Sunday, November 11, 2018

41 It happened again...

It happened again a week ago.  I was at a bridal shower sitting next to a woman, in her fifties I'd guess, whom I didn't know.  We started our get-to-know-you chat in the friendly way one does at a bridal shower.  She told me about her career as the owner of an advertising company.  She graciously asked about what sort of work I do and I told her that I'm a painter.  She asked for some specifics and I told her that I paint paintings, you know, an artist painter.

She was a person who thinks before she talks so she spoke carefully when she said, "I want to build a studio at my home so I can make drawings."

Many years ago I was at a holiday dinner and I was speaking to a successful attorney twenty years older than me.  At the time he was in his mid-fifties.  Out of the blue he told me-"I know I'm a writer.  I want to write a book."

When people find out I'm an artist they are sometimes moved to reveal these hidden dreams to me.  These aren't young people on the cusp of flying out of the nest grasping at dreams that are winging by them.  These are affluent older people who are living the lives most people on the planet can only imagine.
Maybe it is because they have everything else and this is the one tantalizing apple that remains on the tree that creates this longing.   The creativity apple.  The inner poet apple.  The "I'm more than a plump bank account and a nice house" apple.  The apple that got away.

The reality of a writer's life or a painter's life is quite different from what I suspect these late in life dreams are made of.  Only those of us who have been on the lifelong trail of creative endeavor know the reality-not the fantasy, but the reality of this kind of life.  The reality is not years, but decades of working alone.  The shredding of canvases or reams of paper.  The relentless rejections by those who have the power to reject but no talent to create.  Money that comes not in rivers, but dribbles.

Most of us begin our hike up Mt. Creativity when we are young, resilient and optimistic.  One day we look at the calendar and it is no longer 1988 but 2018.  We've been writing or painting for 30, 40 or 50 years.

This life is not a luxury we come to when we are 55 and affluent-this is a life we begin to live when we are young because it is who we are.  In a funny way, we don't choose this life-rather
this life chooses us.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

40 "The Price of Everything"

     There is one painting above all others that I would want to own so I could look at it everyday.  That painting is "Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43)" by Piet Mondrian and it's at MOMA in New York.

     I've walked through hundreds of museums in my life, thousands of galleries and I've scrutinized tens of thousands of paintings.  I read the quality of color, line, shape, form, texture, scale, subject matter (or lack of)-and then I see the touch.  From Giotto to Mondrian I look for and see the unique touch of a painter in their brushwork.  This one eloquent trait is what, for me, bridges centuries and cultural distances.  When I stand in front of "Broadway Boogie Woogie" I see Piet Mondrian's touch in his gentle and precise brushwork.  That touch affects me because it is proof that he was there in front of this canvas, just as I am, as I gaze at it.

     Today I saw a film, "The Price of Everything" (title taken from the Oscar Wilde quote, "a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.)  Since I was already familiar with the "cruddy" (Robert Hughes' word, and what a great one it is!) monetizing of art by dealers, auction houses and the almost sad, plaintive art hungry shoppers, I didn't learn anything I didn't already know.  But I left with a renewed sense of disappointment in humans anyway.  To have every material thing a being living on this planet today could possibly have-and yet to still have a gnawing hunger deep inside that only compulsive art shopping can fill is at the very least, perplexing. 

     Apparently there is a glitch in our human genome that propels these insatiable needs.  This malfunction creates a need to keep stuffing inside our bodies or lives anything (heroin, food, money, cars, houses, luxury objects-such as art)- anything, to fill this great yawning hole deep inside that makes us feel like pointless, sad burlap sacks of dust if we aren't busy stuffing something inside to quiet this relentlessly aching monster of need.

     As it plays out in this film, if one is rich enough, art is just another commodity like real estate or stocks, and the notion of having an intuitive, visual and/or aesthetic connection with a work of art is quaint, nonexistent even.  Why not treat art the same way that a junkie treats a dime bag of junk or a developer treats a prime piece of real estate?  Shoot it up (or in the case of art, buy it!) so that however fleeting, something is felt, maybe even a brief spark of emotion.  

     To use a food metaphor, watching the players in this film produce, market and consume art, is akin to watching someone cram a hundred Big Macs into their maw, vomit the mush out, and then get back in line to buy a hundred more so that the cramming process can begin again.  The food pushers are the art dealers and auction houses and the burger crammers are the rich, aching for another fix to fill the hole of need.  

     Fine art was not always produced or treated in this way.  And there are many, many artists who quietly keep making art the way it has always been made.  But the ones who get the attention and make the money are usually the ones who run studio assembly lines like In N' Out Burger at lunchtime.  Uncle Andy is smiling down from high above, regarding his progeny with pride.

     What would Piet Mondrian say to an art pusher/dealer who nagged him to amp up production because there were art junkies/shoppers waving their cash right outside his studio?  Who knows.  But I like to think he would politely say, "NO thank you.  Try the artist down the hall.  I have nothing else to say."  Then he'd firmly shut the door on everyone, dealer included, put a jazz album on the turntable, pick up a brush, wiggle his fingers to loosen them up and get back to work.  Making art.  Not a product, but ART.



