I Say It All Can Happen
Have you ever tried to restart your creative practice after a global event shut it down for the better part of year without any sense of when things can resume? No? Same here.
What’s to be done at a moment like this? It’s been suggested I meditate. Or go for a walk. I’ve tried both. In lieu of either, I dive into my sketchbooks and into history trying to find a trail marker from where I left off and maybe some answers to how I got here.
In the last year, I have found my creative practice completely upended. Everything I was working on was put on hold with the rest of the world. And due to the nature of the subject matter, I’m not sure when I’ll get back to it. I have tried to keep up with or maintain my practice using social media and the opportunities digital platforms afford. But I’m still at a loss. I feel more stifled within the boundaries of hashtags, visibility algorithms, and the perpetual motion machine of constant scrolling that wants you to make a point quickly so your audience can consume as many accounts in a sitting as possible. It feels like a constant competition and not a community. I’ve never had much of a stomach for competition. I really just don’t see the point or need the added stress.
So here I have the unique opportunity to reexamine my practice. A chance to sink into history, my ideas, and maybe reinvent myself. And honestly, if I can’t, maybe this is the end of the line. A valiant effort before exiting stage right. You know, no pressure. Ha. Pressure. Touch. Connection. That’s what my work used to be about. Nowadays I find myself caught up trying to pinpoint myself in space and time both physical and historical. Oh I’m sorry if I ramble. It’s how my brain works.
A big part of the problem is lately I don’t feel compelled to do anything. I have never before felt so compelled to just live my life and not bother with other people. My desire for quiet is overwhelming. If I wake up and the world around me is silent, I languish in bed for hours until the noise returns. Those periods of simply doing nothing are the best parts of my day.
With the rise of social media mixing with the very American idea that ‘everyone is somebody’ and will be ‘famous for 15 minutes’, I can’t stand the pushing and shoving for the spotlight. We’re all on stage looking for center, pushing each other out of the way. But no one has bothered to notice that the audience doesn’t really care.
Still, as an artist who uses social media for building an audience, I need these platforms. And in many ways, I need to stay on brand.
So much of my professional life has been dominated by the idea of the ‘brand’. In art school, we were encouraged to develop our identity, our signature style, that would set us apart from everyone else. It could be through visual expression, medium, or unifying thematic exploration. We were being prepared for the market, taught our own versions of the elevator pitch, and often heavily critiqued when the work we presented seemed to go off script or off brand for what we had previously presented. Brand if not totally static, is evolution at a snail’s pace.
By the time I was leaving college, owning your brand was the mantra. I instantly rushed to sign up for every social media app to own my handle, own every major website extension with my name. And I have done this for every iteration that my ‘brand’ has had. I have maintained every brand I have owned, keeping them active as a way to transition my audience.
My anxiety of staying ‘on brand’ cannot be overstated. While trying to figure out who I was as an artist post college I remained tethered to the words I had chosen to describe myself. If I found myself wandering into work that moved away from these words, I would abandon the project and try to recenter around my words. There is a fruitfulness in this kind of boundary: it challenges you as an artist to think how your chosen mediums could express the idea. Practically, it saves money on supplies and potentially storage. The costs of being an artist are high while the returns are few. Maybe this is why there are so many ‘starving artists’.
In the last decade, we have seen the ascension of the Influencers as true brand royalty. Through ubiquity of social media as a primary means of communication and what can only be fathomed as an algorithmic approach to aesthetics and their ability to engage a purchasing population, the Brand has become paramount. In 1976, Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ as the new replicator in his book: the Selfish Gene. Almost 40 years later the term is a foundational cultural element and a formidable form of communication. I would argue that Brand and specifically, ‘Influencer Brand’ is the latest form of cultural replicator. Memes have a certain flexibility in content, message, and aesthetic, while Brand has clearly defined acceptable looks by industry and had two primary intentions: selling products and self preservation. The brand exists to sustain itself, nothing more.
I need to stop trying to be a brand and just be honest.
I think adolescence is when I started recognizing the difference between myself and others, that I was wholly my own and they were external. I was an island unto myself. A body.
I almost wish that I didn’t feel it. Research into the fields of cognition, self awareness, and science just present new questions and conditions. We are a series of biological chemical reactions trying to reconcile who we are and at our core, we are….no body and infinitesimal matter.
