December 2, 2013 · Print This Article
I should say now that I have never been to Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan), and that my views of it have been shaped almost entirely by its mythical role in Clive Barker’s novel Galilee. A quick bit of slacker research, though, reveals the essential nature of that city to match Barker’s description pretty well. Situated on the Silk Road, Samarkand was a city of wonders, the ultimate crossroads, a center of commerce as well as of art and culture. People came from thousands of miles to experience the wonders of the city itself, but more so, to meet and trade with one another.
It sounds like the perfect sales pitch for globalization. What city wouldn’t want to model itself after old Samarkand? Open to all, a place where one can find anything, from anywhere, yet possessing its own unique character, its glories and wonders its own, Samarkand strikes in our imagination the perfect cross between melting pot and salad bowl.
Did Samarkand itself ever live up to this ideal? This is probably unknowable. The tendency to romanticize history is undeniable, and certainly our own cosmopolitan cities fall short of this utopia. Diversity is assimilated into a global monoculture which is then exported, and we end up feeding our client states the predigested remains of their own children. (Metaphorically speaking. For now.)
This cynical, CrimeThink version is also incomplete, of course. I’ve eaten Chinese food in Berlin and Ethiopian food in Baltimore. The first time I had a Big Mac was in Tokyo. I haven’t researched Taco Bell penetration in Mexico, because I’m afraid of what I’ll find, but I do remember walking past a bar in San Miguel de Allende and hearing a pretty badass cover of a Metallica song, the lyrics sung in Spanish. (I don’t remember what song but this was 1996, so most of the shitty ones hadn’t been released yet.). It is impossible not to think of William Gibson in these moments, and it has a surreal magic about it.
On the other hand, there is perhaps a danger in the ubiquity of the other. Is it a disincentive to travel, when so much of our destination has been brought to us on a plate? Does, in fact, this single-serving multiculturalism blend the rest of the world into the homogenously labeled “World Music” aisle of an obsolescent record store? (And reflect, if one goes into a music store in Beijing, does American pop go in the “World Music” aisle? Most likely not, and the reason is the problem. We have exoticized the others, even to themselves.)
Why travel, then, if anyone, anywhere, can buy a didgeridoo, a foo lion, and a Panang curry? “To see the place itself!” some argue, or “To meet the people!” And this is good, so long as it is remembered. So have fun in Miami, but remember, it’s just another art fair, unless you see the Everglades while you’re there.
Art fairs are a sort of microcosm of the Samarkand ideal in its imperfect manifestation, actually. I’ve written about them before as have many others, but never before in the shadow of the tents of the bazaars of Samarkand. Imagine! An art fair that stirred the senses with the sights and sounds and smells of the exotic! What Tony Fitzpatrick described in his play, of the grand market in Istanbul, a thousand guys chasing him down, shouting, “Pashminas!” And one guy shouting, “Tube socks!”
But we don’t get that, at least not at any art fair I’ve been to. (And to be fair, I need to make it to some international ones.) So far, what I’ve seen at American art fairs is pretty much the same roster of blue chip galleries selling to blue chip collectors, damn the locals, who cower in the shadows of the big boys. Exceptions, sure. I’ve seen great, unexpected work at art fairs. And some Chicago dealers have sold to out of town collectors at Art Chicago and at Expo. Local collectors do buy work (I have been on both ends of this transaction as an artist and as a small-time collector), but far too many of them are like the tourists visiting a Moroccan antiquities dealer I saw on Anthony Bourdain recently. “We call them penguins,” he said, waddling comically. “Their hands can’t reach their pockets.”
Homogeneity is the death of art. If a piece is expected, it’s pointless. Someone, I can’t now recall who, said, “If two artists are doing the same thing, one of them is unnecessary.” There is something to this. The old world of the Twentieth Century, the “Age of -isms,” decade-long proclamations of new world orders, each to be replaced by the next like the procession of coups in a string of Third World dictatorships, really ended with Pop Art. By the 1990s, Art History textbooks pointed to the future with a vague reference to pluralism and a prayer that wherever we were headed, Kenny Scharf wasn’t the one leading the way.
Pluralism, though, can become a homogeneity all its own. The art world embraces diversity not like Tamerlane (once the ruler of Samarkand) but like the Borg. “Your biological and technological uniqueness will be added to our own.” Less the great bazaar, and more a strip mall that had both a Taco Bell and a Panda Express. It is an arms race in which we each struggle to strip mine our culture and experience faster than our competition, and we find that global monoculture is a cloud with a lining not of silver but of Strontium 90.