Thursday, October 4, 2018

39 An Art Journey Letter

Dear ______________,

I would like to take a few minutes of your time to share some thoughts with you; thoughts that are important for parents, like us, of daughters.

If my memory is correct, I met you when you were just out of college and I was 27 and showing my paintings for the first time at ___________'s gallery downtown LA.  It would have been around 1980.  It was so long ago that I can hardly grasp how much time has slipped by.  It was wonderful to be so young and optimistic.

As a woman painter at this time in history (if I may be a bit pompous) and of my age, I have seen and experienced a lot that I didn't expect when I was young and starting out.  I came of age during what is being called, I believe, the second wave of feminism.  I was so naive it is almost laughable.  I went to an art school (SFAI) that had zero female painting teachers.  Janson's (History of Art) didn't even include it's first female artist until the 1980s, long after I had finished art school.  I had a male painting teacher tell me I had to become a mother before I could become a real artist (granted he was a shitty, though well regarded, painter himself.)  No point in going on, you get the drift.  I thought I was part of a new era when women were equal in the eyes of, if not the greater lands of the planet, certainly equal in the eyes of sophisticated worlds of culture, like art.

I have been painting 45 years.  I would be lying if I said it hasn't been a fantastic journey.  I had a very macho mentor at art school who taught me what good painting IS and though he struggled with his own machismo and misbehavior it didn't change the fact that he was a rarity-a REAL painter and a great teacher.  Of the 50-60 art teachers I had in six years of art school, he was one of the very few who could not only make fine paintings but he could also bring students into an understanding of why a good painting is good.  It was a serendipitous turn of events that I moved to San Francisco when I was 19 to study art at that school at that time in history.  San Francisco in the 1970s was a painter's city in a way that LA has never been, and never will be.  I brought the knowledge and sensibility I learned in SF back to LA with me.  I could never have found it here.

I remember spending a day with you when you were studying in NYC.  You were talking about how much you loved "Mannerism."  While I didn't share that enthusiasm, I loved your passion for painting and art.  You were a wonderful young guy, so different from most of the LA kids we native Angelenos had grown up with.

You've had your own art journey-no doubt as surprising and wonderful as my own.  Even so, perhaps your life on the business side has been more difficult and challenging than you expected, as has mine as a painter.  If I had known how damaged the art world is when I started out, would I have continued as a painter?  Probably, but it is a good thing I didn't know because maybe I wouldn't have continued.

When I was young I expected the art business to be egalitarian when judging men and women-well, that misconception is gone.  I thought the art business would be about ART, the best art, no matter who made it.  God, I was young.  Not only are women still pushed to the bottom (if you're interested, take a moment to read some gallery stats, including your own)-but astonishingly, sometimes it is women who do the pushing.  I won't go on, too distressing.

You don't have to respond to this letter.  For now, I hope that our daughters will, god willing, live out their lives in a world more respectful of their talents and contributions.  We shall see.

Regards,   Karla

Friday, August 10, 2018

38 Good Art/Bad Art, part 1

How do we know if a painting is "good" or "bad"?  Well, we don't really.  I mean, there isn't a definitive, objective scale to measure art on.

This impossible conundrum of judgement, one way or the other, leaves painting awash in an ocean of art debris.   Paintings crashing into paintings.  One painting (or sculpture) that looks awesomely stupid might fetch millions at an auction and another that looks interesting may well hang unsold on a gallery wall.  The "experts" (writers, curators, gallerists, never artists!) often flog paintings for reasons that have little to do with merit and have a lot to do with social connections, money or just lack of insight.

It's a bit of a mess.

My late and great painting teacher, Sam Tchakalian, knew painting better than anyone I have ever met or read.  In a critique one can watch online, Sam is critiquing student work.  He asks the students if they want to make comfort paintings or challenging paintings.  He doesn't mean that all comfort painting is beautiful or that all challenging painting is ugly.  

This analysis itself is challenging.  

(In his own paintings Sam's colors are beautiful.  But his paintings are never comfortable.  The paint is as thick as cake icing, the squeegee marks are insistent, slashing even.  The effort seen in the paint application is both aggressive and ballet-like.  They do challenge us-there is a price for admission. We have to find our own way into the painting so that it makes sense, on its terms.  His paintings challenge us to read the language of paint and this is where knowledge of painting is the price of admission.)

So what does Sam mean by comfort versus challenging?  We've all seen comfort painting.  Paintings that hang mutely, no way in and no way out.  There's no way in because there is no where to go.  

A challenging painting takes us to a place we aren't sure about. We have to read paint like we read English.  We have to read the language of aesthetics.  We have to be curious.  We have to open the door to enter...the painting.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

37 The Bro-gallery

37  The Bro-gallery (Tomboy Artist part 3)

What do you call a gallery that exhibits fewer than, say, 20-30% female artists?  Yes, a Bro-gallery!