I think our obsession with brand has caused many people to get caught up in their own mythologies playing characters in their own movies mimicking scenes they have seen before. There is an invisible camera always following us. And we are posing for it. Do many people act the way they do from genuine impulse or skilled recreation of the tv and film characters they grew up with?
I sometimes wonder what Warhol and the great pop artists of the 50s and 60s would think about today. The pandemic, the economic disparity, the race issues, the lack of arts funding, and the rampant consumerism. I wonder about their reactions to social media and the algorithms that run them. What would they have done with the brand?
Look, I don’t see social media as inherently evil nor amoral. At best, it could be a real time reflection of the people who use it and how they interact with each other. It could give insights into the values of people, from food, to entertainment, to politics. In some cases, it was built to share music, art, and information across continents. But capitalism always sneaks in. In the end, users are seen as commodities to be bought and sold. Algorithms start affecting what we see and how we see it. It’s a social space mediated by advertisers for their benefit.
Maybe that is America’s biggest gift to the world: our economic system that emphasizes brand loyalty, that treats corporations as people, that turns its own people into the very product it sells. We created our own mythology of renegades, pioneers, cowboys, and captains of industry. Our artists and poets created epic paintings and ballads. And our timing was perfect. From defeating the largest western imperial power of the post medieval and pre-industrial age, to our invention of Hollywood, we were poised to tell our story how we saw it and reach more people in less time than ever conceived in human history. Pair with that, the rise of industrial age and radio, we had media consumers who had the time to engage with these stories and we had the means to repeat them ad nauseam. We are likely not the greatest nation to have ever existed, but we are the creators of the ultimate ear-worms.
I have always had an unease about American exceptionalism, ‘picking oneself up by their bootstraps’, and the theory of a meritocracy. I will acknowledge that I arrived at these conclusions from a place of ego, not altruism. In art terms, it's a bit of the ‘I could do that’ when seeing which artists were being hailed for groundbreaking fresh ideas and labeled ‘voice of a generation’. There was a constant underpinning of those people having ‘it’ while ‘it’ remained undefined and elusive. For lack of a better description: there was something special about them and I certainly didn’t have it, couldn’t understand it, and would never be part of it.
These artists were hoisted on high, seemingly ordained by god, and almost always came with a rags to riches or a chance discovery in a cafe/shopping mall/restaurant story. They are always the embodiment of the American dream and are used to further American exceptionalism. Their ideas become the bar, the bellwether, and the zeitgeist. To challenge or question these ideas is to be accused of being a nobody or a wannabe with sour grapes.
All of this has me thinking about the action painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement. How much our world both mimics and differs from that moment in the post-war period. Where suddenly a world ravaged by bombings and invasions recentered its art world in New York.
I have to say, I have historically hated the AbEx painters. Not for their work but for the stories I was told about their actions and their egos, the misogyny, the hard drinking, the genius as forgiveness for being an asshole mythology. But I’ve had to adjust my opinions the deeper I've gone into the work and the ideas behind it. They did not build their own mythologies. The cannon that uplifted these artists in the textbooks while excluding others fueled the mythology and more importantly the secondary market for these works.
So here I am again in my studio. Without a performance practice. Without direction. Anything is possible while nothing feels feasible or right. I could go in any and all directions and still feeling lost, dejected, and honestly kind of bitter about feeling as if I need to perform for a camera. So I start to stitch. Returning to a familiar medium that feels safe, inclusive, that comes with a community that is always excited to share ideas and techniques rather than being in bitter competition for likes and retweets.
And my mind starts wandering, musing about merging AbEx action painting with embroidery. How the needle and thread can mimic the passion and randomness of deKooning or Kline. How the final product can be the evidence of the performance taking place in my studio away from the world where no one is watching.
Ok so this is the part that always follows the high of inspiration: The sheer disgust with what I’m working on or the complete lack of faith in my own ideas and abilities.
Sometimes I wish I wasn't a person who’s sense of wellbeing lives within my skin. I can feel depression throughout my body. In my muscles, in my tendons, in the compression from invisible forces in my organs. I don’t have emotions. I have electric shocks down my spine and weights on my chest. I want to sing but the compressing on my lungs makes me incapable of words. My body wants to dance but I cannot move.
I don’t want you to look at my body. I’m not really all that interested in your attention or your gaze. Even if I am vain, I am incredibly shy. My ego, while liking a good massage, is too proud to be known for anything I think might be as superficial as base vanity.
