Paying To Work: Watching Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle

June 3, 2013 · Print This Article

Last month at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicagoans had a chance to see all five films of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle.  Cremaster has a role in the art world similar to that of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction: everybody knows about it, art students reference it in papers, and relatively few (of my classmates back when I was in school) actually bothered to read it.  Cremaster, like Art In The Age…,  is taken as a given.  We all know some basic facts:  Matthew Barney used to play football, he’s married to Bjork, he thinks of himself as a sculptor, and he made these movies which are basically all about his nads.  Having seen a few artifacts in a group show at a contemporary art museum, and maybe having watched The Order on DVD, most of my artist friends feel like they’ve got a pretty good grasp on what Barney and Cremaster (the artist being basically synonymous with this one project) are all about.  Few have watched any of the actual films, at least not all the way through, and far, far fewer, after having watched one, have felt compelled to watch the other four.

Well, my wife Stephanie Burke and I decided to join those narrow ranks, and last month we watched all five Cremaster films.  Fortunately, the Siskel has a bar.  From the sound of pop tops and rolling bottles, most of the audience had elected to bring their own booze, but Steph and I are patrons of the arts, and supported the Siskel by buying literally all the Guinness they had.  This helped to wash down the films, and is a recommended procedure for anyone viewing them in the future.  Frankly, arthouse cinemas are a poor choice for showing these films, with the expectation of propriety and somber contemplation.  There are some scenes in these films that are awkwardly comical, and a setting that encourages laughter would really make the viewing experience a lot more pleasant.  There is, of course, no admonition against laughing at the Siskel, but when you’re surrounded by a bunch of serious-looking people watching the film like they’re listening to their grandfather’s eulogy, laughing, even when something is really funny, starts to feel like you’re farting in church.

The Cremaster films aren’t the kind of linear narratives that rely, like an M. Night Shyamalan picture, on unexpected twists and turns to sustain the viewer’s interest, so I’ll eschew the usual “spoiler alert” you’d expect from a movie review.  (As I write these words, everyone’s bitching about people revealing what happened on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, which I haven’t seen yet either, but I’m inclined to say “Fuck ‘em if they haven’t read the books.”  It’s a nice day for a…Red Wedding.)

Having some context about what’s going on can help; if you’ve got the big picture, you can focus on the details and nuance, sort of like reading Infinite Jest for the second time.  (More on David Foster Wallace later.)  I won’t bother writing up a detailed synopsis, as that work has already been done, so if you’re like a summary, along with a lot of interesting background information and context, check it out:

One well-known fact about the Cremaster films is that, like Star Wars, their sequential numbering does not reflect the order in which they were shot.  They were shot in the following sequence:  Cremaster 4 (1994), Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999), Cremaster 3 (2002).  This creates an interesting effect in which the quality of the visual effects, which were undergoing something of a digital revolution in the late 1990s, is fairly dated in the first film, improves a little by the second, peaks in the third, and then drops off drastically in the fourth, before picking up a tad at the end.  The films aren’t by any stretch effects-heavy blockbusters, but Cremaster 4 in particular shows its age in terms of the film quality, whereas Cremaster 3, the last to be filmed, is fairly polished.

Of course, unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy,  it’s something of a chore to sit down and watch all 398 minutes (over six and one-half hours) of the Cremaster films.  (A LoTR marathon, on the other hand, especially in a theater with a good bar, and decent meal breaks between films, is an absolutely transcendent experience.)  At the Siskel, at least (not sure if this is how it’s always done), they played 1 and 2 as a double feature, the longer part 3 by itself, and then parts 4 and 5 as a double feature.  Part 3 conveniently includes an intermission, great for a much-needed potty break and Guinness refill.  There were a couple of showtime options, and due to our schedules, we watched the films neither in numerical sequence nor in the order in which they were filmed, but rather arbitrarily:  first we watched Cremaster 4 and 5, then took a day off, then watched Cremaster 3, and the next day finished off with 1 and 2.

Just as nobody can remember that Star Trek 4 is called The Voyage Home (and consequently everyone calls it “The One With The Whales”), the weird sequencing and semi-narrative structure of the Cremaster films makes it hard to remember which one was which.  The above-linked synopses will give you a long-form breakdown of what’s in each film, but if you’ve seen them and are having a hard time remembering which was which, here’s a quick guide in the form of suggested subtitles:

Cremaster 4: “Bukkake Goat Motorcycle Race.”

Cremaster 5: “Meat Mangina Mermaid Opera.”

Cremaster 3:  “Masonic Punk Bands Dental Demolition Derby”

Cremaster 1:  “Grape-Eating Football Blimp Chorus Girls”

Cremaster 2:  “Gas Station Murder Beehive Sex Rodeo”

These give a sense of the semiotic smorgasbord Barney uses in his films, which is basically what Moe on The Simpsons was referring to in explaining postmodernism to Homer:  “You know, weird for the sake of being weird.”  This isn’t to say that the imagery is arbitrary, rather, it is carefully considered and thematically consistent, if frequently unexpected.  Rather than engage in a tiresome deconstruction of this content, I’ll combine an inventory of its themes with a helpful aid for a more enjoyable viewing experience.  May I present to you…

The Cremaster Cycle Drinking Game!  Abnormal Prosthetic Genetalia?  Drink!  Multiple Young Women In Identical, Revealing Costumes Performing Synchonized Movements?  Drink!  Bizarre Footwear?  Drink!  Crawling Through A Confined Space?  Drink!  “That looks like semen.”  Drink!  The Presentation of Ritual Regalia?  Drink?  Ominous, Mysterious Agents of Power?  Drink!  Human-Animal Hybrid?  Drink!  Group of fawning, adoring women?  Drink!  Overt reminder of Barney’s athletic background?  Drink!

