Critical Regionalism

May 26, 2011 · Print This Article

"A Map lacking boundaries" by Matthew Friday, the first mail art project published by Regional Relationships

I received my first work from Regional Relationships, a project started by artists Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis, in the mail a couple months ago: a small package containing a tube of paint made from acid mine drainage by artist Matthew Friday, diagrams of the Appalachian watershed systems, and some accompanying paint brushes and a quill pen to presumably put it to use. I’m really excited about this kind of platform for distributing art, partly because I’m currently obsessed with art subscriptions that work like CSAs, but also because I imagine that for artists like Sarah, Ryan and Matthew that are engaged with a research-based art practice, typical exhibition venues don’t always make the most sense. And in knowing their other collaborations and projects, like Temporary Travel Office and the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor, where a place-based inquiry that may have nothing to do with art per se then gets exhibited or represented in art contexts, it seems a pretty open question as to what actually would make sense. So I asked them to humor me and let me interview them, in the hope that I could draw out some of the spaces that they do indeed see as active sites of exchange for their practice.

A little about them: “Regional Relationships commissions artists, scholars, writers and activists to create works that investigate the natural, industrial and cultural landscapes of a region. It is a platform to re-imagine the spaces and cultural histories around us. An invitation to join in seeing what we can learn—and learning what we can see—by juxtaposing spaces and narratives that are usually kept apart.”

AS: How did Regional Relationships start?

RR: Maybe 4-5 years ago, there were several conversation happening amongst different constellations of people about the need to seriously think about cultural production outside of urban, metropolitan centers. We don’t know how they got started and weren’t even that involved in them at the time. A few initial conversations we remember involved Daniel Tucker, Nato Thompson, Dan S. Wang and Sarah Kanouse. A lot of these discussions seemed to be coming from a need to rethink what it means to be a cultural producer in small(er) towns and in a manner that doesn’t just translate into making work on “the margins” for an audience in the center. Around this same time, another series of related discussions and activities coalesced, involving some of the same participants and some others, that focused on the potential for political and cultural activity across the mythical geography known as the midwest. This idea came to be called, half tongue-in-cheek, “The Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor.” We don’t remember exactly who coined this odd place name, but initial participants were Brett Bloom, Bonnie Fortune, Brian Holmes, Claire Pentecost, Nick Brown, Dan Wang, Sarah Kanouse, Sarah Lewison, Mike Wolf, Amy Partridge, Matthias Reagen and ourselves. This group would eventually expand and operate under the name “Compass.” The desire for something like Regional Relationships was developing parallel and in concert with these activities for us. At first, we thought it would manifest as a space and residency program, but after spending much time refining our desires and thinking through logistics, a space wasn’t the right direction. We should also note that our thinking was greatly aided by consultations with Sharon Irish, an Urbana-based writer, activist, scholar and long-time collaborator on many things.

AS: How do you select artists? Do you work with artists that already have a project that you want to disseminate or is it a commissioning process?

RR: Our selection process is really driven by our mission, which we’ll explain more later. Right now, that translates into us approaching people who are already doing work that intersects with that mission. It doesn’t mean that the specific form of the project is already complete, as that’s part of what we hope to facilitate—the production and dissemination of original creative, scholarly and political work that doesn’t fit easily into current conventional institutions. That said, it is mostly a commissioning process, even if the conceptual aspect of the project is done, we’re asking contributors to create something that can be distributed as multiples. Our goal is to distribute 2 mailings per year.

AS: Tell me about the projects you’ve done so far. What’s coming up next?

