Obligatory Reflections

Even though my rational side understands that the concept of a “new year” is just an arbitrary marker of the passage of time, which is itself a human construct and we will all die alone in the end…. I admit, I become much more reflective during this time of year. I can’t help but look back at the work I’ve been making and the progress that I’ve made as an artist.

2015 was my first full year of being a post-BFA graduate. I was thrust into “real life” without the constant supervision of my professors and peers. Upon graduating,  I essentially felt like that guy from the first Jurassic Park movie who, upon sitting down for a leisurely poo, watches all four walls of his little outhouse fall to the ground around him like Popsicle sticks, revealing a hungry T-Rex just outside its (in actuality, probably cardboard) walls. To make matters worse, and more comical (in the movie at least) his pants are down. In this metaphor, the T-Rex is REAL LYFE!!11! Just a few hours after graduating, I remember sitting in my room when a wave of dread and panic came over me. I couldn’t help but think that the T-Rex of REAL LIFE was going to thoroughly kick my ass and I would end up one of the many BFA grads who ends up not producing any new work shortly after graduating. But really, nothing so tragic or dramatic has happened. I’m still making work, and even thought it doesn’t always feel like it, said work is developing.

I went through this whole year making work in a pretty wide variety of media- everything from watercolor, oil, acrylic, various other painting mediums, mixed media, even embroidery.

2015 best9

 

 

 

a sampling of my “2015 best 9” posts on instagram, which showcases the variety in my work this year pretty well.

I kind of have 3 main “series” of work that are in progress. Because of this, I basically felt like I was all over the place, because I kind of was, medium-wise.

I have my “Doe Eyes” series, which really just started as small sketches, but gradually turned into a series of small mixed-media works on paper:

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Doe Eyes: Green Mascara | gouache, watercolor, crayon on paper | 5×7″

Then, I have my Fixation series, which is mostly done in acrylic paint/mediums on canvas:

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Fixation: Eye III | acrylic, false eyelashes on canvas | 12×12″ |2015

Finally, I have my “Clown” series, which is the most recent. It’s a series of self portraits:

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Self Portrait: Clown III | oil on canvas | 20×30″

All three of these series, although different medium-wise, share a common thematic concern: they all have to do with feminine beauty rituals: the type of beauty that is dabbed, smeared, and applied. It’s not like I’m never conscious of this commonality while painting, but I can’t help but feel like I’m all over the place when I’m jumping from watercolor to oil to acrylic gel. I even went through some old portfolios and ended up destroying a lot of things from school in the name of new year’s cleaning (sorry, Mom,) where I also ended up finding a lot of examples of me exploring these kinds of ideas as early as freshman year of my BFA. It’s interesting to see how far back the core ideas for work that feels “new” often go.

So, 2015 was a year of experimentation, but experimentation with a pretty focused set of concerns and ideas. That seems to be a pretty good place to be in. I’m also pleased to say that I sold my highest volume of work this year at Art One Gallery. I still have a long way to go in my burgeoning art career, but I look forward to continuing to explore and develop in 2016, hopefully with less existential fear of T-rex attacks.

Art Entry Fees are Too. Damn. High!

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I’m sure any artist who has ever looked into entering their art into juried shows has balked at some of the prices to simply SUBMIT to have their work considered. It seriously stinks. I’ve seen price tags as high as $60 to submit TWO images! That’s how much it costs to apply to some graduate school programs! Rabble rabble, I know, but it does suck when you’re an artist without a lot of money to just gamble away on these things.

As I always do when I feel righteously indignant, I googled “art entries too expensive,” and I found this great interview with Lori Zimmer, a Brooklyn based curator, writer, and art consultant. I really agreed with what she said regarding art entry fees:

“…but to tell them oh, well, ya gotta pay me. That’s a little too greedy for my tastes. I understand that you have to pay your staff and you have to pay people to look at things, but if there’s no return, where does all that money go? If 1000 people enter and they each paid $45, where does all that money go? And then if you’re selling the work on top of that?… It just seems a little greedy to me.”

And I’m sure in some (hopefully not most) cases, the high prices being charged are not even proportionate to the qualifications of the jurors. I think that there’s an unfortunate trend where even really inexperienced curators/ galleries with really unimpressive qualifications are still demanding high entry fees simply because that’s what other juried shows/competitions that they want to compete with or emulate are doing.

