Monday, January 30, 2006

Why I do not have an MFA

Every now and then I look at my life and wonder, "how did I get here?" Not that the level of drama, intrigue and adventure hasn't far exceeded my wildest dreams, but if someone had told my twenty-one-year-old self, "You will end up as a massage therapist in Brooklyn, living with cats," I would either have dismissed that person in total contempt or pegged them in the jaw, depending upon my state of mind at the time. Particularly in times of confusion and economic struggle, I wonder, "what was I thinking, during those carefree college days when I was Big Girl On Campus? How did I plan to make a living?"

After a few seconds of reflection, I remember the answer. I had what seemed like a solid, practical, realistic plan: get a BFA, get an MFA, get a gallery or two dealing my work, and teach. That was what our professors did; that was the assumed trajectory. This plan seemed realistic even in its humility; of course I wasn't counting on being an Art Star by the age of twenty-seven, just a professor by the age of thirty. With my acknowleged talent, discipline and 'cum laude' GPA, I didn't see how this could be a problem. Certainly I didn't count myself among the slackers who mumbled, "well, I like to draw, and I like drugs, so why not be an art major?"

Lordy, lordy, lordy.

Every so often I get an email from a stranger who has found my website and wants the inside scoop on SFAI. They never pay attention when I tell them "DO NOT DO IT. DO NOT GO TO THAT SCHOOL." When I tell them about the politics, the pettiness, the squabbles and backbiting and lack of practical assistance of any kind, they always think it sounds like an interesting challenge. They think, "I'm the talented one; I'm the one who will triumph. Lemme at 'em."

But lately I got hold of the one piece of information that convinces them of what I really mean. A very talented friend of mine from SFAI recently re-entered my life; she finally finished her undergraduate degree there, after a long set of detours. She is bright, holy, works like a maniac, and achieved more worldly recognition in her undergraduate days than a lot of SFAI professors ever will. She applied to some MFA programs and went to the SFAI faculty, of course, for the necessary recommendations.

One of those faculty members was the chair of the painting department, who for some reason, during my student days, always made me uncomfortable. I took a tutorial with her, and found that after one of her critiques I would destroy whatever piece I had been working on, and be unable to continue working for a week or two. Finally I started avoiding her, just so I could get something accomplished. She was nominally supportive of me only after I proved that I was not someone who fades into the woodwork when patronized, slapped down or ignored; we were on superficially good terms at graduation, but whenever I dropped by campus afterward, she didn't seem to recognize me.

Other former students, though, particularly the successful ones, spoke highly of her. "I know you don't like her, but she's been a second mother to me...". I wondered if I was just being an asshole.

Then my friend told me, "Chairwoman X has been on a lot of medication lately; that's probably why she said it. She came to me and confided, 'Darla, you don't realize it, but you're my competition now, and there aren't a lot of places for women in the art world. So I'm afraid I can't write you that recommendation.'"


I ask you, what kind of an institution hires someone who thinks like that, let alone makes them head of a department? "The San Francisco Art Institute: We Specialize in Career Sabotage." A degree from SFAI guarantees nothing except that you will be qualified to operate an espresso machine for a living, provided you had the sense to do work-study in the student café.

What I see is that higher education, particularly in "soft" disciplines like art and literature, has become a sort of pyramid scheme, trading on the unconsidered, antiquated notion that a college degree always helps you get ahead. Colleges and universities have become economic entities that exist to sustain themselves, not the students they purport to be educating. A quick look at the numbers can show you that. An MFA from SFAI costs $40-60K; for every three tenured professors who retire, schools are hiring one part-time, non-tenure-track flunkey to replace them. The chances of making a decent living as a university art professor after graduating with an MFA are nearly nil--let alone paying off your monster debt.

This fact is borne out among my immediate acquaintance. I do not know a single person within twenty years of my age who holds an MFA and a teaching job which pays the bills. They're stocking groceries at the co-op, working in libraries, temping, doing short-term, exhausting and thankless teaching gigs in inner-city public schools, designing textiles, pumping espresso, or sponging off their spouses. Some of them were wise enough to learn a technical skill of some sort, and are eking out a living in web design or carpentry. Most of them have either settled down permanently at the bottom of the economic ladder, or have made a complete career change and are no longer making art at all.

