I’m always really pleased but also sort of baffled, too, when an artist invites me over for a studio visit. Once, when I had an institutional career, it was pretty obvious why an artist would want me in his or her studio, and what the stakes were: at minimum, the promise to ‘keep them in mind’ for some vague something in the future, and the best outcome, definitive inclusion in an upcoming exhibition I was planning. Now, not so much. I don’t have anything to offer an artist other than my words, so I’m all the more touched when they make the effort to invite me over.
This morning I was musing about the different forms of engagement that a studio visit versus an art review or some other type of written assessment represent. For me, not for the artist. I can’t speak for the artist. Which is why I think that studio visits are such charged experiences for me. I have to warm up for them – not by reading up on the artist’s work or anything (although I guess that would be nice, huh?)—but by getting into a certain kind of flexible brain state of mind. I have to start stripping away at some self-protecting and thus extremely comfy walls around myself, and that takes work.
Studio visits require me to be even more open and in-the-moment and attuned to the kinds of all-body awareness that every instance of looking at art requires, but since I’m also being watched by someone else and engaging in a conversation with them, I need to be equally open to the experience of radical vulnerability. When I write, I’m alone, and I can compose and then revise my opinions until I think they’re ready, or ready enough, for public viewing. When I’m in the studio, face to face with an artist, I don’t have the luxury of crafting my words. Since I almost always have no idea what I’m going to see when I get there, a studio visit means I’m going to have to think on my feet. But since I don’t really believe that an artwork has an essential “meaning”, only meanings (and, old-fashioned though it now may be, I retain much suspicion about the whole authorial intent thing too), I also have to be willing to say lots of things that, were I writing about this work instead of talking about it, I would have eventually come to erase or re-word or recalibrate.
The most intimidating thing about studio visits for me is that sometimes, the artist seems to be expecting me to respond to something on the spot. It takes me days to write an art review, days of slapping little black symbols onto white space (because that’s how most of us write now—I don’t inscribe my thoughts with pens and paper, it feels more like conjuring: I think, my brain makes my fingers jiggle and jerk, tiny words appear on the big, blindingly white screen before me, I look at those words and sit back and try to figure out if they work. If they do the work they are supposed to do. And if one or more of those words doesn’t, if it’s being stubborn or recalcitrant, I need to sit back somehow and figure out why not, why isn’t that word saying what it’s supposed to, god dammit, is it because it’s really supposed to be this, not that, or maybe it’s more like that, not this?
From that place, for me, meaning arrives. If I’m lucky. Sometimes, pretty rarely now but still sometimes, I am not so lucky, and everything falls apart.
Things are always falling apart in the studio, though, and that’s what I find so exciting and energizing about engaging with artists and their work in that space. Conversations can flow between the artist and myself as if we were old friends, even though we’re not; they can also be halting or spurting or circuitous and even more meaningful because of that. Sometimes there’s that panicky feeling you get when it sounds like you’re engaging in a conversation, one where we think that we understand what the other person is saying, and vice-versa, but then you start to realize that perhaps this is not at all what is happening, that you’re actually speaking two different languages that sound alike but are, in fact, nothing alike.
In the artist’s studio, I have to be willing to grope for words and say the wrong thing and/or be misinterpreted and just generally come off as totally stupid – and hey, let’s face it, not just to look stupid, but to actually reveal myself as the stupid human being that I am. This is easy to do but hard to accept. I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that I have managed to be stupid successfully, over and over, actually pretty much every time I have visited an artist’s studio. I think that’s something. Maybe it’s everything. Right?