The general unavailability of Barney’s films for home viewing (outside of The Order), and the general discouragement towards playing drinking games in arthouse cinemas, make this game more theoretical than practical.  You could play it at home with a DVD of The Order, lurk on eBay for a bootleg, or bring enough friends to the theater that that’d have a hard time kicking all of you out.  Or just play it quietly on your own.

If films are placed on a continuum, from “movies” to “art,” Matthew Barney’s work stands just on the “art” side of the imaginary dividing line, buttressed on the “movie” side by David Lynch.  They both elicit the same “Well, that was fucking weird” response from the general public, and both attract a certain fan base of intellectuals with a taste for the bizarre.  David Foster Wallace once wrote an article on David Lynch’s films in which he discusses the way they straddle this line; it’s a great article and a good point, but ultimately Lynch’s films are still what Wallace calls “Entertainments,” that is, you can sit down and watch them and it’s fun.  They’re smarter than most, granted, but they still function that way.

Not so with Barney’s Cremaster Cycle.  Although they lack Lynch’s ironic juxtaposition of the macabre and the mundane (Wallace’s description), something about the Cremaster films nevertheless makes me think of David Lynch, and specifically of Wallace’s essay on Lost Highway.  Lynch and Wallace seem to buttress the fine divide between cinema and art film like a pair of bookends holding up a single sheet of paper.  Compare Barney to other artist-filmmakers, such as Nathalie Djurberg (I had to Google “ass-licking claymation tiger” to remind myself of her name) or Shirin Neshat.  Cremaster is undeniably more like a movie than are those artists’ films, and not just because it’s longer (compare with Warhol’s Sleep or Empire).  It may be something to do with context; I’ve seen Neshat and Djurberg’s films in galleries, while Barney’s films I have seen only in theaters (the galleries show ephemera, sketches, and sculptures).  The combination of duration, context, and the nature of the films themselves puts them on the cinematic edge of art film, but they ultimately rest on this side of that fence.  Cremaster leans up against that divide, shaped by it like a mold full of Vaseline, ultimately conforming to Wallace’s definition of art film, which he uses to explain how Lynch’s films are neither art nor commercial, but something else.

Art film is essentially teleological; it tries in various ways to “wake the audience up” or render us more “conscious.” (This kind of agenda can easily degenerate into pretentiousness and self-righteousness and condescending horsetwaddle, but the agenda itself is large-hearted and fine.) Commercial film doesn’t seem like it cares much about the audience’s instruction or enlightenment. Commercial film’s goal is to “entertain,” which usually means enabling various fantasies that allow the moviegoer to pretend he’s somebody else and that life is somehow bigger and more coherent and more compelling and attractive and in general just way more entertaining than a moviegoer’s life really is. You could say that a commercial movie doesn’t try to wake people up but rather to make their sleep so comfortable and their dreams so pleasant that they will fork over money to experience it-the fantasy-for-money transaction is a commercial movie’s basic point. An art film’s point is usually more intellectual or aesthetic, and you usually have to do some interpretative work to get it, so that when you pay to see an art film you’re actually paying to work (whereas the only work you have to do w/r/t most commercial film is whatever work you did to afford the price of the ticket).

“Paying to work” sounds like a harsh indictment of the experience of viewing a film, but in regard to Cremaster, it’s accurate.  The hope is that this work proves rewarding for the viewer, and with the help of a few trips to the bar, it’s not too painful.

What Chicago’s Art Scene Can Learn From Vampire Bats

May 6, 2013 · Print This Article

The art world loves community.  Well, the art world loves the word, “community.”  Or, at least, it might, if we could figure out what the “art world” is, anyway, which is by no means a new problem.  The issues may in fact be quite closely related.  The art world is one of those subcultures that, while in reality a fuzzy-edged cluster of individuals, is easily perceived both by those within and without its borders as being the hard-edged rounded rectangle of an Illuminati card (Liberal, Weird).  “The CIA is going to attempt to control The Art World, and I’m going to put…50 Megabucks on that attack.”  (Which, by the way, actually happened.)

At least, we’d like to think that if the art world were an Illuminati card, it would be Liberal and Weird.  (If you’re not familiar with the game, just translate that as, “We’d like to think the art world is liberal and weird.”)  But that presumes a certain homogeneity that just isn’t there, as in fact did my own presumption that we (me, and you who are reading this) both want the art world to be the same, certain thing.  That is by no means a sure thing.  If for sake of discussion we can continue to refer to the art world as a single entity, then along with “community,” it also praises “diversity.”   That value is tested when one learns that diversity means hanging out with a bunch of people with whom one doesn’t agree, and whom one might not even like.