The cold economics of the situation, moreover, are conflated with a not-so-subtle implication that poverty equals moral and artistic virtue. "How do we pay for this?" asked a freshman student, at SFAI's beginning-of-term assembly. "Learn to live on almost nothing," was the perfectly straight response, from the director himself. And it is true that practicing thrift and learning to prioritize has made my life infinitely richer and more enjoyable than if I were pulling down $100K a year in a profession that bored me.

But that was the sum total of practical economic advice or assistance we received from the institution as a whole. Trivial, sordid subjects like marketing, career management, portfolio presentation, accounting, taxes, contracts, negotiation, and intellectual property law were never mentioned; still less did we make any of those useful, much ballyhoo'd "career contacts" that are indispensible in the 24-7 schmooze-a-thon that is the 'art world.' On the contrary--should a professor or another student happen to have a close personal friend who was opening up a new gallery, or know a dealer who'd be interested in a certain person's style of work, that person kept mighty quiet about it.

All schools, of course, are different. Whenever I meet someone who is enrolled in an MFA program, or has graduated from one, I pick their brains. So far the only program I've heard about which provides genuinely stimulating assignments, adequate studio space, assigned faculty mentorship, career assistance and top-quality technical instruction is the California College of Arts and Crafts. All the rest of them seem to consist of marathon sessions of arcane rhetoric and emotional abuse, masquerading as "critiques," labyrinthine ego politics, and very little else.

This business of "critique" needs to be addressed as well. "Critique" is the institutional trump card, the biggest rhetorical power play they undertake to manipulate students into dropping $13K per semester. "You need to be able to talk about your work," they say. "You need to learn to think about your audience, to think critically, to learn the vocabulary." Tommyrot. The greatest artists I have known have, most of them, been completely inarticulate. They do what they do, regardless of the army of academics following them around and telling them that they're irrelevant.

Moreover, too much analysis, too early on, can kill a creative idea faster than a gallon of Raid. Truly powerful visual art is rarely a product of intellectual construct; it emerges from a different part of the brain. The verbal rationalizations and explications of a work of art generally take place long after the act of creation. Rare is the artist who can think and paint at the same time.

This all goes partly to explain why I emerged from SFAI, 'cum laude' BFA in hand, in a state of creative, financial and emotional shock. I hadn't given much thought to MFA programs at all; I just instinctively knew that I needed some time to regroup. Financially desperate, I took the first full-time, temporary secretarial job from hell that presented itself. Three months later I stormed out of the job from hell and showered Bank of America upper management with irate letters, exposing their corporate archivist as a fraudulent bully. Then I sat down and figured out the minimum income I needed in order to survive, and calculated how much I had to earn per hour to survive on twenty hours paid labor a week, so that I could spend the rest of the time in the studio. After that I just followed my nose, to Mexico, massage school, and Brooklyn.

So, to anyone out there who is considering going into an MFA program, I offer this advice; don't. Go to the library if you must, and check out every book on critical theory, technique, composition and rhetoric that interests you. If you need to learn something like stonecutting, casting, welding or carpentry, take classes at a community college. Read artist biographies and go to museums. Then take that fifty thousand dollars that you were going to spend on an MFA, go to a country whose economy is one order of magnitude cheaper than the United States, rent a studio, and work for two to five years. Come back to this country, get a website and a blog, and start networking.

You may never become a Famous Artist, but it will be a lot of fun.

Dreams realized

This morning I glanced at my kitchen table and realized that a childhood dream of mine has come true: my kitchen is a jungle.

I did not post any works-in-progress last week because the current work is undergoing various stages of hideousness, which I have been duly documenting, but do not wish to display until I have dragged it back from disaster and can produce the miraculous result, with all due pomp and flourishing.

Also, an alter ego of mine has taken on a life of her own and is running amok amidst the evangelical element. If you check her out, bear in mind that this is a fictitious character whose views do not necessarily reflect those of the management. Or not wholly or all of the time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

We have a winner!

Barak has won the first drawing! I am keeping everybody else's name in the box, however, and adding as I go. I suppose this means I will have to leave the studio to go to the post office. Certainly it will be good for me.

Also, check out this link to an interview with my friend and client, Christine Krol. It seems we share a love of traditional media, and an aversion to the work of Ghada Amer.

Laura Ohata, an amazing writer from Austin, has a new website. I also loved Jackadandy's blog. I will post all these links on the sidebar when I'm less lazy.