I can obviously understand what is most likely the original argument for charging jury fees- that it discourages mere hobbyists or people who are less than professional from applying by requiring that entrants put some skin in the game. But I think in some cases it has the opposite effect- you get only the people who are so desperate to have their work shown somewhere that they’re willing to fork over $50 to just have their work looked at and possibly rejected. I mean, curators and other arts professionals aren’t impressed by someone with a bunch of pay-to-show vanity galleries on their resume, so why is it suddenly different when you have someone willing to pay to enter a juried group show? Professional artists are savvy businesspeople. Unless your jurors have some truly impressive qualifications, they’re not going to see the benefit of gambling away their hard-earned money just to possibly be rejected. And if they are accepted, to then have to pay shipping and insurance costs on top of the initial entry fee adds up to a lot of money invested. The quality of work received would probably be better if the entry fee were something affordable- like $5-10, or if there were only a fee to those selected.

As artists, we’re asked constantly to gamble away our money, time, and skills in the hopes of it leading to regular work, a sale, or even just nebulous “exposure.”  If an organization or gallery truly cares about giving emerging artists a chance, then they need to stop forcing them to take on all the financial risk from the get-go.

Ghosts of Painters Past

I’ve been reading a book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, and one particularly salient point I found (among many) was this:

“Your reach as a viewer is vastly greater than your reach as a maker. The art you can experience may have originated a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life.”

Which also reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my painting professors, where he essentially said that “you have to live in your own time. You can’t be Monet.”

This is incredibly valuable advice. It’s normal to be a student or developing artist and to have artistic heroes- people who you look to and just think, “wow, if I could paint like that…” The problem comes when you essentially try to replicate work from a certain artist or era with the intent that it all but pass for one of those works. There are plenty of painters out there, for instance, who fancy themselves to be Monet-esque impressionists. But their work, being produced in the present and therefore divorced from the context that the original impressionists painted in, just looks like a cheap imitation- and that’s because it is.

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The Impressionist’s work was highly innovative in their time because from their cultural context, they were solving a problem and presenting something new to the world. They actually took incredible creative risks in doing so. People today who try to imitate these artists (or artists from any other historical period,) however, are merely piggybacking off of their innovation and banking on the nostalgic feelings that some retain for the group. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “There’s a difference between meaning that is embodied and meaning that is referenced.”

Admiring artists from the past is completely natural, and a great way to see different approaches to solving formal or even thematic issues. And I know and understand the whole Joseph Campbell, “nothing is truly original” thing and all that. But taking bits from the past and mixing them with your own personal point of view and painting style derived from the actual, present world around you is much more worthwhile and brave than just chasing after the ghost of Monet.

 

How Artists do Selfies

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Ah, the oft derided “selfie.” Those crazy kids these days with their shallow documentation of their own appearances! No one remembers that the (much longer!) process of immortalizing ones appearance in art is a longstanding, and respected, tradition!

Probably anyone who’s ever pursued art in some capacity has (maybe begrudgingly) had to face (get it?!) the challenge of depicting their own likeness from a mirror. Whenever I was given such an assignment, I seem to remember most of my classmates moaning and groaning while I was at least mildly excited. It just always seemed to me like such a cool, “artist” thing to do, to sit down and paint your own portrait.

Artist self-portraits are also great because you’re basically seeing the face, more or less, that you make when working.

SelfPort_MeganKoth (771x1000)Self portrait by Megan Koth, Oil on Canvas, 18×24″, 2014. 

Apparently, I look pretty stern while working!

However, I understand how it can be scary. The portrait assignment is kind of the perfect challenge for students because it’s a great way of getting them to paint something from life that they actually feel personally invested in. It’s hard to get invested in getting a crumpled paper bag or some random kitchen utensils right (we had some pretty terrible still life setups,) but their own face? Now that’s something a student isn’t likely to want to mess up. There’s also a unique personal intimacy that comes with painting a great self-portrait. I mean, you have to look at your own appearance at a level you never had before- noticing every detail, including every “flaw.” I can see how the latter would make some uncomfortable, and that probably explains a lot of students lack of enthusiasm for the assignment. But I’ve found over the years that painting myself has made me more accepting of the “flaws.” In that way, the self-portrait can end up being much more than just an assignment, but a process of self-discovery and acceptance. Or, if you’re not an artist and just wanna take a picture of yourself because you look fly as hell today, you can do that too.

 

Hilarious top “Mona Lisa” image courtesy of Sangerous on Imgur

The Secret

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                                                       Getting from point A to B.

People pursuing creative careers often look up to the very successful for guidance on what to do. Creative careers don’t have the benefit of a rigid, structured career path, which is part of the draw of them. The freedom! The independence! But the main disadvantage of that is, of course, that it can sometimes feel like all your efforts are leading nowhere, or not in the right direction, or to something you don’t really want (or, maybe you’re not even completely sure what you want in the first place.)

