LivingArts: Freedom

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

When the American minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly passed away late last year, my Facebook stream burbled up a nice bit of video of the artist not just explaining his life-long commitment to abstraction, but also illuminating the difficult position of being 90+ years old and knowing he has at least 15 more years of paintings stuck in his head.  He spoke with an urgency, a need to fulfil as much of his artistic mission as he possibly could.

It’s weird to be jealous of a man with oxygen tubes in his nose, who wakes up certain he has only days left to his life.  But that was the feeling that struck me.  It was the same jealousy that kicked in watching David Bowie’s latest videos last week.  To have such an entrenched sense of purpose that even imminent death only serves to amplify or galvanize it, well, it’s hard not to covet it for oneself.

These events have contributed to my recent obsession with the word ‘freedom’.  Not freedom in the gun-happy American vision of the word, but creative freedom, artistic freedom. That feeling or condition when you feel fully immersed in your own practice.

This is how I would frame my own psychology when it comes to being creative.  I have sporadic, beautiful moments of being free. Then there are the moments of being ‘not-free’, which I divided into two categories.   There is the ‘not-free’ when I have lots of time and space to work but am gripped with the panic of having no worthy ideas to pursue.  There is the ‘not-free’ when my time is tied up, I scramble around from obligation to obligation like a squirrel, and feel like I have a million ideas that will never get out.  

My mother, aged 82, talks to me often about her own trajectory as a painter.  For the bulk of her artistic life she has successfully sculpted and painted Rubenesque satires of historical, social and Biblical narratives, but recently has felt a need to change directions.   She talks about this change often, but hasn’t as yet plunged into it. I am so curious as to what this new body of work might look like, I keep imagining I can say something that will catalyze her urge to jump in. 

And then there is my recent connection with the Hundred Dollar Gallery. My collective TH&B agreed to hang a show there this February, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more ‘free’ in my efforts to prepare for an exhibition in my life.  I don’t even know if they know it yet, but Gallery creators Andrew McPhail and Stephen Altena have come up with an exceptionally liberating premise.   A gallery that only allows $100 works is liberating because you have to abandon or self-satirize aspects of the way you work.  The mandate seems to guarantee that you will produce something you otherwise would never have thought to produce.  And a gallery that only allows for $100 works means you can’t worry about success— the scale of show is designed to be unsuccessful in conventional ways—as a result you can literally make art knowing you have nothing to lose.

Working within a collective is similarly liberating because you can artistically contribute in a way that isn’t affected by the momentum of your own practice.  And if your art offerings bomb, there are still a few people to drink with at the end of the night.

There’s something about doing a Hundred Dollar Gallery show that reminds me of how art went down in the city before Art Crawl too.  There was a smaller audience for art back then, and certainly less of an income to draw off it.  But that didn’t make the art scene bad.   A lot of art back then was free in a way that we don’t see as much these days; the kind of freedom that happens when no one is looking.

I can’t tell you the comfort it is for me to know that there are other means, significantly less ominous than looming death, to loosen artists up, to make them create with freedom and purpose.