So what, then, does the concept of community really mean within the context of the art world?  The answers that spring to mind come in the form of analogies:  the art world as ecosystem, the art world as family, the art world as neighborhood.  Any of these metaphors can provide insight into the nature and structure of a subculture, but they can also be misleading, as well as potentially offensive and therefore divisive:  the vulture is an invaluable part of the ecosystems it inhabits, but few would want to be called the vultures of the art world.  (“He only collects work by dead artists.  Also, he’s bald, and when it’s hot out, he shits on his legs.”)

So it’s like Hannibal Lecter says in Silence of the Lambs:  “First principles.  Read Marcus Aurelius:  ‘Of each particular thing ask:  What is it in itself? What is its nature?’ What does he do, this man you seek?”  And as we try to piece together exactly what it is that we do, in this so-called art world of ours, to answer the question, I cringe, expecting any answer I give to be followed by Anthony Hopkins shouting, “No!  That is incidental!”

But nevertheless, the immediate answer, the “He kills women” answer that Lecter would have rejected as superficial, reveals part of the problem.   Mostly I paint, and draw, and I also teach, and write, and sometimes I curate, and perform, and basically do a whole bunch of different stuff.  All of this is part of what it means to be a member of the “Artist” subset of the art world.  There are also critics and curators and collectors and dealers, and while there is a lot of overlap, those who excel in one field tend to be specialists, if only in that the expenditure of time is a zero-sum game.

While each individual participant may bring something else to the equation, our individual efforts add up to a collaborative result, and that conglomerate of artwork and text and ephemera is the collective production of the art world.  And to what end?  I’d like to think, I think we’d all like to think, that our goal is to make the world a better place.  Like the fictional Weyland-Yutani Corporation from Aliens, perhaps our motto is, “Building Better Worlds.”  But isn’t that a bit vague?  After all, isn’t that how everybody, in any field, likes to see what they do?  Doctors save lives , lawyers fight for justice, invading armies are delivering freedom, and timber harvesting companies are creating jobs.  Any human activity can be rationalized in terms of making the world better in one way or another, and that includes a lot of things that are antithetical to the individual ethics to which many artists subscribe.  How can we be sure that we’re really making the world a better place, rather than merely producing luxury commodities ultimately no different from a BMW or a yacht?

One metric, and I’m not saying it’s a perfect one, might be that, rather than ends justifying the means we use to reach them, the means we use to reach our ends might give an indication of the worthiness of those ends.  In short:  If you have to do shitty things to reach your goal, maybe it’s a shitty goal.  Sometime around 1999 or 2000, Google informally adopted the corporate motto or slogan, “Don’t be evil,” and while opinions are varied on how well they are living up to this, the principle is a good enough starting point.  If it has a limitation it’s that “evil” as a word carries connotations of such unmistakable atrocity that it may be hard to see how it applies in morally ambiguous situations:  if we use the word “evil” to refer to something on the level of genocide, its hard to apply the same term to something like failing to credit the inspiration for an artwork.  In its place, we might simply say, “Don’t be a dick,” or in polite company, “Be cool.”

The question of the ethics and etiquette of the art world has been on my mind a lot lately, for a few reasons.  Last August I bought and reviewed “I like your work:  art and etiquette” by Paper Monument; actually my “review” consisted of answering the same questions that they asked of those they interviewed for the book.  More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the idea of ethics and etiquette in the art world, and about art communities, and ultimately about what we’re all doing and why, because I’ve got some smart, awesome friends who are putting in serious work to make Chicago’s art scene a better place.  Claire Molek, formerly of This Is Not The Studio, is behind those ads you’ve seen on the Brown Line for the “Brave New Art World.”  The BNAW manifesto describes it as “an arts unification movement dedicated to the service of consciousness,” dedicated to the belief that “there is infinite, inherent value in the practice, product and distribution of art as a vehicle for consciousness.” What makes BNAW different is that, unlike a lot of the other (and also very worthwhile) alternative art organizations, it doesn’t seek to colonize an up-and-coming neighborhood with for-now cheap rent and no history of art exhibitions (or collectors).

The Brave New Art World kicked off this past Thursday in River North, a neighborhood with a long history of art exhibitions, high rents, and a reputation (deserved or not) for conservatism and an aging base of collectors and patrons.  It’s the neighborhood the cool kids love to hate, characterizing it as a bastion of old money and boring art.  By launching in this context, BNAW eschews the romantic appeal of the anti-establishment revolutionary ideology, and seeks instead to work within existing structures to renew and reform, rather than to destroy and replace.  It’s a smart move for everybody involved, if this mutualism proves sustainable, because it brings a new generation of innovative and experimental artists into contact with long-established galleries and collectors.  The galleries need new artists to remain relevant in an evolving art market, collectors (we’d hope) are eager to see things they haven’t seen before, and artists benefit by showing their work in established spaces where people actually buy art.  Some River North galleries have a strong history of showing emerging artists, and several have dedicated space or programming to this end:  David Weinberg has dedicated a portion of his space to The Coat Check, Catherine Edelman has a long history of supporting emerging photographers through The Chicago Project, and Jennifer Norback recently added The Project Room to her gallery.  The Brave New Art World has the potential to build upon and expand these programs and others like them, to breath new life into this long-established gallery district.