So everybody knows the the fight is fixed, but what are you going too do about it? Revolution loses its luster once you’ve seen the sweatshops where they make the Guy Fawkes masks. And the obvious counterpoint to globalization, regionalism, has its own obvious failings. Living here in Flagstaff, Arizona, I see proof enough of that every day. Native crafts, particularly jewelry and ceramics, are strong here, but will always have to sit at the kids table of “fine craft,” that is when they aren’t called “outsider art.” Among the non-Natives, imitations of these styles run strong (as, it must be said, do very good and original creations in these traditional craft media). Photography? Sure, as long as it’s of a mountain. And God help you if you can’t sell a painting of a raven in this town.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hairy Who, the Monster Roster, and the Chicago Imagists. Chicago, I know, is sick to some extent of their legacy, if only because they dominated the local scene so heavily for so long. But these three related movements did something unique in their time, diverging both from the Modernist, Greenbergian Ab Ex that was the status quo at the beginning, as well as from the slick, clean Pop Art going on in New York. Chicago had, for a time, its own thing, as rare and exotic as a screeching monkey, an ivory carving, or a previously unheard of spice. This kind of regional movement with the teeth to hold its own on the global stage could emerge again, anywhere, in any city, any town, and if it did, might provide the kind of true diversity that could make possible a Silk Road of the art world, a bazaar of the unexpected, a new Samarkand.
Titling this post with a Velvet Underground quote, you might think I was going to talk about Lou Reed and his recent passing, but I’m not. That very worthy topic has been well covered by many others. Actually, it just seemed like a fitting quote, because I want to talk about costumes.
Of course Halloween has just come and gone, and that is the first thing most people think of when they hear the word “costume.” Costume, though, plays an important role in many aspects of life, including art. The word costume can be used to refer to any article of clothing or manner of dress. Usually, though, it implies something outside of the everyday. Depictions of historical costume is an important aspect of art history, whether it is the significance of the color of the Virgin Mary’s dress in an icon, the meaning of the steel gorget in a Rembrandt portrait (e.g. the one hanging in the Art Institute), or the absolutely pippin’ fur collar in Albrecht Durer’s later self portrait (as well as that prison striped number with the lace on sleeves in his earlier one).
In some contemporary art, though, costume takes center stage. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films feature ornate and elaborate costume and makeup effects throughout. In some cases these merely reinforce characters, such as Richard Serra in his workmanlike coveralls, or the opera singer in her baroque gown. In other cases, the costume creates the character, particularly when prosthetics and makeup effects are involved. Specific examples include the woman with the glass leg, who is then transformed into an anthropomorphic cheetah, and Barney as faun or satyr. Makeup and costume also hit at the heart of Barney’s subject matter with numerous characters featuring prosthetically applied, bizarre genitalia. Their rubbery flesh evokes the rubber crotch demanded by censors for Linnea Quigley in her role as the punker chick Trash, dancing nude on a grave in Return of the Living Dead.
Some artists create costumes which transcend the body inside them to become wearable sculptures. The most obvious example is of course Nick Cave, whose “soundsuits” are frequently exhibited as static display objects. It could be argued that they reach their full potential only when inhabited, for massive group performances in which their sound making properties are harnessed, but most of us encounter them hung on armatures, evoking Bruce Wayne’s armor collection from Tim Burton’s Batman. They remind me in particular of the one that Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) called “King of the Wicker People.”
We all make decisions about our appearance on a daily basis. Our motives may include vanity, status, the desire to attract sexual partners, or an appreciation of fashion as an aesthetic experience. I’m known to those who don’t know me personally as “the guy in the kilt,” and while it started as a personal decision to wear something I thought looked cool, it has certainly helped to make my appearance more memorable to others as well. Incidentally, since moving to Flagstaff, I’ve been rocking the kilt 24/7. I mean, I take it off when I sleep, but it has been over three months since I’ve put on a pair of pants.
Some others in Chicago’s art scene have distinctive aspects to their appearance. My wife Stephanie Burke’s asymmetrical hairstyle (which I do for her) is one example. Anna Trier always wears two different earrings. Jenny Kendler was just voted Chicago’s best-dressed artist, a title I’ve attributed to her for years. Wesley Kimler has his bright red suit, invariably paired with paint spattered shoes.
