Art Is For The Next Time
Terry R. Myers
Terry R. Myers
Last week images and videos of the art work were uploaded to folders in Google Drive and sent to my email inbox. Twenty-five years ago they were delivered to my apartment in Los Feliz in what I remember to be at least twenty carousel slide trays. There has been a lot of art and art teaching for me in time in-between, during which much has changed and much has stayed the same, all for the better.
I have more to say to the 2020 Fine Arts Seniors at Otis than will fit here, but I’d rather save some of it for when I will have an opportunity to be standing in a gallery or museum or a space as yet undefined (not to mention a collector’s home) and say to any of them “I remember your work from 2020.” Judging from the images I have every confidence I will be doing just that. 2020 has become a year that will stay with us for the rest of our lives, and to the students I want to be clear that I understand completely the frustration and disappointment of not being able to do what they have been planning to do this entire final year of their BFA. The rest of this is addressed to them.
Some of you may know I was once a member of the full-time faculty at Otis. In 1994 I moved to Los Angeles from New York to teach there, and I was the first Critic-in-Residence in the Undergraduate and Graduate Fine Arts Departments. I taught Senior Studio more than once, and I especially enjoyed the Senior Show exhibition preparations because—finally!—the work was going to be given the chance to have a life of its own, to enter what I would sometimes obnoxiously call “my world,” the world of exhibitions spaces where people like me who have had the good fortune to engage with art and artists for a living would be able to engage with the students’ work totally on its own terms. No more in-class critiques, no more artist statements (both of which are valuable, don’t get me wrong), but just the work there having its own life. Nothing can replace this, and, despite everything from websites to Instagram, nothing will.
Returning to where I started, I wasn’t surprised to find in those Google folders a diverse range of art works of all types. In terms of what you have just experienced during your undergraduate studies this is a sign that the important stuff went right while you were in school, freedom being at the top of the list. The work, on its own, tells me you made your work, not some else’s (or for someone else) and that is as it must be. This doesn’t mean that I find the work insular or disconnected from the concerns that surely (and clearly) surround and contextualize it. I assume many of you have (or soon will) apply to graduate schools, and to my eyes (accustomed and then some to the Slideroom application process) much of it looks ready for the next step. If you weren’t planning graduate school, or planning to wait, those are completely appropriate decisions to make as well. One thing that I think will come from our current situation due to COVID-19 is that we will get back to doing things on our time. Over the past couple of decades the structure we call the art world has been accelerating to the point of absurdity, and if the past is any indicator of the future, this sudden de-acceleration has a strong chance to be good for the emergence of the next works of art we will want to see.
One of the key reasons I left New York in 1994 was the downturn that seriously impacted contemporary art, especially in New York. Over the past few years I have had the experience of telling students just how much many of us in New York were concerned back then that the entire art world was going to disappear. Whether or not that was naive is, in my opinion at least, less important than the fact that new art was given room to develop and capture our attention. I really believe that this is where we are once again, only this time if feels even more meaningful, and I don’t think that is because I’m now so much older.
Back to my beginning one more time: the slide trays I mentioned arrived at my apartment in 1996, as I was asked to jury the undergraduate exhibition at UCLA. I remember rigging my living room with temporary black-out curtains, checking out a slide projector from Otis, and getting to work. I have not forgotten many of the young artists whose work I saw for the first time in those illuminated slides projected on my wall, none more that Kim Fisher, who would go on to receive her MFA from Otis in 1998 and remain one of my most impressive former students. Now, once again, I have found myself looking at illuminated images of your work on my computer screen, “downloading” it into the image bank in my brain, and making sure I keep a list of all of your names.
A couple years after jurying that exhibition, I was given the opportunity to write the first museum catalogue essay (for the Whitechapel Gallery in London) about the paintings of Peter Doig. That text flashed in my memory last week because of a particular phrase I used to describe his work: “A ‘right now’ situation to support a perpetual ‘what’s next?’” Art is always for “what’s next?”, the next viewing, the next context, the next generation to look at it, and especially the generation far in the future that wasn’t given the chance to know about it and will rediscover it for themselves. Art lives in and for it’s re-seeing, and we all have to do what we can to enable that next time to keep happening over and over again.
Terry R. Myers is a writer and independent curator based in Los Angeles, and an Editor-at-Large of The Brooklyn Rail. From 1990 to 2019 he held faculty positions at Pratt Institute, Otis College of Art and Design, Art Center College of Design, California College of the Arts, the Royal College of Art in London, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was Professor and Chair of Painting and Drawing from 2013-2018. He is the author of Mary Heilmann: Save the Last Dance for Me (2007), and the editor of Painting: Documents of Contemporary Art (2011). His most recent curatorial project was the survey exhibition Candida Alvarez: Here at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2017.
Artists by the Hour
Christina Catherine Martinez
April 22, 2020: Day Forty-Twoish of Quarantine
Christina Catherine Martinez
April 22, 2020: Day Forty-Twoish of Quarantine
I had a professor in an undergraduate literature seminar who tried to loosen us up about an impending assignment by proclaiming, “Culture is polyvalent! There is no A, B, or C you have to arrive at.”
I raised my hand in protest, and when he nodded in my direction I replied, “Yes, but there is an A, B, or C that we have to EARN.” I was being a smart ass, of course (in the years before a performer discovers herself she will cultivate impromptu, if improper, venues on the fly).
