Margins or Multiple New Centers

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about where art is made. In contrast to exploring reasons creatives might remain in Art Centers, like New York and Los Angeles, I would instead like to take a closer look at what makes people stay ‘on the outside.’ What draws people away? Or, should I say: What draws people to these potential New Centers? I am interested in: What are artists, writers, curators, directors, thinkers, educators, and a whole host of other creative practitioners doing in these places? And why are they doing it in these places that have far less of what over the years has come to be called a scene?

This is not a new question but it is a timely one as these well known stylists can attest:

April 24, 2013: AFC/Paddy Johnson proclaims, “Don’t Move to New York

March 29, 2013: Dave Hickey calls on us to, “give up our institutions, relinquish our vain pursuit of accreditation, and summoned us to become artists again.

March 7, 2013: Patti Smith to Artists: Don’t Come to New York

February 6, 2013: Christian Viveros-Faune in The Village Voice says, “Uptown Money Kills Downtown Art

Or, even The Onion’s almost true satire: “8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City A Horrible Place To Live.”

In an industry that is tied together by one universally connective variable – the absolute need for external validation – can art continue to flourish and even alternatively adapt on the margins? Has it being doing this all along and the same cyclical visit to conversations of money and art has come around… again? Does pointing out inequities also reinforce categorization and ultimately commodification? Will the margins remain such and become whatever tier they eventually are slotted into no matter how much they care or not?

The following is an sampling of my ongoing collection (under the title “Margins or New Multiple Centers”) of thoughts, first hand accounts, and speculations from transplants, locals, newbies, townies, old hats, and hangers-on in some left of center art locales. Some are further left than others but all house a unique energy that sustains creative enterprise on the fringe.

Austin, TX

“Maybe it is a sense that it is the writing of laws and not the breaking of them, that is the most significant and characteristic artistic act in modernity.” ~Jeff Wall

“He’d told me once that the art of getting ahead in New York was based on learning how to express dissatisfaction in an interesting way. The air was full of rage and complaint. People had no tolerance for your particular hardship unless you knew how to entertain them with it.” ~ Don DeLillo, White Noise

Last month marked a year that I have lived in Austin, Texas so I feel barely qualified to give my fervent share of views. However, my process and work will truly never be the same. As a New York ex-pat, I came to Texas originally to “get my sanity back” during an “experimental leave of absence” that was supposed to last five months, but….Yep, I’m still here. All I seemed to be doing in NYC was what I like to call the Survive N Hustle and man, was I tired. A spiritual exhaustion deep in my bones. So I flew South and set up shop.

The first thing I realized was that I had no idea How To Enjoy Life. I set about listening to people be genuinely nice and helpful with shock and suspicion. When I reported back, my New York crew scoffed, “What the F*$^ does that mean?” While I feared that I had abandoned the true center of the universe, what I have found here is a quiet cauldron of creative time and space that I never had in the big cities I have spent the majority of my life: NYC, San Francisco, Phoenix. I literally spend most of my time here….making art. Isn’t this what was supposed to happen all along? Being an artist should mean that I make or think about art, not bartend until predawn or build window displays for fancy department stores in under-heated warehouses in Queens.

Austin has been really good to me. The creative undercurrent in the people here is loose and free and flowing, but without the dark curse of say, Memphis, as much as I love that town. Here in Austin, there are some art institutions and ever fewer commercial galleries, but this is compensated for by the incredible and constant efforts of small artist-run independent endeavors too numerous to name: Co-Lab Projects, MASS Gallery, Monofonus Press, Tiny Park, OK Mountain, Grayduck Gallery, The Museum of Human Achievement, Fusebox Festival, Big Medium, Pump Project, EAST and WEST studio tours and the list goes on. The city shells out to curate and fill City Hall with a year long juried show annually. A new organization curates artists each year to put on roving billboards throughout the city. The people are honestly supportive and curious. I have never had so many people genuinely ask me questions about my ideas and my work. While the art markets in Dallas and Houston remain more profitable, they are close by and we are left with a liberal town that encourages and rewards ambition and ideas. If I sound like a medicated spokesperson, that only testifies to my incredible enlightenment being the small town, slower, peripheral version of me. For now, at least.

This is a town of endless festivals that tends to overshadow attention to the arts, but I am relishing being under the radar. Always having to be “on” in a city like New York leaves no room to fuck up or fail or experiment or even do something outside, for Crissakes! The wide skies, the dry prairie winds, the cheap(er) rents. Ingredients for new routes, new possibilities. In a bigger art scene, I constantly feel like I’m in conversation with every show and every other artist, whereas here, the lack of constant overstimulation or manic activity actually gives me room for dips into new rooms and lucid pockets. I answer to my own lines drawn in the sand and look forward to the unknown outcome of cut tethers and the freeing of form. Some call Austin the Velvet Coffin and at times, I have to admit, it does feel good enough to lie here forever.