RR: Our first mailing is the project “A Map Without Boundaries” by artist Matthew Friday. We knew about Matthew’s work through his involvement in the collective Spurse and through his participation in an exhibition that Sarah co-curated in 2010 for Spaces in Cleveland (titled “In a Most Dangerous Manner”). Our interest in ideas of “regionalism” and the work we had been doing with Compass resonated with him and the work of many of his colleagues at Ohio University who had been developing a working group calling itself the Critical Regionalism Initiative. We had been in contact with Matthew since that exhibition and he had a couple of project ideas that seemed a perfect way to launch Regional Relationships. “A Map Without Boundaries” ended up being the one that we distributed, which we are very excited about. The project presents a prompt for those receiving it to locate themselves in an ecology where human actions (industry, water use, labor practices) combine with the actions of various non-humans (minerals, streams, bacteria) to produce the world we live in, what Matthew calls an “entangled collective.” It sounds like a simple suggestion, but it becomes obvious that most of us don’t think this way, otherwise we wouldn’t be so surprised when our actions produce unintended consequences. Matthew presents a pretty specific way to consider this through the material of acid mine drainage, a yellow, toxic soup of sulfur hydroxide that is produced when bacteria release sulfur from digested coal remnants in the many flooded abandoned mines of the Appalachian hills. Using a technique developed by an environmental engineer at OU (Dr. Guy Riefer), Matthew converted this toxic substance into a non-toxic pigment. RR01, our first mailing, contains a small tube of paint made from this pigment that recipients are encouraged to use to draw representations of their own ecosystems, including themselves. Matthew’s provocation, one we’re happy to facilitate, is to produce interpretations and understandings of these entanglements that lead to more responsible and inclusive decision making.

RR02 will be produced with Claire Pentecost and involves her research into the genetic pollution of corn stocks in Mexico by US-produced genetically engineered corn. Further down the road, we are producing a self-directed series of videos and documents in collaboration with Faranak Miriftab, an urban planning scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This work is an attempt to visualize and narrate some of the complex realities experienced by new and long-time residents and workers in a small town on the Illinois River.

AS: What’s the infrastructure of RR like, are the subscription fees your only source of income?

RR: We were lucky to receive a generous start-up grant from Opensource Art, a non-profit project that started in Champaign, IL. That covered a large part of realizing and distributing RR01. Right now, subscriptions are our only Regional Relationships-specific income, but we also pay for things out of wages from our jobs. We incorporated Regional Relationships as a business partnership, solely for the purposes of separating income and expenses from our own finances, which also means that money can be received by Regional Relationships, rather than going through personal accounts. We may eventually apply for grants, but right now, we would like to keep our scale and ambitions rather modest, fulfilling our mission through a combination of subscriptions, self-financing or other contributions. To be clear, we don’t expect to cover our expenses solely through subscriptions. We are shooting to cover mailing expenses and some portion of production costs through subscriptions.

AS: Who do you see as the audience for the project and who do you want to reach out to with it?

RR: Our goal is to have a core, consistent subscription base while simultaneously distributing to a changing and project-specific group of recipients. That core is likely to consist of a demographic with ties to cultural and educational establishments, but we also want to reach out to publics that might have a stake in specific projects. In that sense, we actively want to engage with publics whom we intersect with through shared interests and concerns. Our contributors will likely play a large role in identifying and connecting with different constituencies. Part of the excitement for us is making connections across concerns that are related in many ways, but don’t always occupy the same intellectual or political space.

AS: Why a subscription project? Are there other subscription projects that you were thinking about as models? How do you think this method of dissemination affects the relationship between the audience and the artist? Is there more direct engagement with this kind of process?

RR: We don’t really have a great answer to the subscription question, and we didn’t set out initially to produce a subscription-based project. We didn’t even set out to distribute multiples, and definitely don’t consider Regional Relationships to be a publication or magazine-like effort. So, we haven’t really thought much about or researched subscription or mail art projects as models, although we are aware of many contemporary and historical examples.When our earlier considerations of starting a physical space led us to reconsidering what we wanted to do, and what we thought would be useful, the idea of bringing things and ideas to the people we wanted to talk with directly became very attractive. We thought, “What if we commission things that we can get into peoples’ hands?” Asking for a subscription just seems like a direct way of asking people to support a project if they are interested in it. Whether this increases direct engagements with the work is maybe not exactly the question we asked ourselves. It is a different relationship we are seeking between the projects and those receiving them, compared with what happens in an exhibition space. The kind of physical space we’re interested in discussing is diffuse and permeable, so it makes sense to distribute work in a way that realizes that.

We’re not interested in these mailings being “collectible” precious objects per se, but we do want to make connections with recipients through aesthetics. So, if people want to “collect” things, that’s OK too, but it’s important for us to make sure that the project doesn’t become one defined by collectibility, or contained solely within an art context.