The launch of a new endeavor raises again the question of ethics and ideology, of what means shall be used to achieve these ends.  Another of my smart and awesome friends, Jake Myers, recently wrote a sort of opinion piece (published on the Brave New Art World site) on some of the dirty aspects of the art world, and opportunities to better, from an ethical perspective.  Some of what he wrote is prone to misinterpretation, and one passage in particular bears closer examination:

Instead of backstabbing, manipulating or using people for short-term gain, some people like to maintain healthy, friendly, long-term working relationships. Reward people who support you and bring other thoughtful, like-minded people into your cohesive crew. This is how communities and art movements begin.

Preceded by the heading “Friends who curate friends, “ and followed by a reference to a certain collaborative team, it would be easy to read this paragraph as a guilty plea to a charge of cliquish nepotism, but I read it differently.

We once bought a pair of feeder mice for our beloved ball python, Snake, but she was about to shed so she wouldn’t eat.  We kept the mice for a couple days in a small cage, fed them granola and made sure they had water, so they would be comfortable while they awaited their fate.  One morning I awoke to find that one of the mice had killed the other and eaten its face (here we are back to Hannibal Lecter again).  Apparently, I’ve since learned, mice kept in too close proximity will suffer stress, which can result in them killing each other and eating each other’s faces.  If you compare the number of graduates from art schools and MFA programs (to say nothing of the self-taught), and compare that to the number of available galleries, collectors, teaching positions, and other opportunities, we shouldn’t be so surprised to see an unfortunate number of young and not-so-young, struggling and not-so-struggling artists kill each other and eat one another’s faces, metaphorically speaking.

What I think Jake, and Claire, and a lot of other smart, awesome people, many of whom I am privileged to call friends, are saying right now, although maybe not in these terms, is that we need to stop being a bunch of mice, which are bitchy, murderous, face-eating piss and shit factories.  (I know, I know, they’re cute.  But they’re also really gross, and eat each other’s faces.)  Instead, we need to be more like vampire bats.  Now, if you’re familiar with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and with the discussion of biological altruism, you may have an idea of where I’m going with this, and may in fact already be mouthing the words to you rebuttal.  But bear with me.  Dawkins gave a good summary of the Vampire Bat model of Reciprocal Altruism on a radio interview with Tom Morton:

Well, vampire bats have a kind of blood donor scheme; vampire bats, as you know, eat blood, and it happens to be a case of reciprocal altruism that’s been well worked out. These bats roost by day and then at night they go out and look for an animal to suck blood from, and then they come back and roost for the next day. Well if a bat is lucky, and manages to find an animal to suck blood from, it usually engorges itself and becomes very, very full, has much more blood than it actually needs. But that is quite a lot of luck that goes into that, and there are other nights when a bat will come home hungry, having not found any blood. And that can be fatal. These little animals need constant topping up in order not to die. So the situation is tailor-made for reciprocal altruism. When these bats come back into their cave after their night’s work, so to speak, some of them will be almost overflowing with blood, and others will be near death from starvation, and so there’s a lot to be gained from the ones who’ve got a lot of blood giving some to the ones who haven’t got much, and they do it by regurgitating it, by sicking it up, and the others eat it. And they can expect to get paid back by those very same individuals on another night, when the luck has been reversed. And that actually happens, that’s been demonstrated and it’s a very good example of reciprocal altruism in nature.

The game theorists point out that because these bats know they’re going to see each other again, it’s not true altruism, but rather an investment in a community.  This may be an argument for the evolution of true altruism, but it’s an argument for, rather than against, its use as a model for behavior within a community.  Be cool to your friends, because they might be cool to you in the future.  Don’t try go game it, to only hook up your friends whom you expect to be able to do you a favor in the future.  Just do everything you can, to help anybody you can, because in the long term, it is in your self-interest to do so, as long as we’re all doing it.  So, let’s all help each other out, whenever and however we can, and everybody profits.

In other words, you barf blood into my mouth, and I’ll barf blood into yours.  That’s community.

The Butterfly Wing And The MFA

April 1, 2013 · Print This Article

It’s the time of year when, as the frost giants finally abdicate their annual reign over Chicago, applicants the world over are getting their responses from Master of Fine Arts graduate programs.  Since mid-February they’ve been braving the slings and arrows of “We are sorry to inform you,” “It is with regret,” and “We wish you every success,” occasionally tempered with the cold comfort of some statistic or mention of the unexpected number of applicants and their impressive collective quality.  Some are still dangling, hanging to the desperate hope of a waiting list.  Many, though, have been receiving their notifications of acceptance, and with those come choices, sometimes difficult.  At least three people I know personally are in this situation this year, and it got me to reminiscing, second-guessing, and Monday-morning quarterbacking the choices I made in my education, and also thinking about the choices facing my friends.

Some applicants are accepted only into a single program, at which point the decision pretty much makes itself, especially if that program was one of the applicant’s top choices.  In other cases, if accepted by a “safety,” the choice is between accepting admission into a program that wasn’t one’s first, second, or even third choice, or licking one’s wounds, getting back to work, and applying again the next year, in hopes of getting into a more competitive program.