But I will use my body to get your attention. I will put myself in front of the camera in compromising ways because it’s the only way to talk to you. It’s not for the spectacle of myself. I understand the boundaries of my body and where it fits in the marketing of current times. I use my body because it’s mine.
There is a movement in contemporary art that desires to lay trauma bare on the canvas and in the gallery, both personal and societal. The more graphic the better. In the same breath, much of contemporary art and it’s presenters expect you to approach the work as a whole person that you may experience how the artist was feeling rather than passing the imagery through your own perspective as if your own history does not matter. Your inability to ‘get it’ or ‘appreciate’ it is your own problem rather than a failure to communicate on the part of the creator or presenter. However, the onus is on you as the audience to fix things in the real world. There seems to be a refusal, a cognitive dissonance, that art has a role to play beyond that of a mirror or engage in more than ground level community engagement.
The arts, specifically the fine arts, has done a brilliant job of playing the market from two sides: one the one you have the art as commodity market were collectors and museums bolster ideas and movements while financially benefiting from current inequity or on the other: we were sold the idea that everyone is an artist, that art is a form of personal expression that cannot be challenged without running the risk of negating the person as a whole. We want it both ways. We want to feel good without disrupting the market lest we become the next hot commodity on the secondary auction circuit.
This is the problem with social critique: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But what if the whole apparatus is rusting? What determines how squeaky is squeaky enough in a machine that needs many cogs attended to at the same time? When does one step away from patching holes and see if the underlying structure needs to be attended to as well? It’s always following the noise of the crowd but rarely illuminating an issue let alone bringing about effective change. It exists within the same structures it purports to wage against. Its innovation in a safety next of predicted outcomes already tested by market research and trends on social media.
Sometimes it feels as if my joy requires a performance, it’s not enough that I experience it, but I need you to see it, to acknowledge it. Leave digital evidence of my own happiness. There is already a lot of emotional performance in the age of social media. With the advent of shelter in place orders and physical distancing, it seems like our need for social contact has been superseded by our need to perform our emotions or at least adjust how we connect with others.
I really just want to express joy and create work that can bring joy to the forefront. There has to be a way to use the combination of fine art and social media to share more than trauma and selfies. I know there is a way to expand a brand while not being confined by it. The brand, the aesthetic is a path, not a destination.
In college, the criticism was always that my work was too disparate. There were too many ideas in too many directions (i thought this was what college was for exploring) so over the years I have tried to hone down to one medium, one thought process, a color pallet, a defined style pattern. It hasn’t worked. After a few projects, I move on. The boundaries I've set become too restrictive and need to be challenged. Sometimes this means abandoning styles entirely. And then the through line goes missing, and the same criticisms from college emerge from the art community.
There have been two constants in my work: it’s effectiveness on general audiences, how they ‘get it’, engage with it, are affected by it, and my distilled thesis statement from college.
It was no longer only your immediate social circle but every ‘friend’ on facebook and an infinite amount of strangers on instagram.
My work is about the relationship of an individual to a greater society and the reciprocity of that relationship.
My work is about the relationship of an individual to a greater society and the reciprocity of that relationship.
That’s it. That’s everything in one sentence. My work is always about the personal in relation to the bigger picture and the inferences, expectations, and consequences of those ties. No piece exists in a vacuum. How the works relate to themselves physically to the imagery and contemporary culture are all interconnected. They are rarely broad revolutionary themes, but rather explore fundamental ideas of what it is to be a person in society and how the structures of economics, language, and our own neurotransmitters influence our daily existence. My work has always intended to be immersive, even if you don’t know it’s mine.
I don’t need the world to see me. It’s the ideas that deserve attention.
I think it’s going to be the merging of physical contact, performance, color, and stitching. The final piece is the evidence of the performance not the object.
This...This is the approach I’ve been looking for. These movements should be fluid, using pinks and golds and bright colors - maybe more painting/watercolor and stitching. This tangible work feels very natural coming from my history and perspective while being inscribed with a medium that for centuries was considered ‘women's work’. I like it. It feels natural. I feel productive. The touch based video and writing work feels more objective, clinical, bold, brash, unapologetic. It doesn’t care if you like what you see. It’s not there to comfort you. That’s what the color based embroidery is going to be for. It’s the softer side, the embrace of a kind of performance that doesn’t want an audience. It just wants to be.
I guess now I have to get to work. I can’t wait to see what’s next.