Many others dress more or less like everybody else. I was once at an opening at Pentagon, and was surrounded by a half dozen artist friends of mine, each and every one of whom was wearing a flannel and blue jeans. They prefer to reserve their creativity for their artwork, apparently. Even if one doesn’t put much thought into one’s appearance on a daily basis, Halloween is an opportunity to reflect on the role of costume as an alternative creative outlet, at least once a year.
Let’s talk about James Turrell. Yeah, its been a while, hasn’t it? He’s still out there, digging away at Roden Crater. Turrell also has a major retrospective up right now at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and I recently had the opportunity to see that show. It was the first time I’d really gotten to experience Turrell’s work in person, which is (more than with any other artist) the only way to see it. It is really unlike any other art viewing I’ve ever experienced.
James Turrell: A Retrospective, at LACMA, is divided into two parts. Part 1 is a retrospective of projections and hollows, some dating as far back as the 1960s. Afrum (White) from 1966, is a projection of white light into the corner of a room, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional cube suspended in the space of the room. We walked into the mostly dark room and moved around a bit, and yeah, it’s trippy, it looks like it’s 3d. We were about to move on to the next room when the surprisingly helpful and friendly security guard volunteered the optimal way to view the piece. Following his advice, I started over. Closing one eye, he’d told me, helps the illusion (by eliminating binocular vision, you get rid of some of the visual cues that tell you what’s closer and what’s farther away). I also found that removing my eyeglasses reduced the focus enough that things like wall texture disappear, which also helped. The basic principle at work here is that a projected beam of light hitting the corner of a room, at a diagonal, the beam spreads out more and more as it nears the corner, because its farther away. This mirrors the way objects appear smaller as they get farther away, creating the phenomenon we call two-point perspective. The neat thing is that the illusion not only remains, but in fact becomes more and more convincing, as one moves about the room. Slowly, keeping my one uncovered eye trained on the projection, I walked across the room, watching the apparent cube rotate in the darkened room. By the time I reached the wall, looking along its length at the projection, it appeared totally to be a hovering, glowing box, floating off the wall.
The rest of Part 1 continued generally in this vein, early pieces mostly consisting of either this kind of projection, or of backlit cutouts into the walls. Turrell also produced a series of holograms, on display here, and the exhibition might give some hope to those working to preserve SAIC’s holography program. But the real money shot is in Part 2. We actually viewed Part 2 first, having been advised by a friend who’d seen the show that as it got later in the day the lines would get longer. Entering Part 2, we walked past the “Perceptual Cell,” a sort of Bathysphere-like contraption deigned to immerse one viewer at a time in an environment of colored light. Unfortunately, the piece required separate tickets beyond the separate tickets required for the rest of Turrell’s show, and they were both expensive (eighty bucks, I think) and sold out long before we had planned our trip to LA. (Even the remainder of Turrell’s show required separate tickets which had sold out for the day by the time we arrived at 11:45, but we’d bought ours in advance.)
For the rest of us, the heart of Part 2 was a 2011 piece called Purusa. After standing in line in a darkened hallway, shephered by security, we entered a sort of foyer. A long bench ran along one wall, with cubbies beneath for shoe storage. We were asked to take off our shoes and don little white booties while we waited. Opposite the bench was a ziggurat dias of carpeted steps, leading up to an aperture in the far wall, through which we watched the preceding group of viewers experiencing the piece beyond. The light in that space gradually changed, and gave those in it a sort of halo of a second color. I have no idea how this works, but for example when the light in the space was blue, those inside it seemed to have green halos around them. And then it was our turn and we were called into the space.
Purusa consists of a large room with the cross section of a rounded rectangle, so no corners are visible. Opposite the entry door is an open wall, opening into a space with a bare wall a few feet back. The room itself is let by bars of colored LEDs around the door, while the far wall is lit separately. The room is kept fairly dim, the far wall more brightly lit. The result has been described as being that of a physical screen, in the shape of a rounded rectangle, hanging in the space of the room. I could see this, but (perhaps in part as a result of having had it thus described) I saw it less as an object and more as a portal (as it is), but opening not into a shallow face blocked by a wall, but rather opening into a vast, featureless expanse. Okay, frankly, it made me think of the door to a shuttle bay in the Rebel base on Hoth. It had that bright, blank, vast, strangely-colored, polar sort of feel. At least at first.