AS: Can you talk more about your ideas of regionalism and why it’s important to you? Is there a relationship between that idea and then the methodology you’re using to disseminate the works? And you both make a lot of work with that kind of regional focus, is this project part of your art practice? Is this part of building The Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor?

RR: To answer the last two questions first: yes.

As we described above, part of the reason for mailing stuff to people directly has to do with the kind of space we are interested in. One of our primary goals is to distribute, document and produce knowledge about lived space, knowledges that don’t always abide by political boundaries and traditional delineations of place. We want to connect the project we distribute to other people and organizations (i.e. farmers, environmentalist, queer activists, immigrants), who often have stake in or otherwise take up similar concerns, but in different ways. To clarify an earlier point, our interest in multiples comes from a desire to interface with dispersed audiences, rather than some other impulse to make copies of things or something like that. It’s not about “democratizing” the art object, since we’re not trying to privilege that kind of relationship with the projects to begin with.

Much of our thinking on “regionalism” is indebted to our Compass collaborators, as well as many other artists, writers, activists and geographers. Someone like geographer Neil Smith, for example, who has written about the mostly mythical divide between “town” and “country”, “urban” and “rural” in late capitalist society. Taking a regional view allows for a recognition of dependencies and entanglements across places that are otherwise defined as specific entities. We should be clear that we’re not adhering to any orthodox formulation of “regionalism.” For us, it’s simply a useful shift in scale that is flexible enough to include small, contiguous geographies as well as vast and distant locales. The Italian critical architects Multiplicity have produced a body of work based on “border devices,” where they use metaphors to describe the different ways that borders function. For example, they discuss how a particular border region might function like a funnel, or how a “fold” can occur that connects two non-contiguous places on either side of a border. These kinds of ideas are important to us, as they open up spaces for action that we may have not been able to see before.

We also see regional thinking as something that can more productively deal with the problems of disciplines. This is something we’re still figuring out, but we think that knowledge regimes, like disciplines, are governed somewhat like spatial regimes. Our desire to reproduce responsive, non-orthodox understandings of lived space is complimented by a simultaneous desire to recognize different forms of knowledge production and reception– without trying to synthesize them into a muddy interdisciplinarity. In other words, we’re not trying to find the right combination of disciplines to build ever-more expert bodies of knowledge. A “regional” body of knowledge, for us, isn’t simply geographic, but takes into account the connections and differences in how we understand and create place. Matthew Friday, in his project for RR01, puts it well when he writes, “Interpretation is a form of engagement that produces the world as intelligible.” Producing interpretations that foreground engagement is something we’re very interested in.

Dudley Farms, Inc, combines harvesting hybrid corn outside Pleasant Plains, IL

The Density of Light: An Interview with Deborah Boardman

May 25, 2011 · Print This Article

A Porous Space, COD Gahlberg Gallery Installation, View shows Painted Wood Singing Platform, 10' diameter, divided in two by the Faults Strip, which runs along the gallery's underground fault line, and Book of Faults, unique painted book of the artist's personal faults supplemented by those donated to the project, 2010

A few days ago I paid a visit to Deborah Boardman’s studio. Having made my way up to Rogers Park, I walked down a side street into a neighborhood that brimmed with pre-summer activity; lawn mowers and birds both seemed endlessly active and I thought about how we’d all emerged for an after-winter stretch before the heat set in. On this street lies Boardman’s house. At the front door I was greeted first by two dogs and then the painter. We climbed up the stairs to her studio on the third floor. Windows on all sides. Leafy, green trees billowed around us where they caught the wind and it was impossible to see the street below. I felt like I was in a green cloud. Boardman has been painting in this room for the last 15 years: a light-addled attic with one, tallest wall where she paints. Other walls are either interrupted by windows or fall at angles defined by the peaked roof. The floor is wooden, spattered with paint. There is a sink in one corner of the room and everything smells vaguely like turpentine. What struck me immediately was the way the light in Boardman’s paintings matched the light in her studio. I understand that usually happens—paintings reflect the space they were produced in, but I always forget that light has variant qualities, depending on where and when it shines. This was a palpable, pervasive shim of light. I’ve never thought of light having density before, but in this room it did. And in Boardman’s paintings the light also has body. It defines the space between lines and marks.

