The Credibility Problem



I hate this show. There, I've said it. I hate the show that is hanging in my own personal gallery at the moment. I want to burn every stupid ugly fatuous self-satisfied dorky piece of lame slacker art in it. I can't afford to do this, because said lame slacker art carries price tags that only an idiot would take seriously, and I have signed pieces of paper taking responsibility for it. Instead I will sit here, smile and endure for another week and a half, then I will take it carefully down, pack it responsibly, pay an art shipping company a ridiculous sum of money to take it back where it came from, and do a sage purification ritual in the gallery. Ugh.

How did I get myself into this position? I am now representing the kind of schlock that I officially declared war against, lo these many years since, and I have not changed my aesthetic agenda in the meantime. The truth is, my attempt at playing Art World politics came and bit me in the butt. I let somebody curate this show who was 1) an old friend of mine and 2) several rungs further up on the Art World hierarchy than I am.

This curator certainly didn't slack. She included two dozen artists, designed a web site with a page for every one, designed and printed postcards, wrote the press release, and hand-built a crate to get the art here on a plane. I was thrilled. I felt incredibly lucky to have such a person working so hard on the gallery's behalf. When she pulled the first painting out of the crate and said, "Look, isn't this BEAUTIFUL," I took it as an intellectual exercise in restraining judgement, while expanding my aesthetic horizons. You get good at that in art school.

Let me describe, at random, some of the "art" around me. Hanging on the wall to my right, there is an object that looks to be a box lid made out of burlap. The burlap is perfunctorily painted in what looks like cheap poster paint, with a splotch of burnt umber, some sienna, and some plain brown, in the shape of mountains, with blue sky above. Three sea shells are carefully glued to the bottom, and brown yarn is wound around pins at the corners, framing the piece, and dangling down at the corners. The whole thing is indistiguishable from an arts and crafts project perpetrated by a rather anal retentive and singularly unimaginative third grader. Price: $2300.00.

Or take the painting that was represented to me by the curator as being "like YOUR work"--a painting of a nineteenth-century marine battle scene, carefully traced from an actual copy of an actual bad painting, rendered bright with a hot pink background, lurid yellow and monkey-shit brown ships, and explosions rendered in Marx-a-Lot. The artist claims to be "claiming the painting with individual color choice and mark-making." Then there is the large pink painting with the stuffed arms hanging down, terminated by bloody detail brushes instead of hands; the orange-and-yellow pastel glorification of a piece of steel workout equipment; the "party zone" painting--oh, don't even ASK me to describe the "party zone" painting. You don't want to know.

I took this in stride. In courtesy to the curator, and as a junior member of the Art World, it was not my place to remonstrate or complain. My love Cornelius told me, "It's like she's an Easter Bunny, creating an Easter egg with other people's work in your gallery. It will be okay." I was prepared for some craziness and conflict. Over the years this artist/curator has manifested signs of nearly every diagnosable psychological disorder on the books, with creative mergers and variations. In fact, she herself announced the latest theory, after having rejected "borderline," "bipolar," "obsessive-compulsive", "schizo-affective" and various others over the years.

"I think I'm a narcissist," she said. "But my shrink says I'm a healthy narcissist."

"Oh, I don't think so," I said. This was early on in the visit.

The day she arrived, she wanted me to throw her a birthday party. Which I did. I picked her and her fiancé up at the airport at the crack of dawn, unloaded the art, took them to breakfast, took them to my apartment (where they took naps), went back to the gallery where I worked on a client (I earn my living as a massage therapist, since "artist and gallerist and occasional odd jobs" doesn't earn much), went home, whipped up an elegant dinner of tortellini with marinara sauce from scratch, made elegant conversation till the small hours, supplied guests with clean sheets and towels and bed and groceries, and gracefully collapsed. This was fine.

The next day she demanded the sewing machine, which belonged to a friend of mine. I went to the store for breakfast food to feed my guests, fed them, went to my friend's house for the machine, took everybody to the gallery where they hung artwork and I worked on clients, fetched tools and supplies...this is getting tedious. Suffice it to say that we were busy, and my personal space was swamped. This was fine. I had anticipated this. I coped.

