Fear and Hiding

by cjdown

This summer I attended the Whale and Star Summer Program in Miami, Florida. The workshop took place in the studio of artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. Art historian Daniel A. Siedell and artist /critic Gean Moreno joined Martinez Celaya in an intensive, week-long critique of work and various supplementary activities. Students ranged across many levels of training and experience.

The generosity in welcoming the group of students into his workspace speaks to Martinez Celaya’s desire to involve his practice in activities outside the strict confines of the art world. From 1994 until 2003 he taught at Claremont College in Pamona, California, and by acting as a mentor for less established artists he extends the activity of teaching to the non-academic setting of his studio.

The real gift, however, was in the honesty and insight of the critiques. My experience of grad school had moments of this, but they were rare and generally took place outside the formal framework of graduate critiques. Partly this was due to the absolute absence of real discourse about painting amongst the faculty, aside from my advisor and a few others. Another aspect of my MFA program was a focus on the “institution of art” as a general framework through which to talk about all work, whether it engaged in these questions or not.

In contrast, while the critiques at Whale and Star were at times quite brutal in their honesty, they never felt like they were mean-spirited or aimed at defeating the artist. One of the things that came out of my own crit was the sense that my work seemed to be hiding something – an ambivalence about painting itself.

Reflecting on this experience has posed several questions for me: What are my criteria? What do I value in my own work and in the work of others? What can be excised? What am I hiding from?

My criteria involve an interest in what things look like, but also in what they suggest in terms of emotional resonance and honesty to the world. I want from my own and others’ work an emotional, intellectual and sensuous experience. This desire is often considered romantic, if not naive. It is also conservative in relation to “radical” practice because it demands an introspective or contemplative encounter with art works and an allowance for the possibility that these qualities might be present.

I have been trained to exhibit a certain type of “rigour”in my work. This includes eschewal of pleasure, sentiment, authorial marks, “the hand”, claims to direct experience, technical and material facility and onwards. This is essentially the legacy of conceptual art as it has played out in many Canadian art institutions. Although my work over the past ten years has resisted this training on certain levels, the ambivalence remains.

So, I am hiding from the fear of looking naive or unintelligent or sentimental or self-indulgent. My ambivalence stems, I think, from a fear of the work being mistaken for something unintended, something “not contemporary”. Enrique said to me in my crit “there is no way to not be contemporary. In the art world many strategies are punished for not being current or sprinkled with the exciting drumbeat of the moment. Love is suffocated in the desire to make ‘art'”.

In a different context he writes:

In the art circles, as in most intellectual life, need has given way to fear. We are afraid of falling to clichéd thoughts or to reveal vulnerability and needs. And yet life moves freely beyond these fences of intellect. It ripples and crosses unaware of the boundaries set by consciousness. (Enrique Martinez Celaya: Collected Writings and Interviews 1990 – 2010, p.36)

Fear of exclusion is powerful for artists. In my own case I think that certain kinds of choices have been made which are reactions to that fear, even if only on an unconscious level. How will I get grants, exhibitions, jobs etc. if the work looks too  old fashioned? If it doesn’t have an airtight theoretical justification? If it is just big dumb painting?

I have counters to these anxieties, but fears are insidious, often disguising themselves as emotional or mental toughness. However, these disguises are only the outward appearance of strength. In fact they may just be markers for points of weakness.

In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the title character relates this melancholy truth:

Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance … clearly show how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defenses, built in successive phases as a precaution against any incursion by enemy powers, until the idea of concentric rings making their way steadily outward comes up against its natural limits … The frequent result, said Austerlitz, of resorting to measures of fortification marked in general by a tendency towards paranoid elaboration was that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically begging your enemy to attack it … (p.14, 16).

Dismantling the ramparts around my fears is a slow process, the tools more often like nail files than wrecking balls. With persistence and the aid of erosion, maybe even these inadequate implements will be able to scratch some small breaches into the edifice.

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Phantom Tree (Joseph Brodsky), tar, oil and wax on canvas , 2006

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