Counter-Intuitive Advice For Artists

About 2 years ago I opened up notes on my phone and started writing a piece entitled Counter-Intuitive Advice For Artists, wrote a handful of my initial thoughts and never developed it into anything long form. I’ve been reflecting on the idea a lot lately especially as we try to navigate this particular moment. I’ve had an interesting relationship with the “art world” and by that I guess I mean the art industry: the gatekeepers, peripheral players, curators and of course the galleries.

First a bit of background and I think a lot of you will relate to aspects of this. I was always interested in art since I could grasp a crayon a pencil or brush and my family absolutely encouraged it. All through school my teachers identified this as something that held my attention and encouraged it too. By the time I started high school I was seriously disinterested in the curriculum work and by the time I was 16 I wasn’t actively doing art at school but I had discovered graffiti and was interested in that. I think I’ve told the story about how my art teacher at Auckland Metropolitan College coaxed me back into doing the curriculum art by offering me the opportunity to paint all my work directly on the walls of the school. I was able to do this during the final term as long as I met all my obligations and even extra-curricular requirements like the after school community life drawing classes they were running. It was a huge game-changer for me and likely set my whole trajectory in motion.

When I finished high school I didn’t study art, I applied to do the Graduate Diploma in what was then referred to as Multimedia at AIT (now AUT) and studied graphic design, web design, 3D animation, TV and Radio production, cognitive theory and convergence. It was weird that I was even accepted to study this because it was a ‘Graduate’ diploma for people with the minimum of a bachelors degree so the majority of those I studied with were a lot older than me and had recently completed their Communications studies. I failed my 3D animation paper and so I never graduated, I had started to support myself from doing mixtape covers and party flyers for the Iikes of P-Money and DJ Sir-Vere and had a dream to create a festival and launch a graffiti magazine - both of which I did within the next few years.

The other young artists my age from outside of graffiti, those that were at actual art school were pretty cool and a lot of us lived and hung out around K-Rd, went to the same cafes, gigs and parties together. There was definitely an innocent moment before we all knew too much about how the art game functions. In many ways they obviously went into subversive territory a lot earlier than my friends and I, playing with intermedia, installation etc. They learned art history and understood some things about the continuum of art and how to contextualise what they were doing within that. My friends were subversive in a different way it was in the how they lived: They stole everything they used, ate and wore and navigated this very hostile world outside of regular society. We only understood graffiti writing and our attempts to make art beyond that was pretty naive to be honest - but I loved that!

When my friends and I opened Disrupt Gallery on K’Rd in 2003 it garnered a lot of attention early on. It was embraced because it was something new and I suspect our naivety worked in our favour. It served a particular niche, it was completely low brow and mostly showed people with a graffiti background that hadn’t ever had their work in a gallery before. It was a particular moment in our country where local Hip Hop music was exploding and there was a mainstream excitement about that. Being that graffiti for most of us was associated with that culture we opened at a good time. At our gallery it was entirely possible to buy a work for under $300 and therefore the majority of our sales were impulse buys from people under 40 that we plied with loads of free alcohol. We had big crowds, loud music and sometimes fights broke out at our openings. When I would go to openings at the more established galleries I would be so stunned that there would be like 3 people there, eating cheese, drinking wine and talking quietly - there was never any excitement. The works would be sold though and they would have price tags in the thousands if not the tens of thousands. I didn’t understand a thing about how galleries actually functioned, didn’t know about collectors and definitely not the kind ready to part with tens of thousands of dollars that’s for sure.

I learned quickly that we were not a ‘serious gallery’ that would attract those sort of collectors and from our particular trajectory it was not likely that we would ever be. When we tried to make what we thought was ‘serious art’ it very much looked like people that painted graffiti trying to make what they thought passed off as ‘serious art’. The naivety of our old work was at least authentic but for many of us the insecurity started to kick in once we wanted to elevate past that and be taken ‘seriously’. Most of us that had a long enough history in graffiti had garnered an online following and went through the very awkward process of developing our ideas publicly. As with our graffiti we lived with every good and bad piece, we didn’t always put our very best foot forward. I have come to embrace this in my process right until this day. It has worked for and against me but ultimately it’s the way I create. To me it means that my track record is on display, you can see my thinking and follow my development.