Her work is in constant communion with this place, whether literally depicting the studio as a subject, or by using its same palette and wind. Motifs repeat like patterns as she paints from life in oil, then transcribes that painting multiple times, again and again, with different variations into gouache on paper. While looking over her work, I began to learn the language she uses–to parse clusters of marks from other lines, differentiating what lines referred to the wooden trunk standing against another wall of the room and what series of marks described another painting. I was able to see how the depiction of the trunk lost it’s literal authority as, time and time again, it was redrawn in ever increasing abstraction. Other motifs were similarly repeated—the sink, a bottle of dish soap, paint brushes, other paintings, photographs, books and vials. The most prominent window is also a regular image as are the objects it boasts: small vials, a meditation cloth, books and small, skeletal remnants of a bird, an entire crayfish, the jowl of a fish. Different paintings feature the tree outside with leaves or bare with winter. To start understanding Boardman’s work is to spend time in this space, in her studio—a place so integral to her process it becomes not simply the location of work, but also its subject. She also paints patterns. Patterns are painted onto canvases and paper; where sometimes they stand alone, in other instances one pattern abuts another pattern, in still other instances a patterns lies, like a veil, over domestic landscapes. Sometimes those landscapes are represented simply, without a pattern, but there is a dialogue between those choices. It’s a dialogue about seeing and how we see and how we locate ourselves within what we see. What follows is an interview I embarked upon with her. We talk about painting and the canvas and pattern and windows.

Winter Studio 18, Gouache on paper, 2011, 22" x 30"

Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about how your painting practice has developed over time? Do you notice a consistent investigation of themes or ideas?

Deborah Boardman: Definitely there are themes I return to over and over again.  One is my relationship to painting in which it becomes evidence of my physical body and my hand conveys a kind of emotional warmth, no matter what image is represented. Another is my love of other people’s paintings, whether artists like Watteau or Manet or Noland, or friends’ paintings. I find the emotional timbre in the works of my friends gives me a sense of affirmation, like singing along to a great song. I often find myself connecting to the work of others by copying them, rendering these works as cluster of notes I am examining in my studio, including my own.

CP: I’m interested in how you talk about the canvas/painting as an emotive,
expressive front. I was wondering if you could describe more about what that
is like, for you. Does a painting inspire warmth for you? Or is it the act
 of painting? And, if it’s possible to ask, why?–where does the emotion come
from for you and what is it for?

DB: I can say that both looking at painting and the act of painting elicit similar feelings of warmth, excitement and vigor. There is usually a struggle with self doubt in both circumstances…the great painting that I want to emulate, but can I and my own paralysis when faced with the unknown and what feels like sometimes overwhelming inadequacy.

Where it comes from is harder to answer. I think there is both a physical recognition through bodily memory, especially if the one looking at painting also paints, and empathy. Yet I know people who don’t paint at all who have looked at my painting and got that physical recognition. It’s a kind of resonance, a pleasure (and often pain) we feel in common.

Book of Faults (Some of Mine Some of Yours), Painted Book, 2010, Detail, gouache on paper, 17" x 36" Contains images of paintings of Boardman's studio, her own personal faults and those of others contributed to the project.

CP: How do you think about pattern in your practice?

DB: Pattern is everywhere, sometimes it is more obvious to us. I love when painting reveals something fresh about the coherence in the world which sometimes I observe and sometimes is just subtle sensation. When I paint patterns, I focus on the color and the size and weight of the brush stroke, and the variances that occur when my hand wobbles, or when the water blurs, things that I try not to control and that surprise me. The focus painting patterns brings is very different than looking at my surroundings, which in some ways is more difficult, and requires greater discipline. I like combining the two in my studio paintings.

CP: I feel like this is a question I’ve been meaning to ask for a long time, actually. I started wondering about it when I noticed all of your paintings of your studio. I then thought about it again when Chicago was doing its city-wide studio investigations (via the MCA and Smart Museum). How do you think about the studio as a source of inspiration?