It's so great to get long letters from you, everybody! I didn't realize that so many people were shy about posting. Val, can I cut and paste your letter about people who don't know how to cook? I think it's valuable.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Now playing at the big-ass dealers

Actually Got Out Of The House this weekend. After dithering over the L mag and failing to find a Voice, we decided just to go to Chelsea and see what we saw.

There may be hundreds of galleries in Chelsea, but the big ones at street level get 80-90% of the walk-by traffic. We got through Gagosian, Mary Boone, Barbara Gladstone, and a couple of pretenders whose names I cannot now recall, before collapsing. It was the Thomas Hirschhorn show that did us in--more on that in a moment.

What I notice about big-ass art dealers, usually, is that they foster art which is Big and Thin. It must be large enough to fill a room the size of a basketball court; it must be, in some way, obsessively strange and trivial; it must take a lot of work to make a fairly obvious point, in a staggeringly arcane way.

Case in point: the Ghada Amer show at Gagosian. The pieces are, after all, mildly neat. They are huge canvases with repetitive, overlapping images, evidently stolen from Hustler and Disney, stitched into the canvas by hand with thousands of dangling threads.

Other canvases in the narrow back gallery were square and black with nearly illegible text stitched in and covered in tar. The text appeared to have a vaguely revolutionary content, but I certainly didn't have the patience to decipher it.

The Point, as far as I understood it, was the usual stuff about women's processes versus women's image, as objectified by Society, and the Male Gaze, and all that. Probably. I suppose. Since I'm not a professional reviewer I'll skip the lingo.

My concern, though, is that in terms of actual physical affect these pieces are kind of ho-hum. They have roughly ten percent of the energy of a middle-stage Guston. They're primarily about a Sisyphean process, lending weight to a paper-thin, static sociopolitical commentary.

What kind of daily life of the mind must this artist have, then--stitching, stitching, stitching, making the occasional aesthetic decision but largely just doing busy work? And all for a show that is Flavor of the Month at Gagosian, hip and trendy for now, but utterly gone by March? Is her life as a big-league artist at all satisfying in its balance and creative exploration, or is she sacrificing the blood of her thousand-hour days to the dealer's need to exhibit Big and Strange?

Just asking.

On to Mary Boone, where somebody had curated a somewhat random group show of famously shallow, staggeringly priced artists, Warhol and Koons among them. I'm not sure why this show was happening in January at all--it had the flavor of a late-summer throw-together done by a flunkey, when dealers, patrons and critics are all upstate, detoxing in Nature. Its most salient feature was a mirrored floor which made us slightly queasy. I checked the price list and all the works were in the six-to-seven-figure range, all with red dots, except the floor. I suppose even the super-rich collectors draw the line at actual vertigo in the home.

But it was the Thomas Hirschhorn show at Barbara Gladstone which delivered the coup de grace, rendering me, at least, literally too nauseated to continue. It was called, with refreshing honesty, "Superficial Engagement." At first glance it looked like an installation by one of those outsider artists who fills vacant lots with a labyrinth of psychotic crap--mannequins drilled full of screws, cut-out signs, thrift-store art and magazine collage. Upon closer inspection the magazine photos turned out to be unsparingly graphic images of roughly dismembered human corpses, more and more and more and more of them. Side by side with these were lots of pretty Spirograph drawings, String Art, and plasma screens with planetary images twirling peacefully round. I mean to say, huh?

Upon reading the press release, I discovered that the artist's concern is to engage the viewer at a level too superficial for political discourse to enter, on a number of arenas at once. He succeeds. With a sledgehammer. The work has no grace and no finesse, and is less deep and real than a visit to Coney Island. On an energetic level I can actually appreciate what he is trying to do--he is acknowleging the strata of body, darkness, violence, density, and fear; simultaneously the intellect with its medium of language, simultaneously the spirit with unity and peace. Unfortunately the first is all too easy, and the last is all too perfunctory. He must be a tired, tired man.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

How to Stretch a Canvas

This post shouldn't be necessary. Two things, however, prompted me to write it: 1) the time I was carrying a 4'x5' piece into a BWAC exhibition, and another 'artist' said, 'did you stretch that yourself? Wow, I never learned how to do that.' 2) during my open studio, I received a visit from an individual with an MFA (correspondence) who holds a position of some responsibility in a Brooklyn arts organization. Her comment was more or less the same as 1), with the addendum, 'you got it so tight and even. Badly stretched canvases look like shit.'