In the years since that incident, I’ve discovered that both of us were right and wrong. The world is quite ready to hand out widgets of distinction. They will come in many guises—retweets, performance reviews, “exposure,” being recognized for your work by a stranger in public, home ownership, “it-shoe” ownership, institutional funding, spotting lunch . . . that ever-elusive wave of calm amid the din of uncertainty.
The great thing is culture is polyvalent, and you get to decide what grades you will accept, what gold stars you will pin to your lapel, and how much they mean to you. But it doesn’t help when the systems of achievement we’ve come to rely on are suddenly blown to shit, and we are left scurrying to pick up the pieces via endless Zoom meetings. The red carpet of secular triumph rolls forth, only to be pulled out from under you precisely the moment you step foot on it. I wish I could say this is the last time it will happen, but it is most certainly not.
When I was not much older than most of you, I got diagnosed with colon cancer right after getting accepted into my dream school. Recently, I was named a Time Out Los Angeles “Comic to Watch,” just in time for live comedy to be effectively banned. A reprint of my book has been canceled. Meetings indefinitely postponed. Email introductions left dangling in the cold. So many markers of success meant to signal the elevation of an artist from “emerging” to “mid-career” are being swept away, and I have to ask myself if the labeling of these milestones ever really served artists in the first place.
I have to ask myself, as you surely do, what I want my life to look like in more immediate and concrete ways. At the moment, my daily inbox is awash in press releases from blue-chip galleries that are “thrilled to announce” a new online exhibition of whatever their star artist has been fiddling with in their studio and couldn’t show because of the pandemic. Cultural outlets are drowning us in hagiographic write-ups of the “amazing” content the comfortably famous are churning out at home. Do not forget that just because certain systems of culture have moved online doesn’t mean they are any less inscrutable or hegemonic. Get a gold star in ignoring.
There are more subtle and immaterial losses as well, like running out of fucks to give, even for things that supposedly make you happy, for things you cared about as recently as two weeks ago. I have to ask myself what I need to do to feel okay, sometimes by the hour. One hour it might be turning the phone off and taking a bath. One hour it might be forcing myself to sit down and work, even if nothing comes. One hour it might be making lists of grants to apply to. As a method of self-soothing, I procrastinated on this essay by writing a script for a short film, and then I went up to my roof to shoot photos for a project I am planning to pitch this year, even if it is doomed to languish in the inbox of a minor studio executive.
The clichéd and the privileged tell us it’s a great time to be an artist—there is a new world order to be cultivated on the fly! But to be frank, I don’t welcome the pressure placed on artists to be the cultivators the world needs right now. I need money. I need safety and touch and social imperatives that bore me in the way I need to be bored in order to spark something. Anxiety and vulnerability are recurring themes in my practice, but the baseline sense of security required for me to productively play with and explore those emotions has dwindled significantly. The same teacher mentioned above once told me that a piece of art is “"working”" when it allows you to proceed. I've put down theory and art history books in favor of novels. I fret less over what my work is “"about”" in favor finding ways to keep doing it. I've lost many Twitter followers and alienated a few editors in the process.
Even before the pandemic, the pick and shovel work of attending to my emotional health in addition to the monstrous task of creative attention often felt like too much. These things are separate but also dependent on one another. So, to end on the clichéd insistence of the importance of art that I just railed against, I’ll point out two things that give me solace. One is a photo of Kathy Acker with the Spice Girls, taken during a 1997 assignment for The Guardian. It reminds me that culture is a construct, and I can cross-pollinate as I please. The butch, avant-garde American writer approached her interview with the girly, manufactured British pop sensations with neither the detached froideur of the academic nor the ironic hysteria of postmodern fandom, but instead with the unadorned the curiosity of her own personhood. I try to remember this when my own openness and curiosity butts up against the proprieties of titles like artist, art critic, entertainer, woman, etc. They matter less and less by the day.
The second is a little sculpture by Allen Ruppersberg from 1968 called Untitled (Canvas Aquarium) that I saw at the Hammer Museum a couple years ago. It’s a store-bought tank fitted with lights, lined with a bit of gravel, and nestled with a blank white canvas. It looks like a stage and also a prison—the specter of expectation lurking just beyond the glass, waiting for the blank canvas to be filled with something. Even before the immaterial panopticon of the internet glued our gazes to one another, Allen intuited the ickiness of being watched too early and too often. Precariousness of your individual situations notwithstanding, I can tell you with utter certainty what a luxury it is to make work when no one is looking. It’s what Los Angeles artists did for most of the twentieth century. Then suddenly the world turned, gazed upon all our shit, and saw that it was good.
I don’t know what’s next, but right now I’m optimistic for the new systems we to cultivate in the shadows of gloom.
I will probably feel different in an hour.
Christina Catherine Martinez is a writer, actress, and comedian in Los Angeles. Her cultural criticism appears regularly in Artforum, Art Agenda, Texte zur Kunst. Her television work includes writing for The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim, and devising a series of short films for FX's comedy anthology CAKE. She is the author of Aesthetical Relations, a book of essays on art and comedy, and a recipient of a Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for Short-Form Writing, Her live act kicks ass and made her a TimeOUT LA Comic to Watch in 2020 (rip).