I actually found myself in this situation ten years ago, in 2003, just after graduating from my undergraduate program at Humboldt State University (my degree was conferred in December 2002).  I had applied, rather casually, to a few graduate schools, not really taking the process particularly seriously.  Mass Art, Pratt, RISD, and Tulane University all wisely concluded that I wasn’t quite ready, while SAIC informed me that yes, their application deadline was a firm one, and that I’d have to apply again next year.

After receiving all this bad news, I finally received an offer of admission from the University of New Orleans.  I had applied to UNO, along with Tulane, primarily out of an interest in its role in the Gothic subculture; even as late as 2003, I was thinking it’d be a good place to meet girls in black lipstick.  I had visited New Orleans on a road trip with a friend in summer 2001, and it seemed like an interesting place:  I found a porcelain doll’s arm and some fragments of what I’m pretty sure were human bone in the topsoil of a cemetery, and at the New Orleans Art Museum I saw Odd Nerdrum’s “Five Persons Around A Waterhole,” which let me tell you, when I was 21, seemed to me to be the paragon of contemporary art.  I know, I know.

So I had applied out of a sort of schoolboy’s crush on the city, and I’d been accepted.  By that time, though, the end of March, I’d had a sort of awakening, and had realized that despite having just received my degree, I still had a lot to learn about the actual techniques of painting.  My interest was in figurative representation, but I had been pushed away from it by my instructors and classmates, probably in large part because I wasn’t very good at it.  Instead, I had been making paintings that were a sort of workaround, essentially drawings on toned canvas, and these were pretty well received.  My classmates and faculty were supportive, I showed some in local coffee shops and restaurants, even sold a few (albeit at undergrad-in-a-small-town-coffee-shop prices).  But ultimately I knew the work was shit.  Or, at least, I thought I did; in hindsight, it might have actually been an interesting direction to go in, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.  At any rate, by the time the schools I’d heard were good had all rejected me, and UNO had accepted me, I had decided that the work I’d applied with was terrible, and concluded that I “wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member.”

The point of all this masturbatory, navel-gazing, canker sore-licking reminiscence is that whatever choice you make, you’ll have the rest of your life to second-guess it.  And, if you’re anything like me, you will.  If I’d accepted that offer of admission, I would have moved to New Orleans in summer of 2003, having just started a series of large self-portraits dressed up as other people (friends, famous artists, and artist stereotypes), which was kind of clever and funny in an undergrad sort of way.  A military saying is “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” and how this body of work would have gone over at UNO’s grad program will remain forever unknown.  Would I have been pushed in a more interesting direction with it?  Encouraged?  Sidetracked?  Challenged?  Coddled?  There’s no way to know, but thus relocated, my influences and peers all rearranged, it’s impossible to imagine that I would have gone on to make the same work as I ended up making after deciding to decline their offer and spend another year working on my portfolio to reapply.

As it turned out, I didn’t accept the offer, instead electing to spend another year working on what I thought of at the time as my first real body of work, that dozen or so self portraits.  I felt pretty good about them at the time, thought I had a decent shot at getting into a more competitive graduate program the following year.  I busted my ass, pulled some crazy all-nighters.  I was an animal.  I was a machine.  All summer, I worked.  Some friends and I, all in the same boat, spent Thanksgiving break in the painting studio; we knew how to shimmy across a roof and in through a window so we could paint even when campus was closed.  On Thanksgiving, three of us had a little potluck dinner, using the model stand as a table.  And then we got back to work.  I bought Rock Star (or was in Monster?) at Costco by the case.  December came, and with it, the deadlines.  I applied to nineteen schools.  I was rejected from every single one.

If I’d accepted that offer from UNO, I would have been finishing up my first year, instead of collecting a massive stack of rejection letters.  As it was, I started a new body of work, better than the last (I actually still like a few of those paintings), and tried again, and that third year was accepted into three of my top choices:  Mass Art, Cranbrook, and MICA.  They were all basically good programs, and I had to choose between them.  None had offered me a full fellowship, the proverbial “free ride” that MFA students sometimes get, which would have made the choice easier.  (Some programs are free for anyone who’s accepted, but none of these three were.)  I had a friend at Cranbrook, which was tempting, but ultimately I decided that the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA was the best fit for me, due to its director Grace Hartigan’s emphasis on figurative representation.  I started at MICA in August of 2005.  A month later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving me to wonder what would have happened to me if I’d gone to UNO.  Would I have found a teaching position in the area and been hit by the hurricane, or would I have found work elsewhere and dodged the bullet?  If I’d been affected, how? Would I have stubbornly refused to evacuate?  Might I even have been killed?  More likely, I would have survived, and it’s almost impossible to conceive that I wouldn’t have made work about it, but would it have been any good?

Like Maximus said in Gladiator:  “The choices we make in life echo in eternity.”  The problem is that we can’t always know how our choices will echo.  Whether or not the wingbeat of a butterfly can really effect weather systems a continent away, unexpected outcomes are certainly the rule rather than the exception.  So maybe, as you’re mulling over your options for MFA programs, you should picture Jeff Goldbloom playing with droplets of water on the back of your hand, explaining that there is no way you can know what consequences your choice will have.