Feeling directionless is not pleasant, especially when you look around at your peers and see them all in their structured, cushy jobs while you’re still trying to nurture an art career. At least if you want to be a doctor, there’s a way to figure out EXACTLY what you need to do to get there (not that actually BECOMING one isn’t hard, but at least you get a road map.) Artists don’t get a road map. There is no one, formulaic, way to become a successful artist. And that fact can sometimes be refreshing, oftentimes maddening.

I would take any opportunity to ask successful people in my field the question: any advice? What should I do? And they pretty much always say the same thing- just keep on making work. Okay. I would get so frustrated with this answer, because I felt like they were deliberately keeping some secret from me. I wanted to shake them and say “but what should I really DO! JUST FREAKIN’ TELL ME THE SECRET!” That answer is frustrating because it negates the idealistic fantasy that there is some sort of “secret formula” for success. That you can just gather the right ingredients, cook it under the right conditions, and BAM!, you have success gumbo.

So I’ve started to realize and accept this fact. It’s a scary thing to accept as a young, aspiring artist because it means accepting that you’ll have to go out and make a lot of calls for yourself, and that you will have to trust yourself to make said calls. Not crumbling when you make a bad one is where the “keep making work” advice kicks in. Gathering the strength to keep going, despite failure, or hopelessness, is really what “keep making work,” means. Although it’s no secret formula, it is great, valuable advice.

BFA Blues

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

I  very recently graduated with my BFA, and I must say, I have some mixed feelings about it. Part of me obviously feels really great to have graduated and to be done. Another, strong, part of me really didn’t want to leave.

Art school is a very nurturing environment. In my case, I had even secured a shared studio space with some friends for my senior year. We had a keurig in there and everything! My professors would visit and give impromptu critiques on what I was doing! I could take a painting straight from class to my studio space for more attention!  It was great. And I even had a life-affirming experience there on Spring break. My solo painting show (that I’ve already posted about!) was happening right after break, so that was truly the cutoff point to finish any paintings. So, I ended up driving down to the studio just about every day of what was supposed to be my vacation like it was my job- coming in in the morning, leaving in the evening. I remember driving there- to my studio, to work on my paintings, and feeling like “this is it. this is the feeling I want to have every day of my life.” And now I’ve moved out and graduated and it feels like all of that is gone. It feels like I spent all this time building something over 4 years and now I have to start all over.

We art students are human. We feel all the time the subtle (and rudely unsubtle) disapproval from others for daring to pursue a creative degree (apparently, to them, universities are just glorified vocational schools.) But in the supportive environment of art school, you get positive affirmation every day from fellow students, mentors, and professors. You have an (albeit insular) place where you belong and are appreciated. Then, you graduate and  it can feel like you’ve been cast out of Eden or something.

Then I snap out of feeling sorry for myself and realize that this uneasiness is pretty natural for recent grads. It’s natural that, after four years of structured schedules and assignments and being surrounded by people literally being paid to help you, being spit out into the world where we have such an abundance of freedom can feel overwhelming. I now have to find my own place in my art community and eke out a career for myself and that means putting myself out there without my professors standing beside me. And that’s scary. But that’s okay. Looking back, every positive change that I’ve gone through started with me feeling at least a bit uncomfortable in the beginning. And that’s what this is: a beginning. I think I and other grads should take comfort in the fact that this uncomfortable feeling, like all things, will eventually pass as we settle into lives of our own creation.

(Art)rage Against the Machine

I’m finished taking my second figure painting class, getting more comfortable painting the delightfully and frustratingly complex human form, from life, a few times a week. As I get more and more comfortable handling this subject matter, my mind tends to wander to thinking about just how “far” I want to go in these depictions. Do I want to paint every last color transition, every last hair or freckle? Do I want to do those things just to prove that I can? My answer is obviously no. But then I start to think about photo-realism, its critics, and the idea of an artist “turning themselves into a machine.”

I think that my stopping point with an objective painting is usually once it becomes joyless and nitpicky.

Fig Painting Megan Koth

Sleep by Megan Koth 2014

I’m experimenting with how to handle the background in a more abstract way.

I think this is why I tend to have a bit of an unenthusiastic attitude towards photo-realism (or hyper-realism?) in the pure sense of the word (not to include an artist who happens to use photo-realistic techniques for work that is expressive in other ways.) The joyless, labored-overness (not a word) is just so apparent that it becomes the whole spectacle of the painting. I don’t want to post a picture of someone’s work as a “bad” example, but we’ve all seen the uninspired paintings of boring photographs of stuff on a black or white table, closeups of marbles or other ephemera, and maybe marveled at the technical skill, but then ultimately forgot them.

