Some people still get pissed — really pissed — when they look at a Jackson Pollock painting. Every drizzled line squiggles out: “100 MILLION,” and the entire squirming canvas giggles at their expense. This isn’t necessarily an unreasonable point of view if you aren’t into art history or whatever. Certainly I have more trouble with Pollock-esque drippings by contemporary artists, but somebody else will encounter such a piece and identify with it. That person won’t care who the artist isn’t, and he or she might take it home to hang. This is surprising to me only because I’ve been through the academic mill and have been taught to appreciate art in a particular manner. Working artMRKT (“the Bay Area’s premier contemporary and modern art fair,”) gently reminded me that I haven’t strayed so far from the art institution as I like to believe.
I’ve been out of school for exactly a year now, and I’ve come to believe that a career in art is a game of last man standing. Those of us too stubborn to give up will see the crowds thin and finally wiggle our way through previously clogged doors. In the past weeks, I’ve found myself biding time but feeling discouraged. My work at the gallery has been dwindling and it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere. I spent most of this past week wandering, dawdling in the studio, pondering hard where next to dig. Lo and behold, Thursday afternoon the gallery director dropped a tantalizing e-mail in my inbox:
would you want to intern for an LA gallery during art market this week. The gallery owner is an art critic who just open a gallery in LA… His name is Mat Gleason… Could open door for writing in LA…
– let me know”
Odd jobs are my specialty. The truly random, one-off gigs provide cash — I helped assemble something like 600 bouquets on Valentines Day morning in return for a seventh of February’s rent. I also get good conversations out of them. My favorite way to get to know a person is by working alongside him. At this point, I am guarded about jobs introduced as “career-boosting” gigs. I try to view them no differently from the other kind; enjoy the experience for what it’s worth because there is never a guarantee it will lead to further opportunities. I’d never been to ArtPad, SF Fine Art Fair (SFFAF) or any such shindig, so the weekend “internship” was worth its free entry.
I didn’t see any Pollock-y pieces at San Francisco’s artMRKT but most of the art I peeped was what could be seen looking one direction and the other from where I stood tethered to a booth. I was there to fetch lunches on my bike and chat up collectors for Coagula Curatorial, Mat Gleason’s ambitious new gallery. It takes a viewer of great confidence — or bold ignorance — to walk over to Jerald Melberg Gallery and relay her honest experience of a Robert Motherwell. I would cough up a chunk of textbook if I were prompted to comment. By contrast, Coagula Curatorial is a small gallery with, as of yet, little clout. The art it represents doesn’t fit a trending market, nor has it been written up in the Sunday Times‘ Arts & Leisure. Ergo, I became the recipient ear for a weekend of nearly unfettered “amateur” art criticism. I solicited some opinions to ease my boredom. Others were handed to me with a “that one’s for free,” attitude that shook what meager artistic authority I walked in on. Allow me to put you in my shoes.
They come by in waves: men were in suits, or with Giants caps and sandals; women in their early 60s towing husbands — or trailing them — one yelling behind for the other to hurry; three-inch heels with a clutch were followed by dreadlocks and a backpack; rumpled corduroy, pant suit, kid in tutu. Some march through without breaking stride and avoid my welcoming gestures entirely. I have no way of knowing what percentage of the market they pass similarly, but there are 70 galleries here. I notice that the woman next door representing Muriel Guépin Gallery of Brooklyn doesn’t feel that salutations are appropriate. She sits demurely, unobtrusively, until collectors pause of their own will. It’s possible that I come off as a game-hawking carnie simply by beckoning at passers-by. “Step right up, don’t be shy! You in the red blouse, you look like a woman who can distinguish great works of art!”
I should mention that I am standing in front of Tim Youd’s “Hairy Vagina Series.” It’s kind of like it sounds: four foot by three foot paintings featuring what is unmistakably hair and vagina. They’re a bit Ralph Steadman in their distortion, but delicate. Next to them are selections from his “Great Authors” series: portraits of the literary likes of Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett painted on wooden boxes (is that an intentional pun?) above crude snippets selected from their novels — such short gleeful exclamations as “Cunts!” in child-like scrawl.
