Three weeks in, Art Month keeps rolling. The wine is still being sipped, the eager crowds scramble from one gallery to the next; the chatter is relentless. There’s always something else to say about Art, even if each new pronouncement tends to contradict the previous one.
The unresolved issue hanging over this collective love-in for the commercial galleries is whether the event is actually succeeding in its aim of bringing new audiences – and new clients – through the portals. Measuring attendances at art galleries is a notoriously inexact science, as the National Gallery of Australia proves every time it hosts another blockbuster. The only hard evidence is to be found in one’s bank account. If sales are up at the end of March, and starvation momentarily fended off, then maybe Art Month was a good idea.
It is coincidental that Art Month has coincided with the launch of a book by Denise Green called An Artist’s Odyssey, which is part autobiography, part instruction manual. This literary hybrid is garnished with small essays by art world luminaries (for want of a better word), and even contains a conversation with Kerry Stokes, one of the few Aussie plutocrats who takes his art collection seriously.
The profession of artist is a license for self-obsession. The skill lies in making your self-obsession interesting for other people. Van Gogh succeeded well enough in his paintings and letters, but not many artists have been able to command attention with both images and words. Most would do well to follow Matisse’s recommendation: that if you want to be an artist, first you must cut out your tongue.
This is where Denise Green is so disarming. In her book, and in a lecture at the Art Gallery of NSW, she has given a completely frank account of the way an artist today must set about the task of career-building. She begins chapter six with a quote from the psychoanalyst, Alan Roland: “Having a career in the arts today requires being more entrepreneurial than an investment banker.”
We have seen where the entrepreneurial activities of investment bankers have led in recent years, so perhaps it might be better for the planet if this energy were chanelled into the arts. One could argue there is already very little difference between an investment banker and figures such as Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, apart from the fact that a banker doesn’t pretend his work is deeply spiritual.
Green’s own career is an object lesson in how to make the most of one’s resources. She has flirted with forms of abstraction and Minimalism, but never abandoned recognisable imagery. She has studied and worked in Paris and New York; got to know many well-known artists and writers, and kept up a stream of exhibitions in museums and commercial galleries in the United States, Australia and Europe. Not bad for a working-class girl from Brisbane.
Green’s European museum shows have not been at top-flight galleries, but in places such as Saarbrücken, Kleve, Klagenfurt, Warsaw, and Augsburg. In the United States she has shown in equivalent venues, from Connecticut to Arizona. Nevertheless, it all adds to an artist’s store of international glory.
She writes about the process of reputation-building with startling candour, citing the advice of two “mentors” who helped her develop strategies. “Brenda perceived that to succeed in Europe I needed to position myself not only as an artist but also as an intellectual,” she writes, “in order to overcome the gender bias.”
Can one simply ‘position’ oneself as an intellectual? It sounds like choosing to get a new hair-style, or to dress only in black. It suggests that being an intellectual – at least in art world terms – is a kind of style decision. This is almost certainly true, although it might be seen as an implicit indictment of the shallowness of the art scene. Either way, it worked well enough for Green. She talks about her “business trips” to Europe, to meet up with curators, collectors and dealers.
Enter another mentor, Colby, who tells Green about how to turn collectors of her work into sponsors of museum projects. He also has shrewd advice about locating and targeting the key person who has the power to approve a corporate or government sponsorship. This makes for fascinating reading because one rarely finds the mechanisms of the art world given such pragmatic treatment. It is far more common for artists to construct a romance around the work itself and imply that success was a mere corollary of their aesthetic achievements.
By contrast, Green is willing to discuss the practicalities of networking and self-promotion with a directness that would make Andy Warhol blush. This is paired with essays on her work, but these pieces play a supporting role to the artist’s first-hand account of how to climb the ladder to stardom. There is no need to worry about clambering all the way to the top, a comfortable mid-level will do just fine.
One can only admire such bluntness, but there will be artists, collectors, and even the odd curator, who find Green’s views antithetical to everything they love about art. There is an ingrained belief that art is born of inner compulsion, not strategic planning. It’s also easy to point to many great artists who had no idea about the business of pursuing a career and no interest in the concept. All that mattered was the burning urge to express a personal vision on canvas or in clay.
It’s disturbing to think that we have lost sight of this kind of artist and developed a preference for the strategists. Surely it is the responsibility of curators, dealers and critics to nurture the inarticulate genius no less than the sophisticated career-builder. If so, it is a responsibility that is rarely taken seriously. As Green implies, life is so much easier for everyone when an artist can talk intelligently about his or her work and point out its place in various discourses.
It is a legacy of the growing professionalism of the art world that artists who do not play the game – or even recognise the existence of a game – never make it to first base, while less talented individuals become famous.
Denise Green would probably argue that one can make important work with a strong personal element and still pay close attention to the ‘business’ aspects. This might be correct, but if one were to make a close study of the kind of artists who dominate the museum shows and trendy galleries, the most advanced careers often seem to be associated with the most superficial art.
There are a few outstanding exceptions to this unspoken rule, and this brings me to Mike Parr’s exhibition, Brain Coral, at the National Art School Gallery. There may be no contemporary artist in Australia who is better connected than Parr, or more slavishly collected by the public institutions. Parr, who manages the unlikely feat of being both extraordinarily articulate and unintelligible, is a dedicated explainer of his own work. When he talks about his drawings and prints it sounds as though he has just discovered them, and is brim-full of enthusiasm.
Indeed, the enthusiasm is so infectious it is only when one tries to read a transcript of this Mikespeak that bewilderment sets in.
The catalogue for Brain Coral contains an email dialogue between Parr and curator, Katie Dyer, in which the latter writes: “Hope you are very well… Thank you for the in depth response to the last question. I know I will need to read it several times to fully comprehend your answer..”
The humour is unintentional, or else Dyer is a subtle ironist. Either way this exhibition is a typical example of the best and worst of Mike Parr: an exhibition of enormously powerful graphic works, framed by verbiage that attaches itself to the art like fungus. Those viewers who simply attend to the works on the walls can hardly fail to be impressed by the scale, ambition and vigour of these etchings and screenprints, made in collaboration with master printmaker, John Loane.
These works are part of Parr’s ongoing self-portrait project, which now includes hundreds of variations on his own visage. For sheer intensity and technical virtuosity he outstrips every other printmaker in this country, and demonstrates that the medium need not play second-fiddle to the more prominent disciplines of painting and sculpture. There’s nothing pretty about these images, but more importantly, no hint of calculation or formula. The fog of theory gathers afterwards, when the volcanic force of the artist’s gesture has frozen into memory.
Mike Parr: Brain Coral, National Art School Gallery, Feb. 24 – April 14, 2012
Denise Green, An Artist’s Odyssey, Macmillan Art Publishing, AUD $39.95
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 24, 2012