I have a crazy theory (i.e it obviously doesn’t apply to everyone) that a lot of painters who go into photo-realism do it as a sort of defense against the devaluing of their labor. As any artist is well aware, the general public tends to at least struggle with acknowledging that the labor of an artist has any value at all. “That painting looks so fun and effortless!” they’ll say about anything not rendered to the highest degree. And nobody should be paid for “fun.” Nothing about a photo-realistic painting looks fun or effortless. And people can see that- they can see the drudgery (i.e. “real work”) involved. And thus the “problem” is solved. But at the cost of creating something that is perhaps more memorable, or that really elevates the medium or the consciousness of a viewer.

And at the end of a day, why try to make paintings that look like photographs? You can be as precise as you can, take as many hours, days, weeks as you want, and the “machine” (i.e. the camera) will always win. Because it’s a machine, and you’re an imperfect human being. But that’s okay. It’s okay to show your hand in your work. In our age of chasing the next shiny new widget, it can be incredibly refreshing to see something so distinctly created by a human hand.

Where’d Ya Get That Idea?

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Often well-meaning people say this phrase all the time to artists. It would always throw me off because I would scramble to find a concise answer to satisfy the asker. “Uh, I’ve always been interested in X and Y, and then I eventually put X and Y together, and there ya go…” If I weren’t polite, I’d just say “OH! I just hopped over the the idea store and picked up an idea off the shelf and took it to the checkout where I paid for it in IdeaBux!” But really, people who have never spent much time really creating things often have this misunderstanding of how grand ideas come about.

Honestly, this whole concept that ideas are just something you stumble upon randomly is kind of insulting. It implies that what we do as artists is not the result of hard work, dedication, toiling, and careful cultivation of a body of work over many years, but is just some sort of weird fluke. Like we were walking through the forest one day and just stumbled upon an idea in the middle of the road.

In reality, ideas are the result of a soupy, internal, evolutionary process of our experiences, thoughts, and dreams, stirring and boiling together in our brains. Whenever I’ve taken what seemed like a sharp turn in my work, I’ve always been able to look back and see ripples of that idea in my past work, sketches, writings, and general interests or experiences. An idea that may have seemed spontaneous and sudden at the time, I often find, was really the result of years and years of exploring peripheral ideas or concepts.

We all have ideas every day, whether we acknowledge them or not. And that’s the thing- most people have them, and then let them peter off into nothingness. Artists, on the other hand, run with them, carefully nurturing, exploring, and developing them until they become something great- something impactful and meaningful. And that’s not something that happens by accident.

It’s What YOU Make of it

Lets just say that sometime in the recent past, I saw a really, really terrible senior show at my school. Just terrible. And these were seniors. People who had, presumably, been here for four or so years honing their craft, diligently listening to professors and peer criticisms and suggestions. I was baffled. How could this be all they have to show? This is their “cream of the crop?” And it dawned on me that some people are just completely and utterly unwilling to learn. Militantly resistant, even. Unfortunately, I see this all too often in the weird world of BFA pursuers.

One often overlooked quality that makes a creative degree uniquely challenging is in how lofty its value can be. Being on the cusp of graduating myself with a BFA, I’m tempted to compare the act of pursuing this degree to say, deciding to backpack through Europe for a few years, to “find myself.” Now, I’m not saying this in a derisive way, but only to make the point that the value of this thing that an art degree is is not just contingent on showing up and doing what needs to be done, acquiring easily defined skills in the process to list on some resume- but in “what I make of it,” as cliche as that sounds. Just as someone could trudge through Europe with a closed-minded attitude and end up wasting four years, someone could similarly trudge through art school for the same amount of time, emerging no more capable of producing even decent artwork than when they arrived.

