Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
Last year I made a sculpture that was technically rather challenging but resulted in something I thought was a successful piece, which I displayed in a small group show. It’s a concept I’ve recently returned to in numerous exhibition proposals, though none have yet been accepted by the galleries I’ve contacted. Today I discovered that an acquaintance of mine is copying this technique in a sculpture for an upcoming exhibition. I know this individual is aware of my own work because this artist “liked” the picture I posted of my sculpture on Facebook over a year ago. Of course it’s entirely possible this artist has forgotten seeing the piece, but the resemblance is unsettling. Normally I would just shrug it off and say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—but it’s not terribly flattering when your imitator has the advantage of a significant solo exhibition wherein to display the work. I don’t know if I have any real right to be upset, but I am. Do I say something? Or do I just carry on making my own (I believe superior, if admittedly little-exhibited) work and let that speak for itself?
The phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” goes all the way back to the Bible, but somehow when we have an innovative notion, it seems like it is ours and ours alone. Your dilemma gets right to the heart of artistic practices and the mystique that concepts and techniques still hold for artists. Sacred, slippery, jealously guarded…sometimes it feels like our good ideas are all we have. I don’t blame you for feeling upset; you’ve been dealt a swift karate chop straight to the Achilles heel of your current practice—but you must allow the force of emotion to kick you into high gear instead of getting depressed or debilitated. Above all, you should absolutely keep on making your work, because studio time will help you maintain your sanity. Remember that this technique is relatively new to you and will evolve over time and become something different—provided that you keep working.
Try to put this moment into perspective. Even though this artist is going to have a “significant” solo show of the work, remember that it is only one exhibition, probably open for only one month; it will eventually disappear under the cumulative accretion of all the other shows in the world as time marches inexorably onward toward our eventual deaths.
If you really want to say something to the other artist, I suggest being succinct: “Your use of the technique that I’ve been working hard to pioneer has made me feel angry, insecure, and jealous.” However, I suspect that this won’t bring about the result you likely want, which is for the artist to apologize, destroy the derivative work, and vanish into the wilds of Siberia forever. Instead, I want you to send those exhibition proposals to five people you trust and get their feedback. Do it today. If you can send one to a curator or an arts administrator, more’s the better. I also want you to reassess the exhibition venues you’ve been contacting: Are they really the right places for your work? Get feedback on this part, too, if you can. Additionally, if you’ve been sending proposals to venues that don’t know you or your work—the equivalent of the cold call—then you might have a hard time getting a response no matter what. In the future, ask curators/directors for a brief, twenty-minute meeting, or see if a friend might be willing to make an introduction for you.
Now for the Machiavellian: You can’t go back in time and reverse the psychological damage, but you can make several counterplays. Before this artist’s dreaded solo show occurs, get as many curators and critics and writers into your studio for a visit; let them see your work first (this is especially efficacious if you live in a small community). You can always repost picture(s) of your work to Facebook, too, in order to subtly remind everyone that your work is this artist’s antecedent. However, you must act like you don’t know that this other artist is doing something similar; just talk about how you came to use the technique and what it means to you and your practice.
It will take some hard work to get past this, so put down the bottle of gin and turn off The Prestige and start writing some emails instead. Then get back into the studio, pronto. This technique is not the last good idea you’ll ever have, and you’ll get to your next one more quickly by concentrating on your practice. This other artist is probably not an evil person—but even if she was, you’ll likely have the last laugh if you spend the next few months working hard on getting your work made and out into the world. Good luck!