Spending some time in the space, these physical associations began to diminish. I removed my eyeglasses, mostly to get the frames out of my peripheral vision, and faced a wall so that no other viewers were in my field of vision. And I stared blankly into space, into color, into light. It occurred to me that looking at Turrell’s installation felt a lot like how I look at a Rothko painting. In Washington DC, I think it was the fall of 2005, I went to the National Gallery, and somewhere they had a room full of Rothkos. I was there by myself, no timeline to speak of, and that’s when I figured out how to look at a Rothko. I approach the Rothko from across the room, forming a quick visual impression but not really lingering until I am close enough that the margins of the painting become lost in my peripheral vision. Aah, there it is. Now you can look at it. Not that you can actually see it, not yet, but you can start to look. If you wear corrective lenses you might take them off; petty details like the scumbled paint and the weave of the canvas, which those nose-to-the-surface would-be viewers take to be so important, are in fact entirely incidental. Rothko paints with what, at least to me, looks like a disregard for the paint. He paints like he wishes it was light. And, after a few minutes of staring, that’s what it becomes, that’s what it is. It occurs to you, that you aren’t seeing paint, that you can never see paint, that you can never see anything at all, except light. Photons, particles or waves, hitting you in the retina, through whatever intermediary barriers of nerves, aqueous and vitreous humors, lenses, cornea, and intervening air, but ultimately it’s just light hitting your brain. That’s how you look at a Rothko. It’s drugs, man. It’s drugs.
So you step inside the Turrell and everything’s weird, you’re thinking about Hoth and looking down at your hands, that weird marbling, dark blood and pale fat showing through the translucent skin, and you’re thinking about drugs, and light, and the color slowly, gradually changes. You suspect gradients, and question relationships. Look behind you, back through the door by which you came. Come on, art school kids, you’ve done this before. You know the light out there was white, or white-ish, a warm white I’d call “Institutional Incandescent.” The whole time you sat out there, it never changed, so you know it isn’t changing now. And you remember simultaneous contrast, the phenomenon by which colors shift towards the complement of adjacent colors, in the same way you have more game if you have an ugly wingman. And you remember your 2D design class, your color theory. The room is blue right now (and now blue was your color) and so of course when you look back, the outside room is going to be orange. But it’s not. It’s green. It’s fucking green. Green is its color.
So Turrell’s inside your fucking head, and he’s got a ballpein hammer and a pair of tin snips, and he’s just sort of banging away and cutting shit, seeing what happens. And you don’t know whether he knows. Is he like some Dr. Mengele, Dr. Moreau, mad scientist type, experimenting on us, blindly? Or is he more like some demonic Clive Barker villain or H.P. Lovecraft bumbling hero, offering to show us heretofore unseen worlds, but perhaps at some terrible cost? Of course not. That’s fucking silly. He’s just an old man, an artist, probably a bit of a hippie, or maybe we’re just stereotyping based on the long, gray beard. Maybe he’s a wizard.
There is, undeniably, something about Turrell’s work that makes you feel like there’s an experiment going on, and you’re not sure if you’re a peer reviewer examining the results, or a subject providing data. In this there’s something a lot like Olafur Eliasson, who in his semi-recent (last few years, look it up) exhibition at the MCA Chicago provided a similar sort of experimental, experiential exhibition. One was a round walled enclosure of changing colored light, which one viewed in a way similar to the way you experience Purusa, albeit on a more modest scale. Another was a corridor filled with amber light, to which ones eyes become so adjusted that, upon leaving, the whole world is bright goddamned violet.
So anyway, Turrell’s got this place, Roden Crater, out near my new digs in Flagstaff, Arizona. And you can’t go there. Neither can I, for that matter. It’s pretty tightly guarded, and while you can find it on a map, generally, the exact location is a pretty closely guarded secret. I saw a lecture the Psychology department at Northern Arizona University (where I now teach) put on about Turrell’s work, and it was such a tease, the presenter sort of apologized for getting us all hard and sending us home with blueballs. So far, the only people who can go out there, unless you “know somebody,” are people who have supported the project through purchases of major works. As for the general public? It’s anyone’s guess. Wikipedia cites an article, from 2007, as saying Turrell intends to open the place for public viewing…in 2007.