DB: Yes, quite a long time ago, I decided to counter my tendency to make very curvy, gestural images out of my head with attempts to ground myself in the present world. The most obvious place to start was my studio and that led me naturally to Matisse and his studio paintings. I also stumbled upon a painting by a student of David’s one summer visiting the Louvre. The painting depicts about twelve of David’s students painting in a small, dimly lit studio. I was so struck by the state of absorption and evident pleasure represented in the painting that I copied it many times and also researched other versions of artists in their studios, mostly from the 19th century. I think I found affirmation and reassurance through these paintings in what is often a lonely and doubt-ridden pursuit. I think the studio is a concrete stand-in for the self and ultimately what one deals with as an artist is the weight and sum of how to find meaning and connection to others through ones work.

CP: When you talk about the studio as being a representation of the self, I’m
immediately curious about what your physical experience is like, when you
enter your studio…like how does that feeling of being inside your studio
compare to being in a classroom where you teach, or a room in your house?
And then, too, what is it like for you to walk into the studios of others?

DB: My studio is deeply familiar and generally feels good to be in. Sometimes there are periods when I am working out of a particular palette that I end up disliking and crave the antidote. I make periodic purges of work, editing and cleaning out, which refreshes and opens up the space again.

My studio doesn’t need to accommodate others, at least at this point, and in that way is very different from the spaces I share with others, like my family or students. I really dislike the classroom studios at saic, as they are overwhelmingly gray and anonymous. I tend to love the studios of friends and of artists I admire that I may not be close to, like Byron Kim. I love to see the ordering of the space, and what is prioritized and valued.

CP: What happens to the studio space when it becomes public? (whether being
presented in an exhibition, or in a painting or via an open studio?)

DB: The public studio space is less intimate, and becomes an artifact of itself, and therefore theatrical. An exhibition is always in some aspects, a version of the public studio space.

A Porous Space, 2009, Installation at Heskin Contemporary, New York, Gouache on paper paintings function as stained glass in gallery windows.


CP: How does a canvas relate to a window?

DB: While my canvases evoke the renaissance ideal of looking through a window into another world, they also remain very much objects in the physical world. I am less interested in the illusion of space than alluding to other spaces, while reinforcing the material and physical conditions of the body.

CP: How do you negotiate ideas of failure? I was thinking partly about *The Book of Faults* and the LaLaLa Singers, for instance—in that instance it seemed like an idea of failure became a collaborative performance that was then able to transcend itself…?

DB: It was such an epiphany to learn about Xavier Le Pichon’s idea of geological faults being necessary to the health and wellbeing of the earth as a living being. He makes the analogy that human frailty is also necessary for our survival as a species and reveals to us our essentially interdependent nature. It is a very different model than the competitive, survival of the fittest, only the “best” artists or “best” anything deserve our attention. I love how Le Pichon’s theory dovetails with the modernist idea of failure, as a kind of heroic risk taking one must experience despite of ones anxieties and belief that artistic perfection, let alone trying to make anything worthwhile, is impossible to realize in the modern world

What singing with the La La La Singers reminds me again and again, is that connecting with other human beings, singing in harmony is a kind of effortless, pure joy that creates the kind of warmth I crave.

I also find working with ED JR. relieves an enormous amount of the anxiety about self worth. It is easier to trust the instincts of our collective minds, and a heck of a lot more fun. That said, I am not giving up my “day job” as a painter in the studio, as I find the solitude and introspection it brings, also essential to my clarity and growth as an artist.

This Sunday, on May 29th, Deborah Boardman’s collaborative group, ED JR (also Edra Soto, Jeroen Nelemans and Ryan Richey) will present their performance, Painting is Dead from 3-7pm at the Charnel House. With special guests Charles Mahaffee, Diego Leclery, Kayce Bayer, Chris Lin, Hannis Pannis, La La La Singing, Laughing Eye Weeping Eye (Rebecca Schoenecker and Patrick Holbrook). Painting is Dead is part of an on-going series called Five Funerals.


