Monday, September 1, 2008

Don't mess with Texas/why I'm not big (yet)

I have been recently surprised with the news that I sold a sculpture. It's a portrait of Texas, and the sale took place in Houston. I didn't get as much for it as I'd originally wanted, but enough to let me coast through the rest of my recovery without having to count nickels and dimes to buy food before my left hand starts working again.
This sale has been long in the making, 4 years to be exact, and its sale represents the lifting a great weight for me. This sculpture is symbolic of a period in my life of great hope and promise. It was the cornerstone of a giant map I made of the USA as my MFA thesis project. At 5 by 5 feet and close to 100 pounds, it set the stage for the greatest challenge of my artistic career: my quest to conquer the nation.

Artwork has always been this for me: a way to gain control over things in life that daunt me, thus symbolically appeasing them on my own terms. In the process of studying a frustrating conundrum, I learn more about the world and myself. I felt that if I captured the spirit America by immortalizing it in junk, I would in turn win its favor, allowing me to pass unhindered through the ranks of the artworld. In the spring of 2004, this theory proved correct, or so it seemed.

I was in my studio, working as usual, when a knock came on the door. An applicant for the sculpture position on campus was being brought around to conduct studio visits, so the existing faculty could observe his interactions with students. I was always happy to discuss my work, which at this point stretched 30 feet across my wall and rose 12 from the ground. He was introduced to me as Michael, and when he realized what I was doing, he was literally blown away. He became giddy at the sheer insanity that accompanied such ambition. The more we talked, the more livid he became. The encounter ended with him asking one of the faculty observers to take his picture with me in front of my artwork, shaking my hand. The last thing he insisted was that I autograph something for him. In a flurry he was gone, and I went back to working on my art.
Later, when I got home and Googled his name, I realized it had not been just any studio visit. He was well connected to deep aspects of the artworld. SCULPTURE magazine would feature his work on its cover in less than a year, but in my mind this was not his most noteworthy accomplishment, even if I had known it was going to happen.
According to the biography, he had earned an MFA in sculpture from Yale in the late 80's. An undergrad student he became friends with, and later roommates, was Matthew Barney, who, I had recently read in ARTFORUM, had originally attended on a football scholarship before being coaxed into pursuing art by some grad students. Suddenly I realized the significance of my encounter. I was in high esteem by the man who'd started the career of the biggest artist of recent history. Matthew Barney sells pencil drawings for more money than I see in a year, plus, he's the father of Bjork's child. His life is a dream. I emailed Michael thanking him for his studio visit. This was not a connection I wanted to lose. A few months later, I received the news of my life. Michael was curating a show of friends in New York City, and wanted me to participate. Later, when he released the list of artists, I was dumbstruck. I was going to be participating in a show with not just Matthew Barney, but also Alex Grey, the visionary artist who created the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. I'd seen his work once by chance, and been blown away. He paints people as energy, and his work is deeply moving spiritually.
The show was called "Touch and Temperature: Art in the Age of Cybernetic Totalism, and would take place in Chelsea. I delivered the sculpture he requested, and counted the days until the big night. He chose to install my sculpture directly across from the door, as to be the first thing everyone entering would encounter immediately. As the unknown, incredible "find" he was bringing to this arena, he wanted to show me off. A later blurb in the New York Times would mention my work as a highlight of the exhibition.
Coincidence brought my mother into town from Wisconsin, and she was able to breifly attend the opening. She had come to see the city, and to go to a reception that her friend was having in Soho, which had been planned for almost a year. This friend had watched me making my first sculptures in gradeschool, so the entire circumstance seemed incredibly synchronistic. She came early, and had barely left before the gallery filled with hundreds of people and the roar of their voices. I stood in the middle of it all, anonymous and overwhelmed. These were the most beautiful people I had seen, sophisticated and cool, drinking wine and looking at art: my art.

I stayed quiet most of the night, my head swimming as the flow of people went on and on. A few times I was pulled aside and introduced to this person or that. Everybody loved my work and a couple wanted to buy it. This is where I made a mistake of similar proportions to my recent finger mishap: I told them the piece was not for sale. In doing so I would sever the tendons that connected me to the elite. My experience up until this point had led me to believe I was invincible. I thought I'd be able to keep walking into the artworld until I reached the door of a museum, which was where I felt my work truly belonged. The idea of selling it to some private collector where it would never be seen by the public went counter to my ideals. I'd made it this far, and wanted to keep going.
show in Texas

Later, the show would travel to Houston, Texas, to another gallery. Afterwards, the gallerist asked me if she could keep it because she thought she'd be able to make a sale. This time, not wanting to pay hundreds in shipping, as well as liking the symbolic nature of selling Texas in Texas, I agreed. During the last 4 years, it became increasingly more difficult to sell, as my resume has not advanced much beyond group shows at unknown spaces. One interested client, the CEO of a Texas oil company, expressed an interest 2 years ago, but only for a greatly reduced rate. I agreed, broke as I was, but the deal never went through because his insurance agent said it was too heavy to safely hang on the wall where he wanted it.

Back in NY, following the exhibition, I had one more meeting with the gallerist in Chelsea. He looked at my portfolio and said he thought he could sell some of it. He couldn't represent me, because he only shows digital art, but he knew plenty of other galleries that would be interested and he promised to introduce me. At one point I asked how long he'd been in the gallery business, and he said forever. His parents had been NYC gallerists too. A week or so later, showing a giant sculpture at a one night show, I was approached by a man saying he'd come to see my work, and wanted to buy one of my coin sculptures. I had moved to the city a few weeks prior, and told him I wasn't ready to sell the coins yet, because I wanted more people to see them. I gave him my contact info, and told him to check out my website.

A few weeks passed, and I followed up on the promise that the gallerist had made to introduce me to the kinds of galleries that would represent me. Sadly, the only response I recieved was "sorry too busy". Nothing more. My work was out of his gallery and our relationship had ended. A few months later, run ragged by the reality of living broke in NYC, I e-mailed him again asking for the name of the buyer who'd been interested in my work. For an artist to sell directly to a client is the artworld equivalent of stealing, because the galleries don't get a cut. He gave me the name and number, but I could tell he wasn't happy about it. I was breaking a rule. Sensing this, I never followed through. I am used to struggling, so I just continued forward on my own.

A few years later, I went to an opening and ran into both the gallerist and the artist who had curated the show. I went over to them with a big smile and a hello, but their reactions were blank and awkward. I was off the map, out of the club, and cut off from the scene. Had I known then what I know now, I would have sold it all immediately, gotten representation, and began living the dream. I don't regret my struggles, as they have made me stronger and influenced my work, I just feel sad when I look at the archive photos of the exhibition on the gallery's website and see that my sculpture, though prominent in the original exhibition, is omitted from all the images. However, if you look closely at the reflection to the far right of this photo, a tiny hint of my presence remains, hiding and waiting until my next break.
ghost artist

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