LivingArts: Reception


One the most awesome things you can give yourself as a visual artist is the permission to be gratuitously, passionately, even pathologically introverted.  To build a tiny sphere from your creative ideas and then seal yourself inside it for days, weeks, longer perhaps; if it doesn’t destroy you, it can be both transformative and exhilarating.   Starting out as a painter in my twenties I had frequent experiences where eight hours flashed by in what felt like five minutes, where the mind felt both meditative and lightning fast, and the process of art making was sublime.

Nowadays, I’m at the studio less, and on the computer more.  I am more deliberate and less mysterious in my processes.  Studio time is rationed into roughly three hour chunks, jammed between professional and family responsibilities, and usually electrified by some kind of imminent deadline.

I miss those open-ended stretches of exploratory making. But here’s the thing: because that kind of introversion is no longer such a dominant part of my practice, I wonder if I may have over-inflated its value when I was younger.  In my twenties, making the work was the paramount action; if I made something in a transcendent state of self-absorption, it only followed that the work itself should be similarly transcendent. When you are immersed, you feel like you are producing truth; the success or failure of its public reception was irrelevant to its essential value.

When I was young I put no big effort into cultivating a good social circumstance for my work.  Nor did I participate very much at any reception that was organized for me.  Real artists were introverts I reasoned, and introverts should look sullen and uncomfortable at public receptions, and should say things like ‘my work is open-ended, I don’t like ascribing a single interpretation’.

Over the last year, I have had what I can only describe as an epiphany about the nature of art receptions, one that swings my beliefs to the contrary of what they were when I started out.  In a nutshell, I’ve begun thinking that the reception, the social contrivance created to frame the art, might well be as important than the art itself.  The art is obviously the key ingredient, whose quality will dictate who and how people gather around it.  But the caliber of the social experience can also imbue the art with value it would not otherwise possess.

And by receptions, I don’t mean the cheese and wine and polite stifled banter that is the cliché of the art opening, the one to which many galleries and artists still cling.  By reception I mean true moments of social convergence, things like the James Street Art Crawl in its prime, or the TH&B United openings I helped coordinate this past spring, moments where people use art as a tool to gather, celebrate, self-identify, rebel, whatever.

Last month the Art Gallery of Hamilton launched its summer exhibitions, spearheaded by ‘are you experienced?’ an exemplary contemporary art show occupying the institutions entire first floor.  The social event organized to mark the exhibition broke from the habit of formal, staid receptions that have been the Gallery’s habit over the last decade.  This event was deliberately cultivated as a party.  I’m sure I’m not the only one to think this, but it took an excellent exhibition and made it feel significant, urgent even.

In other words, the point where art goes public is an important one, part of the overall execution of the work.   And what thrills me is that it is another opportunity for an immersive experience—this time an extroverted not an introverted one—but one with an equal capacity for illumination and truth.