Episode 299: Aaron GM and Ginger Wolfe-Suarez

May 23, 2011 · Print This Article

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This week: San Francisco checks in with a discussion with Aaron GM and Ginger Wolfe-Suarez

In this episode Art Practical contributors Zachary Royer Scholz, Elyse Mallouk, and Patricia Maloney speak with artists Aaron GM and Ginger Wolfe-Suarez. This was one of several conversations held over the weekend of the fair as part of “In and Out of Context: Artists Define the Space between San Francisco and Los Angeles,” a program that invited artists to consider the two cities as a continuously evolving constellation of dialogues, shared interests, and overlapping approaches. An abridged transcript of the conversation can be read on Art Practical.

Aaron GM lives and works in Los Angeles. He studied at both San Francisco Art Institute and UCLA. Recently he exhibited a solo presentation at the NADA Art fair in Miami Beach (2010). Other Recent solo exhibitions include capezio (2010) at ltd los angeles, Timeshares (2009) at Parker Jones Gallery in Los Angeles, and sales calls(2008) at Blanket Gallery in Vancouver. Aaron has shown in group exhibitions both nationally and internationally.

Ginger Wolfe-Suarez is an emerging conceptual artist, writer, and theorist. Her work often takes the form of large-scale sculpture, exploring the psychology of built space. Both an exploration into the experiential phenomena of body-object relationships, and a questioning of the material nature of sculpture interweave concepts of memory and process. Wolfe-Suarez teaches studio critique and art theory, and is currently Visiting Faculty in the graduate program at San Francisco Art Institute. Her writings on art criticism have been published internationally, and her artwork has been recently exhibited at Silverman Gallery, ltd Los Angeles, KUNSTRAUM AM SCHAUPLATZ in Vienna, Artist Curated Projects in Los Angeles, Mills Art Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and High Desert Test Sites, among others. She studied at Goldsmiths College in London and later received her BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her MFA from the University of California at Berkeley. Wolfe-Suarez lives and works in Richmond, CA, where she raises her three-year-old son.

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (5/20-5/22)

May 19, 2011 · Print This Article

1. FLAT 9 at Floor Length and Tux

Work by Kristen Romaniszak, Brandon Heuser, Catie Olson and EC Brown.

Floor Length and Tux is located at 2332 W Augusta Blvd, 3F. Reception Saturday from 7-10pm.

2. Empire at Andrew Rafacz Gallery

Work by Greg Stimac.

Andrew Rafacz Gallery is located at 835 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Saturday from 4-7pm.

3. Ceaseless Blooms in Jobless Colors at Johalla Projects

Work by Thomson Dryjanski, , Brandy Fisher, , Emerson Granillo, David M. Hall, Misato Inaba, Absis Minas, Jen Smoose, Jaroslaw Studencki, Kristen Lee Stokes, Eileen Mueller, Casey McGonagle, and Hyounsang Yoo.

Johalla Projects is located at 1561 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday from 7-10pm.

4. A Hostile Womb at EBERSMOORE

Work by Mark Mulroney.

EBERSMOORE is located at 213 North Morgan, #3C. Reception Friday from 6-9pm.

5. Talk is the object at iceberg projects

Work by Gregg Bordowitz

iceberg projects is located at 7714 N. Sheridan Rd. Reception is Saturday from 6-9pm. Artist talk at 7pm.



Thinking about the Studio Art PhD

May 18, 2011 · Print This Article

I’m in the middle of working up a bunch of interviews for the coming weeks! Really exciting stuff, I can’t wait to get it all out in the world. This week I just posted some notes I put together about studio arts PhDs. I’m working on a longer article around and about James Elkins’ book Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, but I wanted to collect my thoughts before diving into his. Anyway, if you all have any ideas of how to further my research on the subject, let me know.

While objecting to the PhD studio art program might be as useless as anti-cell phone sentiments in 2002, I wanted to wave a small flag. Off the bat, PhD studio practices seem to add one more step in what (already) looks a little like a pyramid scheme; art schools feeds themselves: students are initiated into a canon, which they then struggle to be legitimized and supported by for an indefinite amount of time after their matriculation. While on the one hand self-reliant circulatory systems are wondrous, the success of a given artist is not an automatic consequence of a scholastic advance. That’s applicable to any project in the humanities, of course, and I think it’s something that every participant is more or less aware of. College doesn’t guarantee success, but  you hope a good education will get you that much closer to its likelihood.