Well, duh. I don't know why I should be so shocked by this, but folks, this is basic. Not only that, but I think that these people's comments reflect badly upon their assumptions about the level of professionalism of artists in general, and me in particular. I am the woman who packed her table saw in a truck and drove it to Mexico, to build her own stretcher bars on the roof, because Mexican carpenters have not yet discovered carbide-tipped saw blades, and kept making passes at me. I MEAN IT. I'M SERIOUS. Stop patronizing me.

Sorry to get testy so early in the day. Here we go.

I finally gave up building my own stretcher bars, because apartments in Brooklyn just aren't big enough to hold a table saw, and the weather is too bad to put it on the roof. These are Creative Mark heavy-duty 36" x 48" stretcher bars, ordered from Jerry's. They have bevelled edges and precision-cut corners; you still, however, have to be very careful to put them together at right angles.

Set them up like this, against a wall.

Although the notches for the corners are cut for you, they won't just slide into place. You have to whack them with a hammer.

Make sure each corner is squared with a T-square--do not eyeball it. Gabriel will supervise.

Glue is actually not required for these types of corners, which is useful if you succumb to wishful thinking and discover, later on, that you've gotten the corners crooked.

Pre-cut and recessed cross-braces are also available through Jerry's. They will notch the center braces for you if you ask nicely, and if they happen to have the right lengths in stock (!@%!^$!#). For this canvas I am only bracing the long side, since for some reason they didn't carry 48" braces.

Measure and make sure that the brace is exactly in the center of both sides. It's no good if you brace it all caty-wompus.

Glue and nail the brace into place--the nails are only to hold it until the glue dries. Gabriel will supervise the glue cap.

Now we measure and cut the canvas. This is heavy, rough-weave Polish linen; as you can see, I am only using cotton duck canvas for a drop cloth. That is because the linen is a phenomenally beautiful, high-vibration, organic thing, all by itself--you put a stroke of paint on it and it already looks like a Degas. Cotton duck canvas is just blah. Linen is also phenomenally expensive, which is why I didn't start painting on it until I'd been practicing for 17 years. It's also why you have to take out a third mortgage to afford one of my big paintings (sorry, Badger.)

Oops. High texture is a good thing; holes in the canvas are not.

Avoiding the hole. The extra foot of damaged canvas goes into the bag of interesting things for fooling around with later.

As far as I know, other artists may skip this step--most wrinkles will be removed in the stretching and gessoing process. However, if the wrinkle does survive the gessoing, it's permanent. I'd rather not take that risk.

Necessary stretching tools: canvas pliers, staples, staple gun. Always take the old staple box with you to the hardware store when buying new ones, preferably with a few staples still in it to compare. All 1/4", 6mm staples are not created equal, damn and blast. I've already made two trips to Lowe's this week, and now I have to go to Home Depot.

Now we get to the crux of canvas stretching technique. Start from the center. Put two or three staples in the middle of one side, then go to the side directly across from it, pull as hard as you can, and put two or three staples in. Then do the same on the other two sides, so that you have a diamond of tightness in the middle. Keep moving around, working out from the center, pulling with the pliers as you staple.

To use the pliers, fold the edge you are working on to get a good grip. Use the bump on the top of the pliers against the stretcher for leverage. Pull the pliers over, back and down to get the canvas as tight as possible, then staple it down. Using pliers and a good staple gun will still not protect your hands completely; you know you're doing it right when there is no skin left on your knuckles.

Work around as evenly as possible until you get to the corners. The corners are the hardest part; keep using the pliers until you can't possibly get a grip on them any more. You don't want a loose pooch at the corner. Before you staple the corner down, fold the canvas so that the double thickness is underneath, and the fold occurs right at the corner, like so:

Then staple that baby down.

With any luck, once you get all the staples in, it should look pretty good. It probably won't be perfect, however; with all your best efforts, there will still be a few puckers. Don't panic. Before ripping out the staples and trying again, spray a little water on the puckers and see if they vanish. A coat of gesso will usually tighten away wrinkles, too, but it's best to try the water first.

Spraying water on the back is also a good way to tighten a canvas that has gotten all loose and shimmery because the weather has changed, as weather tends to do. Remember that wood, fabric, oil and wax are all organic substances; their condition fluctuates with the seasons. You can't be rigid in your expectations of them. Even with your best efforts, a canvas will still sometimes come out with a torque in the bar, so that one corner pops off the wall; this is what frames are for.

