We are living in complicated times, yet for the artist it is simplicity that moves us forward. Simplicity in the act of making. To create something that is distilled from the complications of the greater world.
The very first Union of Maine Visual Artists exhibition was held at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, on 19 December 1975. The requirements for inclusion were simple: bring one work, any medium, to the Union meeting on 17 December, or to the Curtis Library, the day before the exhibition. Talk about simple. No fuss, just bring your work ready for hanging or display. There was no prior discussion regarding the look of the whole.
In these early days, the Union felt it necessary to promote itself, to let the world know it existed to support Maine artists. It was also important to know who they were supporting. At that time, there were 88 members who joined this fledgling organization, and this first exhibition’s purpose was to give any and all members representation. This was the goal, show us who you are, and we will give you a voice.
Subsequent art exhibitions organized by UMVA ran along the same grounds; bring your work and we will show it. It was egalitarian to say the least. The submission process was kept as simple as possible. It would be a year or so later that Union members would be required to submit 35mm slides prior to inclusion in an exhibition. From what I gather, this wasn’t necessarily carved in stone. The slide file would act as a form of professionalism, an indication that the Union was taking itself and its members seriously, and in so doing letting government grant bodies (the Maine Arts Commission) know they were working toward stability.
The Union of Maine Visual Artists would continue to exhibit members’ work by holding two open shows per year. Again, the process to get your work in front of an audience was simple: bring the work ready for display. But in the early days, exhibition space was limited to churches and libraries, while established galleries looked the other way.
The 1970s was a time for artistic upheaval in Maine. The “back to the land” movement had taken root. People reverted to the old ways of doing basic things, vegetable gardening, making traditional crafts, and spending long winters creating art. A good deal of this energy was happening in rural Maine, away from the cities. But Portland was creating its own energy and a new arts scene began to grow in the rundown area in and around the Old Port. This was a time when you could rent a street-level storefront for $60 a month and open a gallery. Artists and artist studios were popping up everywhere and the UMVA saw the need to tap into this new source. They created “The Portland Initiative.” The idea was elementary: to host get-togethers in the city with a view to attract new members. A straightforward approach using the basic values of the Union. It was also a time when the members themselves began to question those values and look for more clarity.
That clarity was challenged a few years later (1981?) at a Union meeting at the home of Kathy Bradford. Former Secretary General, Charles Stanley (a.k.a. Carlo Pittore) questioned the Union’s direction. He saw the basic goal of art for art’s sake being hijacked by bureaucracy. He compared exhibitions to “masturbation” and felt programs such as movies or discussions with people with high energy “would be more nourishing than sitting around with wine and cheese, talking about how we can spend money we don’t have.”
He went on to say: “We are more clubby than arty. I’d like everyone to come to these meetings with the stench of turpentine on them.” Carlo Pittore wanted something this primitive; he saw the Union as a basic source for collective creativity and support, nothing more.
The challenges a young artist faces today seem far greater than those in the recent past. Art has diversified. It has found a way to compartmentalize itself. Even within a defined practice, art has found ways to micromanage itself. I spoke with a young art student from Goldsmith’s (London) who told me you didn’t necessarily need a portfolio of your work to get a placement. It was all in the interview. You were asked questions and your answers, however strong, got you in; in other words, you pitched yourself! She said you needed to describe what you would like to accomplish within your art practice. No wonder so many art institutions today ask for the “dreaded” artist statement.
Here in Ireland, anyone applying for an arts grant from the State is required to submit a resumé, along with an artist statement, specific letter of intent, a certain number of digital images, and then, the very obscure concept of “supporting material.” A complicated package to say the least, especially when I look back at what the Maine Arts Commission required of its grant applicants in the 1970s: a letter of intent, resumé, and slides. Have we made art more complicated for today’s students? Have we complicated the task of looking at art by asking the artists to define themselves and their intentions?
Artists today are asked to explain what they are about. The artist statement has become verbiage of the lowest order, an incomprehensible litany of words. Some call it art speak, while others use the term, IAE (International Art English) a definition of sorts coined by David Levine and Alix Rule. They set out to chart and graph the artists’ use of words to describe the practice of defining one’s art.
It would be an old trope to say, “I’m a visual artist, I don’t do words” or . . . “I chose to be a painter, not a novelist.” There is a certain need on the part of art institutions and galleries to give the viewer a heads up, a window into the inner workings of the artist, but has it complicated the simple idea that what is before you holds the answer only if you look hard enough?
Today, many art schools teach about the business of art and the complexities of the greater art world. How to “make it,” how to be a professional, how to stand out. The art world has always spun fast. It has always moved from theme to theme, style to style, yet deep down it hasn’t changed all that much. It has only succeeded by maximizing its appearance and devising new sets of rules to follow. They say the pendulum swings both ways. Maybe with time and patience we will find that simplicity is a force to be reckoned with, to understand that for those who make art, there is nothing better or more difficult than the act of creation.
In an undated newsletter from 1981 (?) there was to be a summer art exhibition curated by Kathy Bradford. Believing the work should speak for itself she said, “I feel more strongly about the work chosen, than the artists chosen.” Nothing could be more basic than that.
Look and look again. Trust our eyes to find what we believe to be the truth. After all, on second viewing we might change our mind.
Take care, support each other.
Pat and Tony Owen live and make art in the West of Ireland.