Reading a bit of art theory or criticism, it won’t take you long to find an author talking about viewing something through the lens of third-wave feminism or seeing something in a Modernist frame. The lens and the frame are referenced metaphorically so often in today’s writing that their presence is nearly ubiquitous, almost as though a piece of art writing is incomplete without the presence of at least one such optical metaphor.
Certainly, the lens and the frame are useful as metaphors, but as used, they are also quite limited. As an experiment, the next time you see one used, replace “frame” or “lens” with “context,” adjust the necessary conjunctions, and see if any meaning is lost. If in a given piece of writing, “seen through a queer lens” could just as easily be “seen in a queer context,” then the optical device isn’t living up to its potential as metaphor.
The chief ways in which optical metaphors can be improved in our writing are through diversity and specificity. These go hand-in-hand: the more diverse our optical metaphors become, the more specific they are able to be. Lenses, for example, can be convex-convex (the usual “lenticular” shape, which incidentally I suspect of being where lentils got their name, though I’ve done no research on this), but they can also be flat or concave on one or both sides. So, some lenses are plano-convex, others are convex-concave. These lenses behave differently and have different applications, and so could be employed in a diverse range of metaphorical applications.
The difference between a lens of any type and a frame is that we are directly aware of the ways in which lenses alter the image we are seeing. A biconvex lens held at the right distance from the eye will magnify the image. (At this distance, the image is not inverted; held out further, the image inverts, but the reason why is beyond my ability to explain from memory, so go Google a diagram.) This is the classic magnifying glass. Other types of lenses, such as eyeglasses, subtly alter the focal distance of our eyes (or rather, adjust the image to account for a flawed focal distance). Multiple-lens apparatuses like binoculars and microscopes magnify and can be focused. The point is that we are immediately aware of this alteration of the image we are seeing, because it is inherent to the function of the lens-based device.
Not so the frame. The untrained viewer thinks of the fame as a neutral context, setting the image off from its environment, perhaps, but not altering the image itself. Training in design and composition conveys an understanding of concepts like simultaneous contrast, which holds that a black frame can make an image look lighter in the same way that we can appear taller by standing next to a shorter person. Even to a highly-trained viewer, however, the frame, assuming it is a subtle, appropriate frame, becomes invisible, and it exerts its effect on the image outside our conscious awareness.
Metaphorically, then, the frame can serve more as an unconscious bias, changing an image indirectly, by the context of its presence, and without the viewer’s conscious awareness. When you see something in a given frame, that frame alters what you are seeing, but does do without your knowledge or consent. It takes alertness and training to become aware of the influence of the frame, and even with this awareness, its influence may not be negated. To return to the initial example, seeing something in a Modernist frame may mean unconsciously minimizing the political, activist, Conceptual, gendered, or other meanings of a work, and perhaps emphasizing the rapturous and sublime, along with overt formal analysis which is the ostensible goal of this frame. If the intention is to directly change the meaning of the subject, then the frame may be the wrong metaphor; perhaps a lens is intended instead.
A lens serves more as a conscious agenda. The function of lenses and lens-based devices tends to be to magnify, to enhance, or to focus a blurry image. Alteration of our perception of the original is the intention of the device. When used as a metaphor, then, the lens is a much more aggressive, but also honest, recontextualization. The effect is more direct, less subtle, more provocative, less manipulative. When we view something through the lens of third-wave feminism, we aren’t subtly altering that thing by its context. Instead, we are asserting, perhaps radically, that the original was either too small or too distant to be perceived accurately, or else that it was out of focus: essentially, that our subject was fucked up, and that third-wave feminism provides the necessary means to fix it.
These differences between the simple lens and the frame are only the beginning of the linguistic possibilities of the optical metaphor. Someone better versed that I in the effects of different types of lenses could apply those effects metaphorically. Devices composed of multiple lenses, such as telescopes, microscopes, binoculars, spotting scopes, and riflescopes each have their own potential applications. Viewing the work of an international artist through the telescope of globalization may bring their work closer, make it more accessible, but at the cost of a reduced field of vision, that is, the obfuscation of the cultural context in which the work was created—not to mention that as a monocular device, the telescope eliminates the viewer’s depth perception, so that while it appears to bring the subject closer, it makes it impossible to tell exactly how far away that subject is.