I never could have known that Hurricane Katrina was headed for the city I would have moved to if I’d accepted UNO’s offer, nor could I have known that by staying in Humboldt for another two years, I would meet the woman who would become my wife.  There’s a certain hippie, New Age kind of mindset that may be more prevalent on the West Coast than in Chicago, that the universe has some sort of plan, that everything happens for a reason, and looking in hindsight at some of these consequences leads some to say, “Well, see?  There you go!  It all worked out.”  But of course, if it hadn’t , something else would have worked out.  If I’d never met my wife, I would probably have met somebody else.  (Tim Minchin’s got a great song about this.)  If I can draw any lesson from my experience, it’s that the most important outcomes of any decision tend to be the ones you can’t predict, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it anyway.

In the interests of concluding with something a little more actionable, I’ll share two pieces of advice I received while looking at graduate programs.  The first was “Follow the money,” that is, go to the school that will result in the least student loan debt.  This is great if you are offered a full scholarship to your top choice, or even one of your top choices.  But it’s difficult if you’re facing the choice between taking on a major debt load to attend a program that really feels right for you, versus getting a free ride at a school that feels slightly less right to you.  Add to this the fact that some programs (Northwestern, for example, and also UIUC I believe) are free for anyone accepted, and at others you can teach in exchange for a tuition waver and sometimes a stipend to live on.  It’s a tough choice, not one I ever had to face, but one that some of my friends are facing right now.  One mitigating factor in favor of getting to the school that’s best for you, debt be damned, is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.  This says that, in effect, if you work full time for a non-profit public service institution for ten years, while making your scheduled student loan payments on time, at the end of that period they’ll forgive the rest of your loan debt.  Considering that a.) a primary reason a lot of people pursue an MFA degree is in order to teach, and b.) that most colleges count, and that c.) you can make fairly low student loan payments on the income-based repayment plan, this means that you can go to the fancy MFA program, teach for ten years (if you can find the work, and that’s a big “if”), make modest loan payments of as little as eighty bucks a month, and then you’re free and clear.  This takes some of the hurt and fear out of going to a more costly school that might offer the kind of program you’re looking for.

The other piece of advice I got, though, was that the most important aspect of graduate program was the city you’d be living in while attending.  It makes some sense; certainly we see players in Chicago’s art scene who represent students and alumni from not just SAIC but also Columbia, UIUC, UIC, and more; attending graduate school in Chicago can be an entry point into Chicago’s art scene regardless of which school one attends.  On the other hand, Yale’s MFA program pretty obviously has influence outside New Haven, Connecticut.  Cranbrook is located in an almost monastic retreat in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, not particularly close to Detroit or anywhere else, and yet its graduates show up, doing well, all over.

I only ended up in Chicago out of sheer, dumb luck.  I stuck around Humboldt for another year because I wanted to go to a school that was ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, and then another because none of them would have me.  On a whim, I went to crash Freshman Orientation to pick up on freshman girls and scam free pizza.  Three years later, I married one of those girls, Stephanie Burke.  She’s quick to point out that she was a transfer student, not a freshman, and also there for the free pizza.  After she spent a year with me in Baltimore while I finished up at MICA, she applied to her own round of MFA programs.  It was her first year applying, and she got into three excellent programs:  Virginia Commonwealth, MICA, and SAIC.  SAIC had been her top choice, and Baltimore hadn’t really set any hooks into either of us compelling us to say, so we pulled up our stakes and headed for Chicago.  Five and a half years later, we’re rocking and rolling in an incredibly vibrant art scene, and while it’s hard for me to imagine doing so well anywhere else, the road that led here is one I couldn’t see at all from where it started.

The College Art Association Conference: Advice for Job Seekers

March 4, 2013 · Print This Article

The CAA conference is pretty much the industry standard place to go for those seeking teaching jobs with colleges, as well as administrative or other jobs with colleges or museums.  Unfortunately, it’s a big investment of time and, more importantly for those seeking rather than holding full-time teaching jobs, money.  There’s the cost of your CAA membership, the conference registration fee, airfare, hotel, and all of those fancy meals with friends and trips to the bar with more successful colleagues whom you passively aggressively resent, which you rationalize as “networking expenses.”  All that shit adds up, and frankly, that kind of travel and fun in the name of business are some of the perks that make the shallow horror of the art world bearable.  (“Art world” being here distinctly separate from “art,” the making of which is so a separate from the culture that surrounds it that the common language is misleading, in the same way that a “carpet” isn’t a pet that rides in the car with you.  That’s a little Ramona Quimbey reference for the Beverly Cleary fans out there.)

Fortunately for my Chicago-based readers, the College Art Association conference is coming to Chicago in February 2014.  It’s a lot easier when you don’t have to travel to get there, and a lot cheaper too.  In fact, if you can, you should probably see if any of your fellow alums or old friends from school are coming into town and want to sleep on your couch to save on the cost of a hotel.  This can be a great way to turn a competitive frenemy into a collaborator and confidant, as they seek to avoid cognitive dissonance, preserving their positive self-image by attempting to repay the favor by, for example, telling you about an opportunity.  (If you’re reading this, and we know each other, even rather distantly, like you saw me naked at a party one time, call or email or hit me up on Facebook, and you’re welcome to the couch or at least some floor space.  Even if I kind of hate you.)

