takes more time, and provokes deep meanings/thoughts for me?

John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971. Lithograph, 22 1/2 × 30 inches (image: whitney.org)

If you still don’t get it after two readings, I suggest you open your own art gallery and stock it with the work you believe is unrecognized. Many artists will be grateful, and you can look at what you want all day long.

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square, 1929. Oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches (image: paulcorio.blogspot.com)

I am studying sculpture and painting in college and recently quit my job to focus on my art.  I believe I can support myself with my work, but so far I have not made much money.  I have pieces in several galleries and I paint small commissions every now and then, but I’ve turned my focus to exhibitions with cash prizes. I have some great ideas for submissions, but they are a far cry from the normal work I produce for the galleries around town. I worry that I will spend too much time on a piece that doesn’t win the exhibition and won’t make it into the gallery.  My question is, as a beginning artist, which is more important for survival: producing pieces that will sell in a gallery setting, or producing pieces for exhibitions? I assumed galleries would be safer than relying on the possibility of a cash prize, but I’m not so sure now.

If survival is your first concern, I strongly recommend that you get a job again, one that is not too taxing on the brain or the back, and one which provides a steady income so that you can pay your bills and eat decent food and sleep in a warm, dry place.

I can understand why you might want to “focus on your work,” but it sounds to me like that’s not really what you’re doing right now. Usually, an artist quits her job when she already has a proven, steady income from her work (and usually only then if she makes quite a lot of money). That steady income is usually the result of two things: first, developing a distinct body of work (more about this in next week’s column), and then getting representation at more than one gallery. It sounds like you don’t have your ideas worked out enough to have developed your own artistic vocabulary: you’re doing commissions, your “normal” work for galleries, and spec work for theme shows. That’s a lot of studio time but maybe not a lot of actual focusing on the advancement of your art. If your focus is on making money, you’re better off having a nine-to-five job.

Agnes Martin Untitled, 2004. Acrylic gray wash on linen, 60 x 60 inches (image: museum.foxajans.net)

Until you’ve produced a lot of work, you won’t know what you want to focus on, so maybe it’s good that you’re trying out so many new things. However, I’d still advise you to avoid the juried theme shows unless you see one calling for the work that you already make. Otherwise, you’ll end up putting your time and energy into making work that is not part of your regular production, and then you run the risk of not having it accepted into the show anyway. Lots of people have good ideas (for example, I think of social practice-y projects all the time) but unless you’re a wealthy “short sleeper” you’re not going to have the time, money, or energy left for your own development.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1965. Screen print on wood, 17 x 17 x 14 inches (image: www.rfc.museum)

If you can get commissions and you like doing that kind of thing, why not pursue that avenue? As long as they dovetail nicely with your main interests (i.e., no one is asking you to paint sailboats when you’re really a minimalist sculptor) it’ll bring in some extra income, you’ll meet people and build a collector base, and you’ll still be working toward the development of your own work.

In case the column seems a bit snippy this week, I’ll wrap up with some vaguely fruity counsel: artmaking involves the soul—please don’t compromise yours by making work oriented toward a particular marketplace. It would be better to have a regular job and develop your art through hard work and concentration than to throw random works at the wall of capitalism just to see which ones stick.

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