These classic, purely optical devices aren’t the only possibility for optics-based metaphors. For example, consider the fact that a viewer’s experience of relational art may be clouded by their participation in it, yielding a subjective response that is no less valuable, but is uniquely personal, because of their involvement. We might say that a viewer-participant sees relational aesthetics “through the glare of the fingerprint-streaked touch screen of their participation.”
In reading art theory and criticism, and even more so in writing our own, let’s consider the diversity of optical devices and viewing contexts that exist in the world, and the specific meanings that can be conveyed by this diversity. Consider critiquing works of art through the pinhole camera of Minimalism, distorted by the funhouse mirror of racism, or fractured by the prism of semiotics. What could these mean? I don’t purport to have the answers, but by way of example, I once compared a thematic group exhibition to the compound eye of an insect, producing an image of its subject by combining a large number of images produced by slightly different points of view (the artists in the exhibition). I’d like to see more, and hopefully better, metaphors like this, in which writers consider all manner of viewing devices as potential linguistic devices, rather than immediately, lazily defaulting to the lens or the frame, out of habit rather than specificity.
The challenges of earning a living as a working artist are well-known, and artists find various ways to support themselves. Some work in entirely unrelated fields, or in peripherally related fields, photographing weddings or painting faux finishes on wealthy homes. Others try seeking employment at a museum or gallery. Paid curatorial or critical positions are difficult to come by, and artists seeking these positions find themselves competing against dedicated curators and writers. To find a stable, financially-sustainable career, in a field related to our training in art, many artists therefore turn to teaching.
Teaching isn’t right for everyone, as many recent MFA graduates in need of employment quickly learn. For some, teaching itself simply isn’t a good fit. For many more, however, the discouragement originates outside the classroom. Entry-level teaching positions typically involve a combination of part time positions including non-academic teaching at community art centers such as LillStreet, Hyde Park, Highland Park, and Evanston Art Centers, and adjunct teaching at a variety of colleges and universities.
Adjuncts have been performing more and more of the college-level teaching in recent years, and while this does mean there are a lot of opportunities for part-time teaching for recent MFA graduates, it also means that more and more instructors find themselves commuting from one institution to another, trying to piece together a living like a hippie kid sewing a pair of patchwork pants. For some, the challenges of adjunct teaching are too much to bear, and sometimes even those with a real inclination towards teaching find themselves seeking other employment. For others, though, adjunct teaching is simply a first step towards a full-time teaching position.
Every search committee has something it’s looking for. The secret to getting hired is to be that. The problem is that, probably due to the rigidly formal process that searches have become, search committees rarely publish or advertise these desires. They list required qualifications and desirable qualifications, but will only rarely state a preference in terms of, for example, whether a painting candidate should work abstractly or figuratively, even when this is in fact the primary criterion on which they will select candidates for the first round of interviews. Looking at the work of my various friends and colleagues who have full-time teaching positions, it is clear that each institution, conducting each search, has looked for something different, and that no one style or technique or type of subject matter is a guarantee of employment. The best you can do, if you want to get hired, is to be really, really good at whatever it is that you do.
Of course, even that isn’t a guarantee; some institutions prioritize teaching experience, an exhibition record, or other criteria, more than an aesthetic evaluation of the candidate’s work. In general, it has seemed to me that community colleges tend to look primarily at a candidate’s teaching experience first and foremost, almost to the exclusion of other criteria. By contrast, art schools such as SAIC tend to hire their full-time faculty almost exclusively on the basis of their exhibition records and other professional accomplishments, with the presumption apparently being that students at an art school will benefit the most from working with a successful artist, rather than an experienced teacher, and it seems that this success is more important than the particulars of an artist’s methods. Four-year colleges and universities seem to take a more balanced approach, taking both teaching experience and exhibition history into consideration, but more than other institutions tend to look at the applicant’s own studio work as a criterion for selection. I’m sure there are a plethora of exceptions to this, but this is the general impression I have gotten from my observations of searches and their conclusions.
One could draw a variety of conclusions from these observations: “Don’t bother applying at an art school if you haven’t had a museum show,” for example, or “Rack up a few years as an adjunct before applying at a community college.” The exceptions to my general observations are numerous enough, however, that this approach could cause one to miss an opportunity to apply for a position for which one might be hired. It could also cause one to neglect an important aspect of one’s own development. After submitting numerous applications for full-time teaching positions while in the second year of my MFA, and receiving nothing for it but a quiver full of rejection letters, I moved to Chicago, and worked for a year in a hardware store while pursuing both local and national teaching positions. By fall of 2008 I had secured part-time teaching positions at two community art centers, as well as an adjunct position at Wilbur Wright Community College, where I taught for the next five years. In September 2010 I also began teaching at Malcolm X Community College.