You can see more of Alyssa Taylor Wendt’s work here: www.alyssataylorwendt.com


San Diego, CA

First of all I have to give Mike credit. This project is prompting some serious soul searching, and I imagine, the other contributors, and hopefully, the readers. We fret over this sort of question daily, but we rarely have to put it in writing.

I don’t feel there are any easy answers to why I’m in San Diego. I did most of my growing up here, but moved to Los Angeles for a BFA. Although L.A. would have been a good place for connections, career building, etc, when I graduated, it didn’t feel like a good place for me. I was working 30 hours a week and making art in a narrow garage. I didn’t feel attached to what I was making and in that setting, I knew it would take a long time for me to figure anything out. I was also too immature to cope with the social jockeying that comes with a big art city. There was a very clear sense that I needed to be alone.
An opportunity arose to live on my grandparent’s farm in Colorado. What was intended to be a six month get away turned into three years of living in a farm town. Three prime, youthful years in L.A. were traded for PK’s, middle-America good’ol boys, and Grandpa’s breakfast club. Actually, it was a good routine. Breakfast and garage sailing with grandpa and the rest of the day fucking around with art. I had plenty of time, space, and equipment. My cross stitching, shabby chic-ing grandma played the art critic.

The isolation was good for me. With enough distance from peers and steady reading, I was able to build a strong internal logic, slowly molding and trimming my art, values, and routine into something cohesive. That kind of isolation is potent; you can get a bit too eccentric, or too detached from the contemporary. The contemporary starts to matter less. But I also looked to John Baldessari’s stories of making art in National City (coincidentally, four miles south where I am now). He described how the proliferation of contemporary art publications allowed him to stay abreast of contemporary issues without having to live in a major city. If that were true in the 70’s, it is exponentially more true today. The range of digital media have conspired to decentralize the economy of ideas and news. It feels like information technology has also made art better. The difficulty we’ve had in applying “isms” to the last quarter-century of art feels more like a product of diversity than a lack of vision. Mike describes ‘Multiple New [geographic] Centers’ and I think that could be extended to multiple new ideological centers from which art is made and defended.

However, websites and tertiary museums don’t replace brave exhibition spaces and sharp-eyed peers. As unique and irreplaceable as the country charms were, I always maintained an eye toward Los Angeles, looking for a way to afford an ambitious sculptor/painter’s practice there. When the recession hit, an opportunity became available in San Diego. It wasn’t L.A., but it was Southern California, well-paying, part-time work, big studio, surfing, and the chance to vanquish some familial guilt that had been haunting me since I left for Los Angeles. So I took it. I guess that reveals my loyalties. Thus far, at the cost of the best chances for a career break, I’ve always gone to where I have the best chances of a large studio and significant time to make work. (I’ve also stuck by family, which is the trend I’m less comfortable with.) Regardless, most of my life I’ve been into making big, physical, things and have never been comfortable with trusting the art economy to afford that kind of luxury on a consistent, long-term basis. I’m as worried about the art I will make this year as the paintings I want to be playing with in my 60’s and 70’s.

So, here I am. In San Diego. While it fails to provide a mechanism to reliably move deserving artists up the ranks, it does have a sense of consequence. In comparison with rural Colorado, this environment has made my work sharper and more ambitious. Between the universities, museums, artists working here, and proximity to Tijuana and Los Angeles, I feel accountable for what I make in ways that I didn’t on the farm. I also hold stubbornly to the belief that the work should lead, that a thing should be crafted such that the audience finds it undeniable. Aside from making work, I’ve also joined in the efforts to make San Diego a more serious scene. For the last three years I’ve been curating at an artist-run project space, working to build exhibition opportunities in our community and help integrate it with neighboring cities. More recently I’ve been developing an arts journal with Julian Rogers called Dodo Editions. It’s a multi-pronged effort aimed at improving the documentation, criticism, and exposure of art made in this region. I’m also hoping it will unlock some of the latent potential that exists between San Diego, TJ and LA.

In a place like San Diego you have to dream things up; there’s little established order, and less willing machinery. I often wonder why I got so entangled in these things when I just want to make work. Project spaces, reviews…now grad school? I guess it’s because it’s fun; problems make life interesting. Like my Great Grandma Lind said, “Do something. Even if you have to do it wrong.”

You can see more of Joshua Miller’s work here: www.joshuajonmiller.com


Portland, OR

Finding an art scene in a small city in a rain forest…Yes, there is one. I have been lucky enough to watch it grow like a cluster of mushrooms at the base of an old growth pine. In my experience, it began with a conglomeration of creative types of many fields. Music was first (for me) with Elliott Smith and all those 90s bands, and then the independent film people creating festivals. Then visual artists, previously few and scattered, started coming together in groups and putting on shows. Core Sample and the Modern Zoo being two examples of pretty stellar community organized events. The 1990s and 2000s were time of breaking out of a long time of isolation, from craft and more traditional art which has been around forever. People moved from other places and work emerged that was contemporary and conceptual. It is still a “do it yourself” culture and and still small but with a growing population and art infrastructure. The Portland Art Museum added a wing for contemporary art and the local art school, PNCA, is going to move into a gigantic old building in the Park Blocks. The galleries who show contemporary art; PDX, Elizabeth Leach, PICA, Blue Sky Gallery, Disjecta and others are being joined by newcomers who will provide more venues and opportunities. It is a difficult prospect for an artist to survive as an artist in Portland. Art collectors are few and far between and the funding organizations are stretched thin. But there is clean air and room to breathe, giant trees and volcanoes, and other people who like stuff like that.