You can also use those little wedges of wood that you slide in the notches at the corners to tighten a loose canvas; these are called 'corner keys.' I was using them wrong at first, gluing them in when I built the stretcher, so that when I discovered my corners weren't square, there was nothing that could be done. Let this be a lesson to you.

You say, my God, Serena, you are known for boring and long-winded posts, but this one takes the cake. Why, Serena, why?

Well, this is an illustration of just how much work it takes to create the illusion that no work has been done at all. You only notice the canvas when something has gone wrong; when there is a pucker, a corner popping up, a ragged edge peeping out the back. If I don't get this stuff right, all future labors will be in vain.

And we have not even gotten around to taping and gessoing yet.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Seed harmonics

Today while massaging a client and listening to the Windham Hill version of "Greensleeves" (one of my favorites, it's so ripply) it occurred to me that it would be possible to do a whole series of little drawings, paintings, sculptures, silly objects, scattered all around the walls, floors and ceilings, relating to one another in a harmonic way--like ripples.

This sort of thing has occurred to me before, of course, but I couldn't think of a properly art-speaky way of justifying it, so I let it languish. Well, fuck that.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Long little sketch

A painting professor (Richard Thompson, NOT the musician) once said to me, "pay attention to the littlest, most dumb idea you have. That is what makes your art unique." In this spirit, yesterday I made a dumb little wave:

Believe it or not, this was the largest I could get the image to display. You see, though, how dumb it is. Just a lot of little curlicues. I can't seem to help drawing curlicues; have drawn them since I was old enough to hold a pencil.

But it was kind of fun to make each little drawing talk to the one next to it, moving and flowing but remaining fundamentally the same thing.

Any ideas for how to mount this sort of piece, cheaply? Other than with binder clips?

Sunday, January 08, 2006


I am sorry that I forgot to adequately disguise the name of the below-referenced artist, so that she inadvertantly got a faceful of my spleen. My point, however, still stands--that the use and cultivation of obscure rhetoric doesn't do either artists or art-lovers any favors.

Mandalas, by request

Hopefully these are a little better.

I started doing these mandalas last summer, after hanging my show--I'd ordered a bunch of linen and stretchers from Jerry's, and Jerry's wasn't sending them--evidently art supply companies take breaks in the summertime, just like art dealers and trust-fund artists do. They were meditations more than anything else. Any Serious Artist would decry them as 'decorative,' of course, but they were fun and calmed me down.

I'd like to do more in the series; if anyone knows where I can get more folios of "The Natural Collection of Hand Made Papers, Hand Made in France since 1286 au Moulin de Larroque" , please let me know, or just ship it to me. Pearl Paint seems to have stopped carrying it, Jerry's never did, and their website bumped me when I tried to email them. It's really nice paper.

I have had an idea. I have a hard time working in a vacuum; I miss knowing that other artists are working on the other side of the wall at 3 AM, and if I need company or inspiration, all I have to do is go visit them. Working for a theoretical show at a theoretical gallery sometime in the theoretical future doesn't do it for me.

So I have decided to start posting drawings, sketches, and turgid works-in-progress on this blog. Moreover, I have decided to start giving some of them away. Anyone posting feedback will automatically have their name put into a hat, and at a random time during the month I will pull a name out of the hat, and mail the winner a drawing.

"Feedback" can include anything random or tangential; long poetic rants are particularly encouraged. Anyone posting a link to their own website or blog gets extra points, particularly if the website or blog pertains to art, literature, music, spirituality, healing, graffiti, or satire. Anyone posting a comment which is spiteful, hostile or malicious will be deleted, banned, and reported to the karma police.


Friday, January 06, 2006

Work in progress

First, the view out my studio window:

We are not getting much sun these days. I have made a vow not to touch my computer while there is daylight; this is the view around 4:30, when the sun is setting.

Now, the big painting I've been stalled on since November, but which I think, now, is almost finished:
This one is called "Fallen Star," is 3 feet by 4 feet, painted on the new, even nubbier linen. I've been seeing it in my head for about a year now. The one in my head was bigger, but economic necessity compelled me to paint it this size.

Right now I'm wondering whether the renderings of the stars in the sky need some elaboration, or whether they'll do; whether the points of the star/thistle burr are too Dr. Seuss-y or whether they'll do; whether I should elaborate on the spark-streaks in the rocks; whether I dare to just leave it alone.

Now I notice that the photo cuts off about the bottom five inches. Of course the colors are crap, it's a snapshot merely.