After I began teaching as an adjunct, I stopped applying for full-time teaching positions, focusing instead on other aspects of my professional development. I worked on developing and improving my syllabi and assignments, seeing what worked and what didn’t work in the classroom. I also stayed active in the studio, completing paintings and pursuing exhibition opportunities, as well as writing, curating exhibitions, and viewing as many exhibitions as I possibly could. All of these activities were of course ends unto themselves, but also served to add to my resume with the goal of resuming my full-time job search after I had gained some adjunct experience. After a date had been set for my exhibition Living Dead Girls at Linda Warren Projects, I decided that it was time to resume my job search.
Beginning in 2011, I began applying for every position for which I was even nominally qualified, including both positions that did not appear particularly desirable to me (but which I was willing to accept if that’s where I was wanted), as well as positions which appeared either improbably desirable or clearly beyond my experience level (director of MFA programs and similar advanced positions). The positions for which I was applying were located not just in the Chicago area but all across the country and in some cases internationally. I was willing to relocate anywhere, and accept any position, in order to secure a full-time teaching job.
Over the past three years, I have applied for 122 positions: I keep a list. I would search the listings on the College Art Association, Higher Ed Jobs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education websites, as well as Academic Keys and Chicago Artist’s Resource. This works out to just under one job application per week. It was a serious time commitment, quite stressful…and also depressing.
I keep a binder full of rejection letters (120 rejection letters from teaching jobs, 66 of them emails, dating back to 2007). I keep mine in a three-ring binder in page protectors, in chronological order, a habit I started when I first applied to graduate school in 2002. I kept all of my MFA program rejection letters, and there were quite a few; it took me three years to get in, and in the second of those years I applied to 19 programs. A lot of my friends and peers thought this cataloging was obsessive, even pathological, but I found it perversely helpful. If nothing else, it was proof that I was trying. A fellow job searcher I met at CAA this past year in New York had an alternative solution; she gave her rejection letters to her pet parrot, who enjoys tearing them into confetti.
Not every position sent me a rejection letter: 13 positions starting in Fall 2012, for example, never got back to me, leaving me to infer my rejection from their silence. A few of these 122 positions, however, did select me for an interview: 5 positions, to be precise, or 4% of those positions for which I applied. The first was Central Illinois College, in Peoria, IL. We did a telephone interview in summer of 2011, which apparently didn’t go very well, as there was no follow up. The next institution to contact me was in Fall 2012, when Windward Community College (in Hawaii) contacted me for a position starting in Spring 2013. This search was conducted entirely by telephone. The initial interview included a teaching demonstration, which I performed over the phone, using PDFs I had emailed as visual aids. This went well, and a follow-up telephone interview was scheduled, which I also felt went well. It must have been down to me and one or two other candidates, but ultimately, I was not selected for this position either. The University of Washington in Bothell expressed interest in my application and asked for a few follow-up documents, but this didn’t lead to an interview.
Then, this past spring (2013), two more institutions contacted me for phone interviews. The first was Suffolk County Community College, in Riverhead (Long Island), New York. We did a phone interview, which went well enough that I was invited to fly out to Riverhead for an on-campus interview and teaching demonstration. I felt this went exceptionally well; however, and somewhat unusually, there was to be a third round of interviews, again by telephone, to select a final candidate. I was not one of those chosen for this final round of phone interviews.
Lastly, I was contacted by Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff AZ. I was initially offered a telephone interview, which I felt went very well. The department chair then emailed me to schedule a telephone conversation in which he informed me that I had been chosen for an on-campus interview. I was flown out, given a tour of the campus, and gave a PowerPoint presentation on how I would teach a drawing class. The overall feeling was very positive, and as anyone who follows me on Facebook knows, I was offered the job, which I accepted. My contract begins August 19th. I will be returning to Chicago regularly, particularly because my wife, Stephanie Burke, will be remaining here in her position at Harold Washington College, but also for events such as Expo Chicago in September 2013, and the College Art Association conference in February 2014. I intend to maintain my connections with the Chicago art scene including exhibitions, writing, and curating. It won’t be easy, but as an integral part of moving my career forward, it is a challenge I am eager to face.
