art career

To Infinity and Beyond

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In the summer, I went to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. Don’t get me started on the antiquated system of lining up to get tickets. As I waited for 90 minutes to get the tickets, I wondered if the queuing was part of the hype for the show. Actually, it turned out to be practice for when you had line up for every single room installation in the exhibition. But all the staff at the SAM were lovely. The ticket people must be trained to defuse angry customers because in the time it took to buy three tickets, she complimented my glasses, my home city, and my pink wallet.

When you think of Yayoi Kusama, polka dots come to mind. Indeed, shops around the SAM are taking advantage by decorating with polka dots to lure people with Kusama fever. But none of these displays look as incredible as the dots in the show.

The reason for this is simple. What Kusama is really famous for is repetition. Repetition taken to a ridiculous level.

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Last week, I wrote about the online course I took on modern abstraction.  Kusama was one of the artists covered, and we made a painting in the style of each artist. For Kusama, we were supposed to make an Infinity Net painting. This meant painting tiny loops all over a painted surface. Repeating one motion over a small canvas was both meditative and crazy-making for me. I can’t even imagine doing the same loops over a large canvas (up to 14 feet or 4 metres) as Kusama does. But that’s what makes her work great. It’s not the ideas, it’s the scale.

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She creates a lighting installation and then multiplies it with mirrors. She creates environments where you have to experience visions as she intended them.

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She takes something as simple as a stick-on polka dot and lets us repeat it all over a white room until it’s beautiful and awe-inspiring. Everyone in the installation room was smiling, either because they had participated in the art or because it was fun in there.

So whatever creative project you’re working on, think about scale. Is there a way you could blow up your project to a ridiculous scale? If you’re making art could it be bigger—so much bigger that it stretches your logistical mind? Or can you multiply the number of items? Don’t go for easy increases, push yourself to obsessive levels. There’s magic in the craziness.

Life Long Artistry

I just watched a short documentary film entitled The 100 Years Show, which is about the artist Carmen Herrera. The hook is that although she painted every day for her whole adult life, she wasn’t “discovered” until she was in her nineties. She was invited into a New York show when another artist dropped out. Since then her fame has grown exponentially, both in the art world and through this touching film. I have to admit I teared up as she expressed regret that her husband never got to see her become popular. He had always supported her art.

Although this film touches on injustices of the art world like ageism and sexism, it’s very inspiring as well. Is there an artist who hasn’t wondered why he or she hasn’t achieved more? I’ll to admit to a lot of artist envy. And in turn, fledgling artists ask me for advice and say they’d love to be in my shoes. It’s like an endless cycle of striving.

Herrera made hard-edged abstractions early and never veered from that artistic path. She stayed true to her vision of geometric abstractions and continues to make art even past the century mark. She stayed true to her vision despite being ignored by the gallery system. Was she driven by an innate confidence? The need to create? The emotional support of her husband. Whatever the cause, her life is very inspiring. As I mentioned in my previous review of the Cy Twombly exhibition, finding your own style and sticking with it becomes more epic the longer you are able to stay with it.

Alternatively, you can also experiment stylistically, as long as you keep making art. Neil Young is a good example. He has run through various genres of music: folk, rock, rockabilly, operatic, blues, country, and even grunge. And he goes in and out of style, but keeps making music. In the art world, Gerhardt Richter makes paintings that are highly realistic and completely abstract. When I was at the Tate Modern, I saw one of his digital strip paintings for the first time, so he is continuing to experiment in his eighties.

 A portion of the Gerhardt Richter digitalized painting at the Tate Modern

A portion of the Gerhardt Richter digitalized painting at the Tate Modern

After returning from a three-month studio break, I’ve found myself floundering a little. At first, I had a ton of energy and got a few new projects going immediately. Then I had a setback: rejection from the Vancouver Art Rental and Sales program—in the first round! I don’t deal well with rejection, a subject I should probably write about in greater depth since all artists experience it. But whenever my confidence is down, I’m more indecisive in the studio. That’s definitely a problem.

What this documentary illustrated was the idea that an art career can be viewed in perspective of a whole lifetime. While it’s beautiful that Carmen Herrera finally had her work recognized by the art community, what’s really inspiring is the fact that she made her art each day for so many years: after rejections, without financial rewards, and even after the death of her biggest supporter. Her real strength is her belief in herself.

Whether you create the same thing each day or something brand new, the real key is persistence. You have to believe in yourself and be above trends or popularity.