Today the artists a gallery represents are typically 70-80% male, sometimes more.  What if we flipped it and now that percentage of a gallery's artists are female.  With that one flipped fact-the whole ballgame looks different.  What if 80% of our House of Representatives and Senate were female?  Who could possibly miss all those media shots of clumps of dumpy jowly men in gray suits with their big fun (ha ha) yellow or red striped ties!  Speaking for myself-what a relief to never see one of those photos again.  And on and on it goes.

Why do we assume that the male domination of the art world is simply the way it should be?  Are men more clever, talented, intelligent than women?  That certainly hasn't been my experience.  In the art world, to be male is akin to walking into an SAT test with an automatic 500 points in your pocket before the test is even taken.

To all you Bro-gallerists out there-why not take a cold hard look at your assumptions about male and female artists?  Don't be afraid to change.  You may find that an awakening would be quite refreshing.  For everyone.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

36  Tomboy Artist part 2

A really ugly male behavior is getting a lot of attention right now.  In politics and in the entertainment business the assault on female bodies and dignity has been business as usual for decades.

How about the art business?  It's well known that the male abstract expressionists of the 1940's and 1950's considered women artists as not only inferior, but essentially worthless (except for fucking.)  As for the "revolutionary" 1960's-how many famous pop artists were female?  Hmmmm, I'm thinking...

Today, fifty plus years after pop and AE, the art world's treatment and belief that women artists should be taken as seriously as men is uneven at best.  I've had my share of dismissive treatment by dealers and curators.  All women artists have.  Honestly, I don't know what to do about it.  I don't know how to change this neanderthal mindset.  It's not in the best interests of male artists to stand up for us.  More sales and representation of women means less for them.  If a gallery represents 20 artists and 20% (a typical percentage today) are female, to even out the opportunities for women-six of the male artists in the gallery are going to have to take their work down and leave the gallery.  Do you know any male artists willing to do that?  I don't.

Here's an additional hurdle to chew on.  Until recently (the 1980's) Janson's History of Art had ZERO women artists represented in its 850 pages.  ZERO.  Today it has 9% female representation.  In 2017 91% of the artists in the most commonly used art history textbook are male.  Welcome to Art History 101!

How does it affect young women studying art today and how did it affect women of my generation in the past to study an art form where the vast majority of artists honored, are male.  How does a female form attachments to the male artists of the past who we know treated women abominably?  Young people need to study and learn from those who came before.  What is the effect of having no role models with whom one can share a particular knowledge of life?  Imagine a whole area of study and human practice, fine art, where one must have a penis in order to be taken seriously? Would a dildo suffice?  It's ludicrous, but true.

A lot of artists, Picasso and Pollock notably, were well known to have treated women badly.  Yet they are two of the most undeniably important painters of the 20th century.  What is a woman artist supposed to do?  Pretend these two men and thus their work, never existed?  Turn our heads away and not learn from them?

I had a painting teacher in art school who told me that I could not be an artist until I had first gotten married and become a mother.  I have no clue what he was talking about.  I had another painting teacher grab me in the crotch.  Some years back I was in a four person show in my hometown museum-the three guys were in the main room and I was in the rear hallway.  And so it goes and goes.

Until it doesn't.

35  "...aren't we doing it for the painting and not ourselves?"

..."aren't we doing it for the painting and not ourselves?"  This is a fragment of one of Sam Tchakalian's stream-of-consciousness painting critiques.  He was trying to get 20-year-olds to understand that a painting stands alone, and it stands or falls on its merits.  To paint well is to put the painting first.  The artist's ego, needs, wants, and learned ideas of what art should be, are a distant second.

What does a painting want?

To make art that has substance, an interior life of its own, requires an artist's skill for sure.  It also demands an artist's vulnerability-a willingness to fail. "Don't laugh-this is the best I can do right now.  I'm dirty and sweaty from the art battlefield.  It doesn't often work out.  But I'll be at it again tomorrow.  And the day after that.  And the year after.  And the decade after that."

I think it was Picasso who said (and I paraphrase)-"when I fall in love with something in a painting, I destroy it."


Because when a painter falls in love with a particular color, a gesture, a line, a shape-they can no longer see the painting as a whole.  Picasso was ruthless-and brilliant-and probably the greatest painter of the 20th century.  Good painters are ruthless.  Mediocre painters are tolerant.

Jackson Pollock couldn't draw.  His artist brothers thought he was hopeless.  Jack the Dripper found a way around this flaw.  Instead of a pencil he drew with paint.  (I have read that he took his drip technique from an obscure woman painter).  And boy, did he draw with paint.  He tackled scale, color, texture, line, composition like his very life was on the line (and considering his end, I suppose it was.)

I've seen a lot of Pollock imitators over the years.  It's sort of comical that they seem to not understand that the reasons Pollock paintings are great is not because of the drip; they are great because they are infused with Pollock's touch, sensibility, timing, heart---they are infused with Pollock himself (the good, bad and the ugly as the movie said.)  He wrestled with the elements of visual art for the sake of the painting.  He may have taken his drip technique from a lesser artist-but he put it in his backpack and took it up the mountain.

This is what happens when we do it for the painting and not ourselves.