A few of the mandala/chakra series:

For the record, Brooklyn Arts Council just turned down the little pencil mandalas on handmade paper, for their exhibition "Making Their Mark." I can't be too offended by this, since they curated the show via 2 inch, 72 dpi, web-quality jpegs. Just like the ones above.


Received this overwhelmingly tempting invitation today:

Please join us for the conversation between Franklin
S1rmans, an art critic and an independent curator
teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)
and X4viera Simm0ns, the 2005 Workspace Artist
at Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL). The
conversation will take place at JCAL on January 7, 2006
from 5 pm to 7 pm.

In her current residency at JCAL, Xaviera Simmons is taking
portraits of passersby on the street, exploring the relationship
of the transcendental, autonomous subject and the possibility of
its shifting, non fixed cultural positions via the urban (or
imaginary) landscape.

Employing a mobile photo station continuously altered and
adjusted, Simmons invites pedestrians to have their portraits

The outcome is a series of images transforming the urban streets
into an imaginary landscape in which the sitters transform
themselves, shifting their positions from a passive observer (a
passerby) to an active participant in the portraits. Through
these photographs, Xaviera Simmons visually maps out the inter-
subjective intersections between artist and viewers as well as
the possibility of art in an everyday environment.

In addition, the project that will go on the public view July 1,
2006 engages in a dialogue of a labor exchange as Simmons
handprints and disburses a portrait to her sitters.

The upcoming talk on January 7, 2006 will discuss questions of
the possibility and limits of participatory art practices in a
perspective of art as a labor exchange.

(Italics mine.)

Maybe I'm hypersensitive to this particular example of abuse of the English language, because some friends of mine did a cool-ass project that was, in practical terms, nearly identical to this one. BUT without all the mind-bogglingly stupid rhetoric. Let me try to translate:

exploring the relationship of the transcendental, autonomous subject and the possibility of its shifting, non fixed cultural positions via the urban (or imaginary) landscape = I haven't the damndest idea. What the hell is a "transcendental, autonomous subject?" A PERSON, maybe?
Okay, so. A person's shifting, non fixed (those two terms mean exactly the same thing, right?) cultural positions via--stop again. You can't have a position via anything. The word via stems from the Latin root via, meaning "road, way." You can have a position vis-á-vis something, meaning 'with respect to; relative to' but to have a position via something implies that you're on the road somewhere, and positions by definition are fixed at a moment in time. Or maybe I'm just blowing smoke. So, anyway, we arrive at the end of the sentence: via the urban (or imaginary) landscape. Huh? Why is an urban landscape imaginary? I mean, all landscapes are imaginary, in point of fact, but somehow I doubt that this particular artist is engaged in an experiment with mystical or metaphysical epistemologies. It just doesn't seem to suit her rhetoric.

Oh! maybe the girl is supplying her own fake landscapes, which may be the meaning of the phrase employing a mobile photo station continuously altered and adjusted.

With this understanding, then, transforming the urban streets into an imaginary landscape in which the sitters transform themselves, shifting their positions from a passive observer (a passerby) to an active participant in the portraits is simplicity itself. It just means that people get their pictures taken. Which she just said, but her artist's statement wasn't long enough.

So then what happens? She visually maps out the inter-subjective intersections between artist and viewers, of course, which I think means that she takes pictures of people. She takes pictures of people getting their pictures taken by her, the artist, that is--which is a crucial aspect, maybe THE crucial aspect, of the whole project; the people getting their pictures taken by an artist, in the street. Crucial. Otherwise how could you have all those inter-subjective intersections?

Then! Oh, then this artist engages in a dialogue of a labor exchange as [she] handprints and disburses a portrait to her sitters, which would seem to indicate that she prints the photos and sells them. Prudent thing to do. That JCAL residency only comes with a $7000 stipend, or maybe $5000, and the space isn't live-in. She's got to pay the rest of her bills somehow.

Finally, as if all this visual mapping and disbursing weren't radical enough, we are treated to a talk about questions of the possibility and limits of participatory art practices in a perspective of art as a labor exchange. Which propounds the earthshattering notion that sometimes you can sell art, sometimes you can't. Sometimes the art is too big and weird and unwieldy to sell, which is why there exist such things as stipends and residencies. Sometimes people don't like their portraits and don't want to pay for them. Sometimes they don't understand your rhetoric. Life as an artist is a bitch.

