Off-Center: Or, Why I Don’t Live in New York
The question of why an artist lives in a particular city is often as intricate as the metropolis’s scattered map. Cultural infrastructure, support networks, collectors, commercial galleries, teaching opportunities, like-minded dialogue, affordable studios, proximity to Artforum’s offices, money, family, MFA programs, city parks, simple math. In many places across the nation, art is being made. In a smaller number, great art is being made. Not because of the city, but because greatness is rare. And yet, a question that must arise, seemingly, in every city that is neither New York nor LA, is whether it is possible to pursue a career in the arts there. Even if it is possible, is it advisable? I have observed enough discussions in communities as diverse as Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco circling the same set of questions to understand that the question is a near-universal one riddled with anxiety, insecurity and a bit of desperation. After all, what if you are wrong? The thing about the question, though, is that it can never be answered.
There is an ease to prerecorded history. Attend these schools, live in these cities, flatter these galleries and you’ll end your twenties in a Whitney Biennial, surrounded by all of your friends. If the art world is primarily about connections, then proximity to the highest concentration of influential individuals has a kind of logic. If, however, it is about creating meaning, then that same path is perhaps toxic. Meaning arrives in disjointed leaps. It is incremental, exchange-based, one person or idea to another. It expands along unpredictable paths, often not leading anywhere near a biennial. And yet, something in the world has ruptured. One can live creating connections with all the right people or working to create meaning that will always make its own connections. If a new (art) world forms, my guess is that it won’t happen in New York, or Los Angeles for that matter. Maybe it is already nascent in St. Louis, maybe Albuquerque, maybe Kansas City, maybe Minneapolis. Or perhaps it is simply in the unpredictable connections between these places.
One perspective states that working away from the coasts creates a relative isolation that forces great artists to be greater. Artists are more likely to follow a personal vision, assuming they have one. Those who take the space and time allowed and, with sheer force, bring something into being, bear more weight than the coasts, but too often gravity without that force leads many to settle in the center.
An artist wants to live in an unformed world. Anyone whose vocation is to make something needs a place without everything. There is a lure to proximity, to the sugar rush of an art center, which more often than not crushes the new idea like a cultural model of Gartner’s Innovation Hype Cycle. The Peak of Inflated Expectations leads so quickly to Disillusionment. Visibility and Time, cramped in a small space waiting for a trigger.
In the absence of hype, ideas gather. Many dissipate, some deepen, a few finally build into something bigger. If art centers are constantly being revised and rewritten, off-center cities like St. Louis are always in the process of being articulated. The representative St. Louis artist, in this view, would be Martin Brief, whose recent exhibition at Isolation Room was comprised of a single piece, entitled Success, that made a quiet spectacle of the question by copying the word ‘success’ and its etymological outcroppings by hand on a single sheet of vellum. The process reportedly took the artist 400 hours in the studio and a full year to complete as the follow-up to his brilliant 2010 Great Rivers Biennial exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis.
St. Louis is not New York, nor is it Detroit. The grand summing-up statements are more difficult. There is no easy cliché, only a few observable realities: for a city its size, the number of thriving visual art institutions is astounding; houses, studios, and galleries are almost impossibly attainable; and, finally, no one knows whether it is possible for one to pursue a career here. Of course.
One can view an empty house as a blight or a gallery and we have many empty houses. In recent years, many have begun to fill after a long time dormant. Houses like the one Cosign Projects wrapped in spandex. Los Caminos‘s apartment above a barber shop; the Rebuild Foundation‘s span of shotgun houses; Good Citizen‘s mixed-use storefront and billboard. This city was a center once (so I hear), but I prefer this one. In the absence of hype, ideas gather, connections build, jagged at first, inarticulate. Then, all of a sudden, worlds emerge.