There are some tricks to cut the cost and get smart about attending CAA, particularly if your primary motive for attending is as part of a job search.  Here’s the dirty little secret most people don’t know about the CAA conference before their first time attending:  You don’t need to register for the conference to attend the professional development stuff or go into the Interview Hall.  That just requires a current CAA membership, which you’ve probably already gotten, since the friend whose membership number you were using to look at the jobs on the website either got their job or gave up, and either way let their membership expire.

There are good reasons to register for the conference; the price of a badge is well worth it if you’re going to attend a bunch of the panel sessions.  These are a great way to keep current in your field, particularly if your field is something like “The Post-Gender Significance of Nipples on Ancient Sumerian Bronze Armor.”  It’s also probably a good idea to go if anyone you know is presenting.  Just try not to glare at them from the back row, resenting their success.  Plaster on a fake smile, fight your way to the front at the end of the presentation, and try to put a positive spin on whatever you’ve been up to for the last couple of years.  See if you can call your babysitting gig a performance piece.

I’m talking shit, but I actually really enjoy the panel sessions.  I’ve seen some great ones, on “The Opposite of Snake” (spoiler alert, it’s “bird”), and on Nazi curatorial practices at the Exhibition of Degenerate Art.  These sorts of art historical things are half professional research (I’m sure they’re good for my making, teaching, and writing, somehow, even if the connections are neither direct nor immediately clear) and half guilty pleasure.  For a contemporary artist, writer, or educator, a panel session on a given art historical topic may be neither more nor less relevant to their practice than watching a History Channel special on sea monsters.

The thing is, if you’re on the job hunt, there are far better uses of your time than showing up for the conference because a bunch of jobs you applied for said they’d be interviewing, then scowling your way through a bunch of panel sessions because nobody wanted to interview you.  You can prowl the Interview Hall; again, no conference registration required, you just need a current membership ID.  During the conference, there’s a career services subsection of the conference section of the website, where they tell you who’s interviewing (useless if you don’t have an interview lined up), but more importantly, who’s accepting drop-off packets.  In my experience, at a given conference, an average of 2-3 places have been hiring in my medium (studio art focusing on drawing, painting, or foundations), and accepting drop-off packets.

So rather than bringing 50 copies of your CV, bring 5 full packets, including a generic cover letter, CV, references, sample syllabi, a CD containing 20 images of your work and 20 images of student work (if need be, this can be student work from your graduate assistantship, if that’s all you’ve got), and image lists for those.  Copies of your transcripts (unofficial okay) and copies of your generic letters of recommendation aren’t usually necessary, but couldn’t hurt.  Obviously you’ll want to bring a USB drive with these documents on it, in both print-ready PDF format as well as editable docx and jpeg files.  That way if you discover a typo, you can rush to a computer to fix it (there are computers in the candidate center, or you can use your laptop).  You can also go see who’s accepting drop-off packets in your medium, then go bang out a custom cover letter real quick, print it off, sign it, and swap it out for the generic letter in your packet.

It’s also a good idea to bring your images in multiple formats:  at a mock interview I signed up for, the mock interviewer’s laptop was newly-issued to him, and he didn’t realize until our interview that it didn’t have a CD drive!  Fortunately, I had my images available on my website, as 8 ½” x 11” prints in an Itoya folder, and on my USB drive, so this wasn’t a major problem.  On a related note, one tip I received was that if you’re offered an interview, bring new copies of all the materials you submitted with you to the interview, because it’s entirely possible that the interviewers didn’t bring them, lost them, forgot them, or dropped them on the subway.  So bring new ones, just in case.  Some other helpful tips I received at the various professional development workshops I attended were:

1.  On your CV’s exhibition list, don’t separate solo shows from group shows until later in your career.  It’s confusing to the search committee to have to jump around.  Keep ‘em together, in reverse chronological order.

2.  Separate solo shows from group shows, to highlight them.  Your solo shows, particularly if they’re at a reputable gallery, are the heart of your exhibition record, so they should go at the top.

3.  Remove from your exhibition history any shows at coffee shops, bars, restaurants, banks, or other businesses.

4.  Omit nothing from your CV.  Include everything.  The definition of a CV is a complete record of ALL of your professional activity.

5.  Use printed CD labels.  Writing your information on the cd in marker looks unprofessional.

6.  Don’t use printed CD labels.  They can get stuck in the CD drive.  Write your information directly on the CD in marker.

Literally, I received all six of those tips at one time or another while at the conference this year.  Like Ned Flanders, I’ve tried to follow all of these commandments, “even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.”  The annual CAA conference takes place in February, more the middle of the “search season” than the end, so even if, like me, you don’t score any interviews at CAA, it’s not too late to put these tips into practice.  Full time teaching positions for the Fall often have deadlines as late as the preceding March or April, so if you’re looking now, there are still a few postings open for Fall 2013 positions.  If none of them pan out, well, I’ll see you there, February 12–15, 2014, somewhere in Chicago (probably the Hyatt Regency on Wacker, where they held it in 2010).  May the odds be ever in your favor.