Coagula is also representing Leigh Salgado, who cuts paper into ambitiously feminine compositions of cakes, corsettes and day-of-the-week panties. Her pieces act as a lure. An artistically conservative mom steps unwittingly into Coagula’s lair, mesmerized by Leigh’s lacy red roses. As she turns towards me to purr, “This is so beeaauuuutiful,” she catches sight of Tim’s vaginas. Her eyes widen, slightly. She recovers by switching into complete denial mode, and we chat about Leigh’s work exclusively. The vagina paintings do not exist, and the roses are still beautiful, though I am no longer to be trusted. She’s good at this; she must have teenagers. For those market-goers who interact, there are many variations on the following responses: ostentatiously unimpressed by perceived shock tactics, bemused and pleased by the juxtaposition of the two artists’ work, shyly curious (sometimes followed by a hurried departure), and then those genuinely taken with all of it. I can’t predict any of them.
I misjudge a couple who are spending time with Tim’s work because they’re young, perhaps early 30s, so I engage them casually: “You get bonus points if you can identify the sources of the text.” They cut my cute by inquiring what Tim’s “deal” is. I’m sorry? “It’s unusual to see a male feminist.” “I don’t know that he is,” I say. I didn’t know that he wasn’t, either, but they seem pleased with the notion so I let them hang on to it. They aren’t buying work anyway; they know art movements. She is making swirling gestures at the hair, he is leaning in close, nose to pink but purely academic, and they glide away.
I am ready with theory now and itching to flex my B.F.A. Plus, Mat had to step out and someone needs to talk to the woman who’s been studying a Hairy Vagina piece for a few minutes now. She humors me as I begin to spin a fancy about literature, the male imagination, and sub-linguistic communication before she owns up to being an artist who also happens to enjoy painting vaginas. “I mean, let’s face it… he likes pussy.” I stutter, she smiles mischievously, and I let her walk away victorious.
Three little girls, aged between five and 10, come in tripping over themselves. Their parents go straight to a Leigh Salgado piece. I have been idly spinning Tim’s kinetic sculptures, the three wooden boxes. They have knobs attached where the authors’ noses would be. When you spin them, Phillip Roth’s declaration that, “They all have cunts! Right under their dresses! Cunts — for fucking!” becomes illegible. “Can I? Can I!?” The three girls divide one to a piece. Each takes a knob, and they go to work silently, contentedly. They aren’t registering any words or representational content around them — all the images are distorted and desaturated line drawings. These are things they can finally get their hands on, toys.
It seems that there are many angles from which an opinion may be informed, and I’ve begun to lose track of which are supposed to be valid. Some viewers want me to flesh out a story for them, others probably think my presence superfluous at best. Mat seems to know the moment to drop a single liner: “All of her work is hand-cut out of a single piece of paper,” apart from when it’s time to hover, guide, jest and pontificate. It’s all kind of a game.
That it’s a game is liberating as an artist and humbling as a degree holding, art-history-informed nincompoop. For Tim Youd, his work has probably been all of the things people see in it at various times. He might’ve even made his Great Authors pieces kinetic so that his daughters could play with them. I have a hunch also that Leigh’s work is intended to be slightly subversive in it’s extravagant femininity, and that she might be dismayed to see it regarded as simply beautiful. Which interpretation makes the textbook? A young Zynga employee (if I’m to believe his shirt) is ogling Tim’s Beckett piece. If he falls in love with it — because it is a courageous statement against censorship — and takes it home, this relationship with the piece will change over time. Months hence a friend will inquire whether that’s a portrait of Samuel Beckett and want to know why it says “CUNT.” “Oh yeah,” he’ll smile, “It’s just silly. It reminds me not to take myself too seriously. Check it out, you can spin it.”
No need for an expert. Good art is subjective.