Episode 28 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Michelle Grabner


Here are interviews with important figures in the art world to demystify their process: artist and curator Michelle Grabner, critic Arthur Danto, art consultant Todd Levin, and artist Allard Van Hoorn.

Michelle Grabner

The first artist is Michelle Grabner, who I mentioned earlier in the book as having a career as an artist and teacher as well as a curator. In the interview that follows, she unfolds her career and what it took to build it all. Her special projects that I only briefly mentioned earlier, like the The Suburban and the The Poor Farm are especially worth noting, as you could, of course, do something similar.

The Interview

Carey: What are you working on now? What’s happening in your studio at the moment?

Grabner: A very big project. It’s a solo exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art which will open soon. So getting work together—it’s going to range from all the past work to the present.

Carey: So is this a survey of your work?

Grabner: It’s not a true survey. But it really is still focusing on the newer installation, some of the paper weaving projects that I’ve been doing. So it does run the gamut, but there are three very big rooms to fill. Then, there’s some new work that has been commissioned for this as well.

Carey: And so, how are you filling that space? I know that’s kind of intimidating but wonderful! How are you managing that?

Grabner: I’m working on a new hanging project, a new hanging piece. These sculptures that I call My Oyster. A curator asked me yesterday when I was on the phone with her, just what does My Oyster mean? Basically, “the world is my oyster.” It’s a sentiment of happiness. So that’s a new piece that I’m into. That would be at the entrance.

And then we’re moving to a gallery of paintings, and then we’ll have the long hall that will have a massive platform and very colorful paper weavings that I’ve been working on. Another new project for the Indianapolis Museum show is actually a series of photographs. So I’m really looking forward to that project. They’re being mounted right now. So that was something very specific to Indianapolis.

Carey: Let’s talk about where you came from—Oshkosh, Wisconsin. That affected how you began in all of these. Now you’re a painter and conceptual artist, and have done so many projects. I’d like to get to those soon, but what was it like growing up in Wisconsin? Oshkosh sounds like the quintessential town away from everything. What was that like?

Grabner: I have to say that everybody in my family, my uncles, my grandfather, my father, there’s a lot of vernacular art practice, or vernacular activities going on, whether it was wood carving or carving decoys or natural landscape. I mean something that wouldn’t be considered in the contemporary art world. But there were a lot of activities. So that kind of crafting, engagement in making things.

Carey: So how did you get to the Art Institute of Chicago?

Grabner: I always like to tell this story, especially to my students. I went to the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee for an undergraduate degree and then a graduate degree in art history. And when I wanted to get my masters, I wanted to go to the Art Institute, but I was never able to get into the Chicago Art Institute, and that is the department that I’m teaching in now. I have been the chair of the art department for four years, but it’s the school that wouldn’t let me in. I wasn’t good enough to get in when I was applying to school.

So this is how it is. You just have to be patient; it’s the story that many artists have.

Carey: Did you have supportive teachers early on?

Grabner: I had a really terrific high school art teacher. For three years, Mr. Perez was there for me and really supportive and could recognize some innate ability that one could have in terms of recording the world in front of you. And that was just supportive.

He reminded me or told me that you could go to school and actually get an art degree and that, I think, surprised me. So you know, I don’t think it’s a rare story, an unusual story, but Mr. Perez was there to inspire me through high school.

Carey: Sometimes it seems it can be a pivotal moment—how a high school teacher can have such a huge influence on someone’s life. That’s a story that I’ve heard from other artists, from people who were in the middle of nowhere who ended up in the Venice Biennial because, essentially, someone said in high school, “I think you should do this.”

Grabner: Exactly, it just opens up the world, and especially at that point in your development—young adulthood—when you think you know everything and you actually know nothing. And so you need somebody who is very inspirational to see.

Carey: I’m interested in what happened between getting your master’s degree and the first project which was The Suburban, right? Then The Poor Farm, correct?

Grabner: Right. The Suburban, which is now sixteen years old. That’s been going on for a while. I was raising two small kids, I had one when I was in graduate school. And I was trying to nurture and concentrate on developing an emerging practice. When you are in art school, as we know, it’s a bubble; it’s very different than when you step out into the real world and face these kind of forces and conditions that want to erode that kind of concentration, especially when you have a young family.