The truly sad thing is that this travesty of intellectual discourse is taking place at a community center way the fuck out in Queens, which is trying desperately to re-style itself as a progressive cultural institution. The person who wrote this almost certainly speaks English as a second
language, which in no way excuses her. The reason I'm on this mailing list at all is that I applied for the residency last year, desperately hoping not to get it, but to get my work seen by the panel of cutting-edge curators and gallerists they dragged out to Queens for the selection process.

I don't think I'll apply again. The risk is just too great.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Woo hoo

Once every year or so, I Google my beloved old roommate Justine A. Moore to see if she's famous yet. This year, she is! Very cool. Last time I checked, she had a bit part in "Charmed," which was all very well, but probably not paying the bills. Now it seems her spiral path has come to fruition. I'm so pleased. She has written herself a one-woman show which showcases her manifold talents to the hilt, instead of waiting for Hollywood to hire her for one. Which was about time and exactly what I would have expected.

(Justine, if you're reading this, Barney says hello. He's sixteen and a half, just as self-willed and charismatic as ever; does not look a day older.)

When I first met Justine, back in San Francisco in 1992, she filled up the tape on my answering machine with funny voices. I was being forced out of my flat in the Haight by my roommate from hell, and Justine's apartment was two blocks away from the artspace I'd founded with another artist. It was fate. The apartment was huge and bright and cheap, and Justine and I sat and yammered for hours about dance. I was still carrying the psychological scars of a ballet victim; Justine said, "I don't think I'll be good enough to get into a company, so I'll start my own."

This attitude revolutionized my way of looking at life. My God, I could start my own gallery, magazine, healing practice, move to Mexico. I put a few of these ideas into slow, dogged manifestation while Justine bounced around the planet, switching from dance to theatre in the process.

Sometime in 1995, my phone rang. "Serena, I'm in town for one day, I'm leaving for grad school in Paris tomorrow."

"Grad school in Paris? Do you speak French?"

"High-school French. It's commedia del arte; mime school. It's really famous."

"But I thought you wanted to be a dramatic actress in English? Okay, then."

Six months later I received a postcard from London. "The school in Paris was, like, mime school in French. Ugh. I'm waiting tables now."

Then it was, "I'm going to build a house in Taos by hand, by myself. I'm going to school in San Francisco. I'm going to school in New York. My teachers are really famous. I want to be on 'Xena, Queen of the Jungle;' that's my niche."

Perhaps I may be forgiven for wondering if my beloved friend had lost touch with her personal center of gravity. After an episode in Manhattan where it became obvious that we were totally out of synch, we lost touch. I moved to Mexico, then to New York, started my own gallery and healing practice, lost my own gallery, grew my healing practice, kept painting. I thought about Justine now and then; 'Xena, Queen of the Jungle' seemed like a bit of a waste.

Now, this quote from her director: "She's a dream performer. She can embody this diverse variety of characters. Men, women, older, younger--you get them instantly. It's technically very challenging."

No shit. It was always funny voices. I suspect she got dumped on by jerkwad 'famous' acting coaches at Columbia for being too original, versatile and over-the-top. Then, in LA, her style would not be nearly bland and featureless enough for assembly-line Hollywood or prime-time TV. I worried.

Now I see that all that random crap--the commedia del arte, the dance-major-too-late-to-dance-professionally, the work with youth at risk, the homecomings to Taos, the abrupt fleeings of Taos, the overpriced, abusive graduate school--all that was right and perfect and necessary. "If everyone does what is appropriate to them at the time, things work out fine," she used to say.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy clients

are throwing gobs of money at me this week, it seems. It's about time. Yesterday a stressed-out new client said I'd given her the best massage she'd ever had, re-booked for a session and a half, and is telling everyone she knows. One of my regular clients had me over for an outcall, confessed his girlfriend troubles, and overtipped. Instead of the anticipated $65 I made $320, which was awfully nice since today, after paying bills, my bank account is down to the low triple digits.

Both of these clients had massages with Other Therapists while I was out of town, and they both said that I was the Best, that Other Therapists are okay, maybe, but energetically 'vacant.' I knew this already but it's nice to hear it.

It is particularly nice for me to have lots of people in my life who come to me, tell me their troubles, I do something to help, and then they PAY ME AND GO AWAY. This works. This is functional. Dysfunctional is having them tell me their troubles, accept two-hour massages without giving one back, let me cook for them, listen to them complain and whine and blame me for shit, insult my body and my taste, then pick a fight and storm off in a petulant huff, finally convinced that their problems are solved by eradicating me from their life. This used to be known as a 'relationship.' No wonder I got so tired.