Basically, the biggest demand in the successful acquisition of an art degree is in being internally motivated- motivated to learn less fun and more academic things like perspective, anatomy,  replicating objects and the human figure from life (NOT PHOTOGRAPHS OMG,) and in delving into mediums and subjects unfamiliar to you. In order to succeed as an artist, you have to be motivated enough to learn the stuff you don’t like, because ultimately, at least some of that stuff is gonna make executing the stuff you do like to make a whole lot easier (or even just slightly more possible.) In fact, what you like making may be kind of boring, actually, because it’s 1. stuff you feel comfortable doing for a reason, and 2. stuff you’re making with very little art historical context/life experience behind it. For instance, I used to really hate still life. Thought it was dumb, because all I’d been exposed to were weird, dark, Renaissance-era paintings of fruit and dead chickens:

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Sorry, but I’ve always found paintings like this to be super tacky. But then I was exposed to Wayne Thiebaud, and all was right with the world:

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My point obviously being: I changed. As a result of going to school, allowing myself to be exposed to new things, I changed a really myopic view (more like bias) of mine for the better. And I’ve made a myriad of other positive changes as well. I’ve become a much better figure painter/drawer, not without struggle, mind you. I somehow learned to like watercolor. And I’m really proud to say that I feel that I’ve successfully befriended all of the studio professors I’ve had. And some students just don’t seem willing to do that. They go to every critique as if ready for battle. They see any honest attempts at criticism as personal attacks, undoubtedly feeding into their own self-constructed persecution narrative. “They just don’t understand my ART!” They’ll think. I had a classmate in a figure painting class once express frustration during a critique that he was “sick of being objective!” i.e. he was sick of being expected to paint what he actually saw in real life. He wanted to paint these crazy fantastical scenes and put in fairy girls or whatever. But you know what makes painting a kick-ass fairy nymph a whole lot easier? knowing how to paint an actual human girl accurately first. And he clearly was not there yet.  I see so many people like this- students who want to skip squares one, two, and three all the way to four. These are people who take some sort of weird pride in resisting internal change. Like they’re some rebel defying the evil institution and professors encouraging such things as personal growth and artistic development. They somehow have twisted their own immaturity into an achievement.

Look, we’ve all had slumps. The thing with relying so much on being internally motivated to better yourself and your craft is that it can be draining. And sometimes I find myself closing off to criticism that I really need to hear. But the thing is, I eventually reflect, and realize I should listen to that advice, and I move on. And my work gets better in the process, adding value to my education.  Unfortunately, some make the mistake of letting that “slump” last all of four years, ending up  not only wasting the time of their classmates, professors, and loved ones, but their own. At least they’ll likely have some sizable student loan debt to keep them company.

Yes, Art Literacy is Essential

Lately my art-related thoughts have started to dwell on some pessimistic observations of how we value art education here in the US of A. I observe talented and dedicated friends/mentors struggle to keep art programs alive in our schools, only to, more often than not, be faced with apathetic administrations and lack of resources and marketing. In high school, it was pretty obvious that the art program wasn’t seen as an essential part of the curriculum. Art class is just where kids go to fingerpaint or whatever, right? That’s the impression that I left with, and it’s actually quite frightening, having some serious ramifications to the quality of our culture.

For instance, I think that it’s ridiculous that someone could basically go through all tiers of our education system, acquiring a degree (or degrees), and therefore be considered an educated person, while not knowing a Monet from a Manet.

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I dunno, brah, they look the same to me.

So many complete their education with the whole “art” thing still eluding them. A comparable oversight would be someone whose literary education stopped at Hop on Pop. We’re taught how to analyze fine works of literature in school- not only that, but how to appreciate them. How to notice subtleties in mood, recognize thematic elements, and literary devices. If your favorite book is above the elementary school reading level, then the only reason you can appreciate that work is because you were taught how to do so. I’m sure if your education on literature had stopped at Dr. Seuss, then you hearing your friends fawn over the latest great American novel would sound alienating and embarrassing to you. You’d probably become defensive and insecure, calling those people pretentious or claim that they couldn’t earnestly enjoy such a, to you, esoteric work. Sound familiar? this is how most people view the art world. Because they were abandoned in the Dr. Seuss level of Art understanding. And that needs to stop.

When people aren’t educated on how to look at artworks critically, something really crazy also happens: our culture becomes really stale. If one never looks at, say, the history of painting, or writing, or music, or whatever, as a discipline, then there’s the tendency to start treading really familiar ground, all while asserting a false sense of originality. As a result, we start noticing that all the popular songs sound the same. Sub-par Artwork that doesn’t really further the discipline sells like crazy among uneducated buyers. And, for the vastly uneducated public, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad, unoriginal creative works clogging up the channels and justifying their sense that art really is a load of unapproachable BS.

So, please, donate to your local arts programs/centers. Volunteer to teach workshops if you can. Don’t vote for legislation that slashes through art programs. We all get the culture we deserve, and if we continue to treat art programs in our education system as disposable, be ready to be completely underwhelmed, or even annoyed, by any future music you listen to, movies you see, buildings you live in, or 2-d surfaces you look at.