You can see more of Melody Owen’s work here: www.thistlepress.net


Columbus, OH

I was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, and completed my BFA in Indianapolis. Afterwards I ran off to a semester post-bac residency in rural France, and then moved here to Columbus, Ohio for graduate school at Ohio State. I’ve never lived or worked anywhere that would be considered a cultural center (unless one is interested in football as a cultural phenomenon) so working on the margins of the larger art community is all I really know. I hardly knew anyone living or closely connected to major art center until I had the opportunity to attend the Skowhegan residency in 2011, which was packed full of artists from Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and other major centers. Since then I’ve felt myself drifting back to the routine disconnection of living in the Midwest. Some upsides to this are a slower pace of life and low cost of living, which grant me time and energy to devote to my own work that I’m not sure I would have somewhere like New York. One major downside is the awareness that I inhabit a marginalized role in a conservative community largely indifferent to visual art, with a shortage of galleries and exhibition spaces for both showing and seeing work.

As much as I am frustrated by the conservatism and short-term thinking of this region, I also feel some sense of responsibility towards trying to change this situation for the better. There is a perpetual conflict between wanting to push the city’s art forward while also being desperately impatient to be somewhere that will push my own work forward. There are some hopeful signs. For instance the Canzani Center Gallery, at the otherwise commercial design oriented Columbus College of Art and Design (full disclosure: I install art there), has recently been bringing in some of the most ambitious shows seen in the area, under the direction of former James Cohan exhibition head Michael Goodson. Through the Canzani artists like Trenton Doyle Hancock, Nari Ward, Byron Kim, and Donald Moffett are streaming through Columbus pretty regularly. Hell, I just got to help out with executing a Sol Lewitt for the current exhibition, “Wall.” Smaller initiatives are also popping up. Melissa Vogley Woods’ project Rooms to Let is creating challenging opportunities for artists to produce work based around and installed in local housing slated for demolition. Ry Wharton’s Center for Ongoing Research and Projects (COR&P), housed in a tiny building I think was previously used as a parking attendant’s office, recently brought Shana Lutker to town to show work based on fistfights between the surrealists. [See Melissa Vogley Woods’ interview with Ryland Wharton on COR&P] Ann Hamilton lives and works here, and the studio she shares with her partner Michael Mercil acts as site for dinners and lecture nights with visiting artists and critics, in connection with Ohio State’s MFA program. [See Nancy Zastudil’s interview with Michael Mercil] And then there’s the Wexner Center, which has Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” on view right now. So, there are engaging things to be found here. However, there still isn’t that much, meaning one runs out of new things to look at pretty quick. There is nothing here that approaches a gallery district for randomly hopping around and seeing new work when one needs a quick art fix.

At the moment, though, I feel pretty good about being here. I work several freelance jobs as an exhibition installer, which generally keeps me just barely financially solvent but also leaves me with time between jobs that I can use to focus in the studio. I also feel lucky in that I am at a point in which time and some isolation are what I want as I set out to build a new body of work after grad school. But I know this might not last, and I am also aware that the small community of artist friends I have here will probably drift apart over time, with some finding teaching positions or other opportunities in elsewhere. So I keep a part of one eye out for the next step, while trying to concentrate on the most important thing, making work.

You can see more of Ken’s work here: www.kennurenberg.com, kennurenberg.tumblr.com

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  1. Judy Blotnick

    I lived in Boston (well, Cambridge) for 25 years and made art, taught art, ate and drank art while in serious conflict about wanting to be validated by my peers and about wanting the beast of ambition to be fed, like logs into a roaring furnace fire.
    Then a year ago I moved to New York and a funny thing happened. Here I am in the middle of ferocious competition, heated gallery action, Disney-esque museum fever, a crazy art market that is careening into money laundering schemes but me, strangely at peace. In New York. In Chelsea. In Soho. I am now in the place where art comes to die and I am taking a siesta in a war zone without alcohol, drugs or massages. Making art in New York, in 2013, feels like when I was 5 and illustrated all my books with a pencil and an eraser, in the margins, on the covers and anywhere I could find blank space. No audience, no prizes, no adulation or money, just pure, hedonistic pleasure. If I could rub a magic lantern I’d ask for a larger studio
    but hey, even in the tiny space I now rent I am fueled by a contrarian attitude that shocks the hell out of me.

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