In the traditional art world this is bad because it’s an industry that thrives on it’s lack of transparency. Dealers need to create a veneer of mystique around an artist and manage their work’s perceived scarcity. Artists with everything all out on show including every misstep, every price, every unsold work are a bit of a disaster for them to handle. I personally have laid it all out to see and although it’s meant a lot of dealer galleries won’t touch me I’m pretty happy with where I’ve landed. For the most part I deal with people interested in collecting my work directly. I enjoy the interpersonal engagement and it’s helped me maintain perspective about where I’m at which in turn helps me feel gratitude. I haven’t given up entirely on showing with galleries but I will never be beholden to one. For a lot of people that is a counterintuitive stance because a truly reciprocal and sustained relationship with a gallery takes a lot of work from both parties over many years - I’ve tried to make that happen and it just hasn’t ever worked for me personally. Having autonomy has proved over and over to be a better fit.

When my friends and I were more squarely focussed on graffiti we worked with a certain cohesion and a philosophy that no one in our crew was ever left behind. Everyone was respected for what they contributed and so there weren’t distinct factions within our crew. Once the desire to be contemporary artists seeded itself with some of us the distinctions between us started to grow. We have somewhat returned to our earlier philosophy recently and I don’t regret some of the missteps along the way because they’ve given us vital perspective. It’s now easier to appreciate the resilience we have in our cohesion, our ability to work towards a mutual goal and utilise our broad collective skill sets and our different strengths. Our time apart focusing on our own pursuits has made us so much stronger but only now in our revitalised desire to work together.

There is definitely a strong push for artists to commodify themselves and find a schtick. Dealer galleries and the market in general will encourage you to settle on an identifiable idea/treatment or technique and only evolve in very safe increments - preferably at a pace that allows the most general group of people possible to track your development. My own instincts buck against that idea because I find it more engaging to explore multiple threads of interest at once allowing them to weave together over many years. There are people out there that have become invested in my development in a different way because of this, able to understand my process, watch with interest and a different level of personal investment. That is the support I’ve always strived for. I had a 3-4 year period where I tried to narrow down the scope of my work and focused on a distinctive portraiture style that got loads of attention. I was selling work fairly consistently and regularly invited to festivals to paint - as long as I didn’t deviate too far from the script. I went from mildly restless to feeling miserable during this time. I have friends whose stars had risen quickly and were the envy of many yet they felt trapped for years making the same work over and over to appease a backlog of collectors waiting for works. They felt stifled and as if they couldn’t develop at the speed of their ideas. As I also started to meet collectors and look at their collections I realised there was often a limited difference between them - They would have the same ‘hot’ artists and often near identical works from each. It frustrated me because if I had the money to collect I would want the weird works from them, the experimental and in-between stages - the works that weren’t popular or too much of a product. But that is the key to understanding how dealer galleries function - your art IS essentially a product in this context and only as valuable as it’s perceived demand. Some artists are more comfortable with this than others, some artists aren’t trying to change the world they’re just trying to make money to eat.

So in conclusion here is my advice:

There is no guaranteed formula for success in the pursuit of an art career. Going to art school might help you tap into the establishment earlier but you may also find yourself being melded into the artist that suits a particular dealer gallery and their collector base. That may offer you some stability but it may also hinder your true potential to make work that is genuinely important.

All skills acquired and lived experiences will benefit you in ways you may not predict. Studying Multimedia and not graduating benefited me greatly. Making a magazine and organising a festival helped me so much but so did working at a stainless steel factory, being a waiter, a dishwasher, trying my hand at acting, making music, directing music videos and having a commercial mural business. Mostly all the things that I failed at helped me the very most.

Graffiti’s power has always been about it’s energy, defiance, ability to co-opt random tools, hacking in the analogue sense of the word. Graffiti has a spirit of ingenuity and shouldn’t be about conforming to any institutional expectations. If you keep your art work grounded in that you’ll be fine. When you try too hard to be something you’re not, people can sense it.

If you find yourself succeeding use your platform to elevate those that came with you. The industry will try to isolate you meld you into the perfect commodity - it’s harder to do that when you are grounded and stand with those you made your journey with,

The most important advice is constantly make things with no pressure for it to be a masterpiece or even necessarily leave your studio. Be weird and go down that rabbit hole. This is one of the few pursuits where it’s fine to be totally self indulgent in exploring your own strange interests so enjoy it. The more you untether yourself from expectation, your own and those you imagine others are putting on you the better.

Lastly, find patrons, supporters and collectors that understand you - they’re the best and with you for the long haul!

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