For those of my friends and readers who are going through this job search process themselves, I hope that my experiences can be of some help. I recommend my approach of applying for every position for which one is even nominally qualified, even though it may seem like a waste of time: every time you apply for a position is an opportunity to revamp your CV, rewrite your artist’s statement and teaching philosophy, etc. In between applications, stay active in your studio, keep working as an adjunct, and pursue exhibition opportunities as well as other professional experience: while any one position may value on of these categories over the others, the next position may be the opposite, so they’re all valuable. Share job opportunities with your friends, even if they’re positions you’re also applying for: the search is looking for something, and your friend may be it, even if you’re not, but there are enough people out there looking for jobs, you’re not going to get one just because your friends didn’t apply.
Speaking of numbers, a few of my rejection letters have given the actual number of applicants, which average around 190 applicants per position. From these applicant pools, the campus selects a number of finalists, usually around 10 to 15, for initial interviews, either by phone or at CAA. Based on these interviews the institution chooses between 2 to 5 finalists for on-campus interviews, which often involve a teaching demonstration. The exact procedures vary, but in general, you might derive from this that institutions conduct initial interviews, whether by phone or at CAA, with about 1 in 20 applicants. Conversely you might expect to do one phone interview per 20 applications submitted, and it might be that you will do four to six phone interviews before becoming a finalist with an on-campus interview.
If you are offered a phone interview, you will want to plan in advance your answers to some commonly asked questions. Ask your friends who have interviewed what questions they were asked, and anticipate your answers to the same. During or immediately after each phone interview, write down the questions you were asked, so you can rehearse your answers for future interviews. Here are some questions I have been asked in phone interviews:
Why do you want to teach at (this type of institution)?
Why do you want to teach at (this specific institution)?
What interests you about this department/college/school?
What can you contribute to this program?
What’s the hardest thing about teaching?
What is your biggest fault?
How do you address techniques versus ideas?
What creates a positive learning environment?
How do you assess the success or failure of your learning outcomes?
Is art objective, subjective, or both? How would you explain this to a student?
Where do you see this department going?
How could you expand this department, improving it to increase enrollment?
How would you deal with a student who wants to pursue art outside of school?
How do you deal with meeting the differing needs of students?
What do you do at each different level (beginning, intermediate, advanced)?
What are different techniques you can use?
What special topics could you address?
Do you discuss your own artwork with students? When, how, and why?
Discuss your art practice.
How do you keep your art practice fresh?
What are you going to do if your tenure duties interrupt your studio practice?
Are there any questions you were expecting, that we didn’t ask?
Do you have any questions for us?
Occasionally, something strange happens at the end of a phone interview. During one phone interview I did, the school’s telephone system had a very poor connection, and we kept getting cut off. It was of course frustrating, but I kept my cool and stayed friendly. At the end of the call, we said our thanks and goodbyes, and I waited for them to hang up (not wanting to hang up first, in case there was an “Oh, and one last thing…” But they didn’t hang up. They started talking about me.
I didn’t listen long, because I didn’t want to be discovered and have it reflect poorly on me, but of course I was tempted. The one thing I heard before hanging up was that they liked how, when the phones cut out, I stayed positive, “unlike the last guy.” So apparently the poor phone connections were a recurring problem, and while unintentional, served as a de facto part of the “test.” Remember, a big factor in the interview process is the committee asking themselves, “Do we want to work with this person?” I recently spoke with a friend who also had the experience of a phone interview committee not knowing he was still on the line when they started discussing him; he listened through their entire discussion. The insights gained from this fly-on-the-wall opportunity might be invaluable, but I will leave it to my readers’ discretion to decide whether it is ethical and worth the risk.
A safer way to get some feedback on your interview skills and application materials is to take advantage of the mock interviews and portfolio reviews at the College Art Association Conference. The next one is in Chicago, February 12-15, 2014, at the Hilton Chicago (a change from 2010, when it was held at the Hyatt Regency). To access mentoring and mock interview services at the CAA Conference, a current CAA membership is required, but conference registration is not. So, make sure your CAA membership is up-to-date, and bring your membership card, but you don’t need to register for the conference itself to use these services (or the candidate center and interview hall). The feedback they provide is a big help in the job search process. Good luck.