The Brand Artist: On the other side (2010)

He secretly sells artwork under six artist names across the globe. He blasts university art education—even the top schools. Read below to find out why.

The Brand Artist: On the other side

So where are you at now, (artist) baby?

Every week in a New York art gallery, a confrontation occurs between gallery directors and walk-in artists from across the globe. In the summer, it’s daily. “Can I show you my work?”

But for the very few, a brush-off is the result. It takes nerve to even try this approach.

So let me drop this: there are only three things one needs to know to become marginally interested. When did the artist do their last piece of work? If nothing has been completed in the past month, the holiday should be over! Few other professionals can take that much time off work. Gallery directors need to know that if they took your art and it sold, they could replace it. Secondly, does the artist understand the difference between “jaw-dropping” and “meh”? It’s about fifteen seconds of a viewer’s gaze. Finally, “Do you make jaw-dropping art?” Would it captivate nine-out-of-ten members of joe-public for fifteen seconds?

I accept that this flies in the face of market segmentation (since one knows little about the demographic—why care?) and that ten percent isn’t your target. Moreover, perhaps only one viewer in five hundred has the means, experience and motivation to actually acquire the art (that should be 1/50 of a percent then), but should not an artist’s ethic involve some wider visual impact?

My previous article posited the sense of success received from transferring an artwork by request from a client who in exchange pays money. It is my preferred measure of recognition, but simply having work seen and listening to what people say about it is a trip when they don’t know the artist is present.

Naturally, the purists would butcher this facile three question screening of a “salesperson” hawking their wares to a gallery. Work unseen, the artist retreats to the safety of West Broadway, 23rd or 57th Street, bitter, discouraged and feeling no better off for the experience. Others may argue that so many other factors should be taken into consideration; the MFA from The Chicago Art Institute, the enormous technical skill nurtured over years, a huge investment in ego-integrity (Don’t Stop Believin’?) and of course the supportive parents, partners and friends. Then there are bills to pay.

I expect you don’t want the struggle of De Kooning or even the mature Matisse, since the rent is due and you know what you are doing—right? If you had any money and knew about the ponies perhaps the track would be the answer. Facetious, maybe, but apropos. If you wagered on all horses in a race, one of them would win! With one style of work, you had better be from a great bloodline.

A portfolio is not just for school, a journal of responses to visual stimuli or a series of technical exercises. It should be the basis of a body of work used for “range”. Imagine a performing artist who would be delighted to get a paying gig after a hundred auditions. Would they turn down print advertising, voice-over, radio, television, theatre, dance, singing or a movie? They have trained for an industry which requires flexibility, but has the visual artist?

When officially working, the measure of their value is the last paycheck, which has to be at least SAG/Actor’s Equity minimum. Visual artists don’t have a union, so better to learn about your business. Go work in an art gallery, not as an artist, but as a packer/hanger. Then see if you can rise to the dizzying heights of sales assistant, registrar or director’s assistant. You will quickly realize that this is an industry that employs people with daily challenges. If you want to be a vendor or supplier to this business, then you had better understand their requirements.

On the other hand it cannot be all about the money. I agree that one cannot underestimate the philosophically and historically important quality of depth—the idea that an artist has spent a significant period of time developing a “style” that is uniquely theirs. That this work has an underlying technical, methodological, philosophical, and visual relevance. Is it your ambition to stimulate a paradigm shift? To many “serious” players in the art business, this is the holy grail, but it also requires an ideal set of environmental circumstances opening a short window of opportunity. An example of this might be the burning hot prices of modern works from 2004-08, resulting in the best major works being held by their owners. Consequentially there grew a need to “stack shelves” (both auction houses and galleries) with new contemporary artists who broke out in economically flush times.

I prefer, however, to advocate an approach, certainly not “the” only one, which emphasises a broader presentation of art. Not demonstrated as a linear temporal novel, defined usually as a “period” when a certain style has been adopted, but rather the use of time to explore and create finished works consistent with different styles, media and supported by their own narrative. Each, unique to the others to the point that one would not be able to identify similarities leading to the conclusion that the whole body of work was created by the same artist.

Georges Mathieu suggested that “The artist must create something new, and not repeat what is familiar”—in a bid to attain a “state of absolute emptiness”. [1] Why create art when that sense already exists with so many artists? An expression of despair represented by the bottom of a glass or empty syringe perhaps. All very laudable to add that “edge” to your lifestyle, but don’t you want to be a professional artist?

I do not present such an extreme. Only a release from the establishment’s accepted norm of exclusively developing depth in one style. When working on a series of works under one “brand”, often concurrent with other “products” (the organization of which I will expand upon in future articles), I find that I am constantly refreshed, not distracted, by the fact that I am busy with “the new” and that it will have an “end”, when I will be able to devote myself to developing another “artist’s” work.

Obviously one must develop all the principle skills, attaining, hopefully, your personal style, creating finished work and then what? Adopting the “rule of threes” is important (a third of your time on each—creating work, marketing and administration) until you can unload some of the marketing on an agent or gallery, but what about building that range of work to increase the opportunity for success? I will often refer to temporal limitations that everyone places upon themselves. These are usually products of our financial lives, bills and accounts being due on certain dates and our own inability to see past them. These combined with no practical approach to costing work and knowing what to charge for it generally leads to a short-sighted view that prevents long-term planning.

For any artist formally trained, I lay responsibility for this travesty at the feet of art schools. It’s all well and good getting into a so-called top school, but will they teach you how to manage your nascent career? Re-inventing the wheel is an arduous task, more so when you discover after three or four years that you will never be able to sell it! Developing a strategy for this or next trimester is impossible—projects dominate. Schools set deadlines and get one into the habit of not seeing past May or June at best. Take art classes to build skill and commune with your peers, but don’t blow good money on a BFA and get little in return. Still aimless? Spend another two years on an MFA from a top US school and load those students loans with a hundred grand of indulgence. They say teaching is insurance, but I prefer to think of it as a straight jacket—it is called a terminal degree for a reason!

It is no wonder that academics, historians and critics have an aversion to the philosophy that I have found so useful. It represents an auto-didactic approach which perceives mistrust in establishment offerings. It is selective in taking programs promoting technical skill and a thorough understanding of visual art (including everything and more that one could possibly learn from school, but can learn in a good public library) and combining it with work experience in the art business. This rejects academic opinion in favor of practical response. I embrace the essential role that my many detractors play in the progress of our industry, all trying to contribute to our mutual benefit, but focusing almost excusively on the creation of supply without addressing the development of demand.

[1] 20th Century Art Museum Ludwig Cologne (1997), Taschen, p. 483.