In fact, nothing really bothered me, not being the on-call 24-hour chauffeur, not staying up all hours, not continuously mopping up the chaos and trying to glean myself an oasis of peace amidst all of it. My friend the artist/curator knew a handful of big-shot dealers and critics and collectors in New York, and she dragged them all through my gallery. This was great, wonderful, fabulous. It's really difficult to get big-shot dealers and critics and collectors into your gallery, if you are a junior member of the Art World in New York City.

The moment I hit the wall, however, was the moment when a big-shot dealer entered the gallery, my friend formally presented each and every piece of fatuous, juvenile art in the place, and let drop the enthusiastic recommendation, "You should give [lame slacker artist] a show! He has a video about DANCING POO!"

After this it is history. Toast. I cannot stand to look at this person, cannot endure her ceaseless babbling, am no longer present in my own body.

There is a thin line between kitsch and shit, which all serious artists must negotiate. Milan Kundera defines "kitsch" as "the pretense that shit does not exist," and I have never found a better definition. To be accused of producing kitsch is one of the worst insults that can be hurled at an aspiring Art World artist. To be accused of producing shit, well...evidently, that's okay.

At the back of the gallery is the "massage room." Oh, humble name. I designed it. I work there. I hang my paintings there, my beautiful, beautiful paintings, which are about light and love and grief, and the illusions of time, and the transcendence of spirit. I've given up security to make those paintings; I've given up a lot of things.

To the back of the gallery was where the big-shot dealers, critics, and collectors never went, because the artist/curator never let them. Literally. "Don't go back there, that's not part of the show, go this way," she literally said, steering them physically by the arm. She did the body-blocking thing, she did the talking-nonstop thing, she did the forget-to-introduce-the-owner thing. She talked and talked and talked, about herself. She stayed in the gallery all night before the opening, had a meeting with a dealer at 8 AM, and when I entered my healing space afterward, it had been turned, literally, into a junkroom. My junkroom, with my art on the walls.

"WHY in the WORLD did you hook up with this ASSHOLE?" said Cornelius, never one to mince words.

"I was twenty-four and stupid," I answered. And, twelve years later, I made the mistake of thinking that a certain amount of career success and years of therapy would mitigate a person's fundamental asshole-hood. BLAAAAAAT! Wrong.

During the opening, which I survived without having visible meltdowns or throttling anybody, I had a slow revelation. That jerks attract their own kind, and the dealers, critics, and collectors that take this person seriously are few, and screwed up themselves. That the fact that I'm a good listener who is actually interested in people besides myself is a great asset. That really, the Art World doesn't matter all that much.

Just after the show opened, and I had gently confronted the artist/curator with her tacky behavior, and she had utterly failed to comprehend me, I got an offer for "gallery representation." This gallery was "in the heart of Chelsea, the epicenter of the New York Art World." I could join their "family of artists." All it would cost me was $1750 in representation fees, payable in full by cash, check or charge, three months before my opening, date to be scheduled upon payment.

Of course, No Artist Should EVER Do This. Real galleries do not charge representation fees. If a gallery asks for money, they are a scam. But I checked them out anyway, just to be absolutely sure. They do exist, and they are located in Chelsea, in a cubicle at the end of the hall on the fourth floor of a building full of galleries. They are never mentioned in Art in America, the New York Times, the New Yorker, or Art Forum. I visited them; to be precise, I went to the door and peered round it. Ugh. It was a veritable Sea Of Kitsch. We are talking reproductions of seventeenth-century petit-point furniture. We are talking urns full of dried foliage. We are talking wall relief sculptures of varnished driftwood. We are talking doctor's office paintings. I fled. I wrote them a politely caustic letter declining their offer, and requesting the return of my portfolio.

When my portfolio arrived, to me it looked sadly diminished, tainted by its encounter with the kitsch-mongers. I looked for telltale clues that might say "this one is a likely target." Then I put it in a drawer, to be taken out upon a less vulnerable day.

"Be patient," says Cornelius. "Don't let the bad art bite." It's a thin line, but somebody's got to walk it.