Someday I would like to have somebody rub my back for two hours, just because they love me unconditionally and enjoy working the knots out. I've been doing unto others in this respect for eight years now, and nobody has taken the hint.

For now I'm practicing NOT giving free massages to people I might consider dating. It sets up a paradigm which I wish to avoid now at all costs. As I look back on my personal history, I see that I spent an awful lot of time and energy trying to heal people surreptitiously, so that they would be healthy enough to love me back. This is, of course, wrong and bad and doomed to failure. Stop, stop, stop.

But matters are complicated by the fact that I actually enjoy giving two-hour massages to my boyfriends. Withholding love and nurturing is painful, too. At least it's painful for me. It doesn't seem to have particularly bothered all those people I'm considering deleting from my Yahoo! address book, which is why, in this New Year, I revel in my solitude.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Deep peace to you

I had a date! Yay!

For New Years' Eve I avoided every desperate fear-of-being-alone option, such as picking up the phone when S. the P. called, first my cell and then my land line, or calling my married friends at the last minute and offering to tag along with the newlyweds. They probably wouldn't have minded, but still. Neither did I show up at a loud rock venue in Manhattan to attempt to catch up with an old acquaintance (Grace) whom I haven't seen in a year and a half. We exchanged emails and that was more than sufficient.

Instead I cleaned house and baked some cranberry walnut bread, listened to Prairie Home Companion, and around 7:30 I sauntered up to the Pavilion for "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." (They got it right.) After that I wandered down to Barbés, thinking that walking through Brooklyn at night is even more intense and surreal than walking through a forest full of mythological creatures and talking trees, if you only look.

Barbés was the perfect place, the only bar I've ever found where you can walk in alone on New Years' Eve and not feel like a loser and a fool. They had a very very awesome Eastern European-style band, with two accordions, saxophone and trumpet, and everyone in the back room was smiling and dancing like gypsies, all jammed up together. The saxophonist had two sets of lungs, like a bagpipe, and he kept switching them out as they emptied so that he could hold the high notes for, say, fifteen or twenty minutes. The trumpeter was two people, which would be the only way he could pipe up gloriously from the front of the room while the saxophonist was refilling his lungs, and simultaneously dance in the crowd next to me. Everyone in the room, including me, knew all the songs, despite the fact that we'd never heard them before (in this lifetime, at least) and didn't know the language either. (Arabic? Hungarian? Yiddish? Aramaic?) I got myself a beer, divested myself of hot outer garments and was swallowed up.

I emerged at about 2 AM with a new friend, a gentle soul named Karl who looks about fifteen years younger than he is. We wandered the streets looking for a quiet place to have tea, which turned out to be my apartment, since every bar along 5th was unacceptably rowdy. I protested, 'I can't invite a strange man to my apartment at 2 AM,' and then noticed that he was, in fact, a gentle soul. He has lived in Spain, composes music for small, low-budget, avant-garde films, and is leaving for two and a half months in Ecuador on Tuesday. Which kind of takes the pressure off.

We did have tea and he did go home. He called on New Years' Day and invited me out for sushi, apologizing for calling so soon. I forgave him since, as I mentioned, he's leaving for Ecuador. The sushi place was good and one I hadn't discovered; we had green tea ice cream instead of sake. Then we hung out in his room, full of sound editing equipment and a lovely pale blue wall with a paler diamond shape in the center, and talked about painting and poetry and Ecuador and music.

After awhile I noticed that I wasn't so much listening to him as enjoying the sound of his voice, while still attending to the sense of the words. He's not a wit or a genius but simply a nice, calm, thoughtful person. I noticed how, usually, I'm all tweaks and edges when talking to new friends, or old friends, or people I meet at parties--I tell hilarious stories, make trenchant observations, parry intimate approaches. I noticed myself stopping all that. I noticed that I'm a wounded, performative mass of nerves, most of the time. I felt a large, warm sense of stillness entering my bones. We talked for five or six hours, then I hugged him and went home.

This is not Love, people, but what a great guy. I realized that calm, non-grasping gentleness is something that has been signally lacking in most of my relationships (with the exception of Pierre, you wonderful person.) Most people defend themselves most of the time. This is exhausting and impossible to maintain, which is why people freak out, suddenly, when all you are doing is sleeping on their couch. I've received a huge gift and I am very, very grateful.