DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


The Portfolio Problem

Artist's Portfolio Pages, 2000, by Fred Hatt (click to enlarge)

I’ve been focused recently on selecting portfolio samples of my work.  Last week I put together the 2011 calendar featured in the previous post, and this week I prepared my regular application for the NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) Fellowship, in the “Printmaking/Drawing/Book Arts” category.  Nearly every artist in the State of New York applies for the NYFA Fellowship, since it’s a relatively simple application and if you get it it’s a few thousand bucks you can spend however you see fit.  I’ve applied many times over the years and never gotten it, and the same is true of most of the artists I know.  (One of my friends, figurative artist Susan M. Berkowitz, won the award a couple of years ago.)  The odds are a bit long, but not as long as winning a big Lotto jackpot.

Anyway, for the NYFA Fellowship in the visual arts categories you submit eight jpegs that the panel views four at a time, projected on side-by-side digital projectors.   The artist selecting work has to decide what kind of presentation will work with this viewing format, while taking into account that the panelists will be seeing thousands of images in a first-cut round that must be rather grueling.

The standard advice is to show a highly consistent selection of pieces.  Too much variation will probably be seen as “student work”.   Now this is exactly the opposite of the approach I took in selecting pieces for my calendar.  There I selected for diversity.  My idea was that by showing a variety of media and styles together, the underlying approach, the sense of energy that all the pieces have in common, would shine through.  [I took a similar approach in the two-page portfolio and statement from ten years ago, pictured at the top of this post.]

I’ll let you tell me whether you think that strategy worked in the calendar selections.  I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have worked for the NYFA application.  They segregate by medium, for one thing, so photography and drawing are seen by different panels, and I don’t think body painting really fits into any of their categories.  For NYFA, I selected a coherent and stylistically unified set of large color drawings.  Whether they’ll make a good impression when they come up in the numbing procession of images, and whether the particular panelists will respond positively to them, is anybody’s guess.

Picasso desktop wallpaper from brothersoft.com

Going through these decisions got me thinking about the question of diversity of style and media in an artist’s work.  Many of our most revered artists crossed those lines all the time.  Picasso changed style and medium more often than he changed mistresses.  Cocteau, Warhol, Kiki Smith, and just about every really interesting artist you can think of refused to be boxed in by notions of consistency.  All of them wanted to show that the essence of their work transcended medium and style.

Somehow, though, the institutional art world wants to define things by exactly the same lines these artists insisted on coloring outside of.  Grants, group shows, festivals and arts organizations are nearly always defined by some combination of medium, nationality/ethnicity/identity group, and/or some notion of genre such as “minimalism” or “outsider art”.  An artist who paints, makes films, does installations and writes songs risks being seen as a dilettante or as undisciplined.

Some of this is unavoidable.  “Art” is such a nebulous and ever-expanding field of human experience that you have to draw some lines somewhere if you are going to study it or curate it.  I’m just one of those artists, and there are many of us, who naturally respond to boundaries by wanting to cross them.  Indeed, “blurring the boundaries” has become one of the enduring clichés of contemporary artspeak.

In recent decades high-end contemporary art has been increasingly marketed as an “ultraluxe” fashion statement for the fabulously wealthy, that also happens to be a potentially lucrative investment.  Dealers and collectors of important contemporary artists want something readily identifiable, a clear and unmistakable signature style.  Why pay the big bucks for an original Koons if everyone that walks into your place doesn’t immediately recognize it as such?  And of course the dealers lower down on the art food chain aspire to emulate this approach and tend to discourage broadness and experimentation in the artists they represent.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles, by Jeff Koons, 1988

I just don’t roll that way, and maybe I do lack the discipline and persistence that some of the big name artists bring to their work.  I’m in awe of the amount of work and networking it must have taken Matthew Barney to create the Cremaster Cycle, consisting of five very non-mainstream feature films plus performances and sculptures and an elaborate personal mythology.  He sold his boundary-crossing mega-opus by making it so big and compelling it couldn’t be ignored.

I’ve pretty much done art for my own pleasure and satisfaction.  I’ve never seen a clear path to making big bucks or getting a big name without somehow betraying what I feel is the essence of it.  It’s my path, my exploration of the world.  For me it’s more about asking questions than it is about making big statements.  It’s important to me to keep pushing it in different directions and manifesting it in different forms.

This blog is the best venue I’ve ever found for sharing my work with anyone who might be interested in it.  Here I can show the full diversity of my practice.  I can present it in different ways and highlight different facets of it every week.  I can put drawings, photography, video, and ideas in one place.  Of course it doesn’t make any money, but it doesn’t really cost much either, except for a significant investment of my time.

I appreciate all of you who read this blog, because art can be a solitary pleasure but it gains an absolutely essential dimension when it becomes communication.  Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, and thank you for sharing my work with others!

The images in this post that are not my own were found on the web.  Clicking on them links to the sites where they were found.

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