Abstract Painting: The Turd That Won’t Flush?

February 4, 2013 · Print This Article

Today seems like a good day to talk about abstract painting. It’s an issue that bobs to the surface from time to time (“…like a turd that won’t flush,” to quote Deacon, Dennis Hopper’s character in Waterworld), a sort of ghost or dark secret that can’t stay hidden forever. Abstract painting is often seen that way today, as a turd, the digested remains of something that used to be relevant, new, and beautiful, but let’s not forget, when Hopper uttered those timeless words, he was referring to the hero of the picture. It’s not an easy issue, and like everybody else this time of year, I’m a bit under the weather, so rather than force you to suffer through my foggy-headed musings, I’m going to approach this topic by serving up some hot plates of copy-pasta, written my minds less addled than my own.

The issue of abstract painting surfaced for me recently at Co-Prosperity School, the artist-run discussion circle that I’ve been coordinating, along with Stephanie Burke, ever since the school’s founders, Aaron Delehanty and Ed Marszewski, each became busy with the joys of fatherhood. Each week, in addition to a visiting artist’s presentation, one of the participants presents his or her work for critique and discussion. A couple of weeks back, it was Chicago-based abstract painter Erin McGuire’s turn to present her work. Erin’s a vocal advocate of abstraint painting’s continued relevance today, and after her critique, I asked her to summarize her thoughts in a brief “manifesto.” Here’s what she sent me:

Why Abstract Art You Say!

1. Representational and abstract are both valid art subjects.

2. I like to draw, paint, combine forms, colors, and relationships without being constrained to one specific literal object.

3. Not being tied down to one specific object opens the piece up to everyone to understand, even if they haven’t learned art history.

4. You don’t have to “get” abstract to enjoy it.

5. It gives a lot of room for imagination.

6. Yes, there is shitty abstract art, just like there is shitty realistic art.

7. Silly, bizarre, casual, colorful, sexy, poetic abstract paintings exist that might make you cry, remind you of certain music, or a powerful little moment that no one else noticed.

8. Give abstract a chance; don’t be intimidated by its history.

9. Just (fucking) enjoy the painting, whether it’s abstract or realistic – there’s nothing wrong with just liking something without having to explain yourself.

10. There’s room in your mind for abstract if you allow it.

You can read more of Erin’s thoughts, and see some images of her work, here:

One of our fellow participants, Kelsey Greene, took the time to write a response to Erin’s presentation. In it she uses McGuire’s work as an entry point to begin discussing abstract painting more generally.

The next leap is abstraction. But how does a person tell a good abstract from a drunken scribble? It has to do with intent, and artistic intent is very difficult to parse out without education or training. Without knowledge of proportion, composition, color systems etc., all the deliberate choices of the artist appear random or accidental. Education is essential because people want to know that their opinion has a valid basis. They don’t want to be the person with the wool pulled over their eyes, imagining that a child’s drawing is the next great masterpiece. They want to know they are not being fooled into discussing something as higher than it is. The only way to give that assurance is to discuss process and technique (artist’s choices) with the viewer…

A painting is “finished” when there is nothing left to do. There should be nothing “wrong” (out of place, unbalanced) with the painting, but it should still be interesting enough to keep the viewer (in this case, the artist herself is the viewer) visually engaged. This is perhaps one of the most important distinctions between [representational] painting and abstract paintings. A [representational] painting is done when it looks like what it is, and in sufficient detail. An abstract painting is done when the artist decides that it looks like itself. A representational painting is done when it can’t look any more like the thing, or when changes start to lessen the likeness of the painting to its subject, or when additional work doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the perception of the subject, but an abstract work doesn’t have an objective guide. The point of completion is entirely the artist’s prerogative, and is a very deliberate choice, perhaps more so than in a process when the work is being compared to an outside standard.

The full entry is available on Kelsey’s art blog:

All of this manifesto-grade discussion may feel as dated as abstract painting itself, but as with Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, painting, and specifically abstract painting, may be rendered a littler clearer with some choice words, particularly if it is going to continue to endure alongside performance, digital art, and all the newfangled whatzits that have become part of the contemporary definition of art.

The best theory or manifesto of painting I’ve read, seen, or heard in a while has been painter Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s 95 Theses on Painting, shown as part of her exhibition at the MCA Chicago and now available online: The whole list is well worth reading, several times over, but this morning, grey and snowy outside, and stuffy and congested inside, this one feels just right:

73. The dream of abstract painting in the 20th century was a dream of whole people, whose senses weren’t fragmented, whose vision was complete, who made paintings with their hearts and minds and bodies in harmony.


Postscript: It was my great pleasure to perform my graduate work under the guidance of painter Grace Hartigan, who first became well known as a second generation abstract painter in New York, before returning to figurative painting later in life. It was through conversations with her that I learned to appreciate abstract painting, particularly the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner, as well as Grace herself. Although my own work is figurative, representational, and realist in a very traditional sense, I nevertheless drew much inspiration from these abstract painters, who incidentally happen to be women. So Georg Baselitz can suck it.