The first thing to do, probably, is ask oneself what that vision of success looks like. It’s very likely different for everyone, though, I bet, with a common base of economic sustainability. Every artist (or really, just anybody) wants to be secure in their lifestyle. Obviously it’s impossible for any institution to promise that. The question of how to support oneself as an artist, while also developing one’s practice does not have an easy solution. It never will. I have heard stories about artists in Manhattan who can only paint one type of painting (and have been for the last 30 years) because those are the paintings that sell and they have car/house/child care payments to make. On another end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t have gallery representation, don’t own anything and work for money as little as possible in order to make more artwork. Those are just two examples in a sea of countless scenarious. Everybody knows it’s hard. That’s not the question. The PhD just promises to ease that difficulty, to make it *feel* a little bit easier, without necessarily helping in the long run. It’s a balm.

MFA programs do the same thing. I should know, I went to one and I also loved it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything—I learned a lot, worked with fantastic professors in addition to meeting a group of peers on whom I still rely.  Furthermore the MFA ensured three years to dedicated to my practice. Bought and paid for, I chose to follow an impractical whim and in so doing, by inhabiting the consequence of that absurdity, began to believe more fully (perhaps by necessity) in myself as someone who could make a legitimate cultural contribution. I don’t know that anyone would disagree—art school is great. It’s amazing. You’re suddenly entrenched in a community that takes your efforts very seriously. It’s kind of like having a therapist, except the therapist is an impersonal building filled with passionate people who more or less share your (largely non-commercial) interests. Once you go to school you are immediately immersed in a creative support system.

While the MFA program has become a predominant feature on the artist’s CV, it was an exception for previous generations. Even while more and more people went on to secondary institutions, artists remained very much on the outskirts of that movement. Instead of school, they used cities, underground clubs, music venues and galleries as educational sites and community oases. Their experience was much more affordable; it was also less conventional. Obviously we can’t go back and in looking back we change what was. Nevertheless, I appreciate that our artistic predecessors operated in the margins of a society—working in an easily overlooked wilderness that was impossible to translate at more conventional gatherings—like family reunions, for instance—where one might be asked what one does. Explaining that you make art and work in a dingy dive bar in Alphabet City wouldn’t sell any obvious credibility those conventional others. Telling a relative that you’re in a scholastic program, even if they don’t agree with it, you’re situating yourself within an institution—something larger than the opinion of any one person. Getting degrees is a way to signify public (albeit purchased) support. It eases the loneliness of a marginalized practice/lifestyle.

And what is wrong with that?

Nothing, really. I would probably be one of the first to jump into another 5 years of a studio practice if I could afford it. Further, in joining those programs, I’d be using my purchasing power to ensure their existence—a kind of investment for my own future given that, probably, what one does afterwards is try to teach at one of those schools. The more college/graduate level art courses, the better. And another point: of all the things that people should do more of, goddamn they should learn more! And please, study art! Study the humanities! The more citizens who care about narratives and critical thinking and historical insight and philosophy, the better!

So there’s nothing really to complain about. My objection only stems from the resultant streamlining hegemony and it’s because I have this idea that art is a means for cultural/political/societal resistance. I want it to push again predominant status quos, to question the climate of its times, provoking and undermining the stability and moires it occupies. I worry that the PhD Studio Arts degree perpetuates an already insulated world, one rife with internal hierarchies, that consequently continues to focus on itself, while necessarily needing to inflate the aura of its authority.

I believe a healthy society needs people working on its boundaries. I believe that such a course isn’t easy, but the world needs outsiders, mismatched and perhaps bedraggled or confused, those individuals are inadvertently called to question the structure of the culture they inhabit, precisely because it does not fit into it. By pursuing such lines of questioning, it becomes easier to recognize other taken-for-granted and, often, detrimental notions, which then create new turns of cultural development. Maybe the PhD art programs could have auxillary, shadow departments dedicated to investigating the authority of the institution in which it lives.