So we moved, and I was down here at Northwestern getting my masters of fine arts. We moved to Milwaukee just because it’s a smaller town, and I’m in a place where we could feel like we were dedicating ourselves—I say we, because my husband is also an artist—dedicating ourselves to a work habit. Evolving a vocabulary that was more true to our lives at that time.

We did that and then I started doing a lot of critical writing when I was in Milwaukee, too. I went to grad school, my husband went to grad school, and so there wasn’t that much language or discourse happening in Milwaukee. So we’d come down to Milwaukee quite a bit and start to curate at the museum, it was just a smaller city, so it enabled us . . .

Carey: I’m sorry to interrupt you. But exactly, how did you do that? What were you writing for and what did you curate?

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 27 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Subscription Plan

Subscription Plans for Artists / Jorge Pardo

I am using him as an example to show that just because you have a major gallery and an international career, it doesn’t mean you can’t do your own commercial ventures on the side without harming the purity of your art career.

He has a subscription plan he came up with—he sent a letter to his mailing list and made a subscription offer—for $6,000 per year he would send the collector a sculptural lamp he would make every two months, and of course whatever they received would be a surprise, because Jorge had no idea exactly what he would make in advance.

The first year he did this, he sent out a letter and asked people if they were interested. From the first letter he found that sixty people subscribed, and in the second letter, sent the second year, he said ninety people subscribed. Ninety people at $6,000 is $540,000 dollars—quite a large sum to receive for work that was not even completed or designed yet!

He compares this to ideas like wine clubs or other online clubs where companies send you surprises in the mail, and he felt that people like him enjoy surprises in the mail. I agree with him, as I am subscribed to some monthly clubs. I enjoy a vinyl record of the month club, because I am sent music in beautiful packages that I would not have bought otherwise, and I love that experience.

While Jorge has a mailing list already, he found a way to leverage that list and get more people to support work before it was made. This is a concept that you could do as well. An artist that I worked with, not nearly as famous as Jorge, did the same thing with small sculptures that could also be worn. She came up with a similar pricing plan. Not as expensive as his, but lucrative just the same. In a newsletter she explained how the sculptures would be small surprises that subscribers would get every two months.

As your career evolves, you have to figure out how to pay those monthly bills. These ideas are entrepreneurial, which the business of art generally is. At some point you have to sell your work, and no matter how you do that, it is the same as having your own business and finding clients for your business. That is largely why you are reading this book—to find out how to run your business and build the appropriate relationships. We talked about the pros and cons of teaching, producing a product line of some kind, and selling prints, but there are of course other jobs out there.

The other jobs used to be working at a restaurant or a bar to make ends meet. If you have a family, that will usually not be enough to sustain everyone. Early jobs I had were carpentry, cooking in a restaurant, and washing dishes. The problem with the best of those jobs, which was carpentry, was that I came home exhausted. It doesn’t help very much if you can only make art on the weekends, so it is helpful to have a job that is not too physically tiring or stressful.

Another example of a job that might be helpful and rewarding is working with people who truly need your help. You can be creative here, too. After my parents died, I began to think about helping people in nursing homes. I play guitar, though not very well, and began calling nursing homes and asking if they would like me to come and play guitar. They paid me for doing so, and it was rewarding and not exhausting. However, I didn’t know too many songs and wanted to do something else to help that would not rely on my musical talent! I saw so many people just sitting around these homes looking bored.

I read somewhere that people in nursing homes were using the Wii game system for bowling and exercise. So I did the same thing. I called nursing homes and told them I could teach the residents how to bowl with a virtual gaming system (I had a Wii system at home) and they agreed. I would bring this small system to a home, and hook it up to their big TV and have fun teaching them. I got paid well, but that was just the start of it! Soon I worked with the director of the home and we created leagues and played against other nursing homes, which was terrific fun, and made me feel as though I were truly helping, and left plenty of time for me to make art.

This may sounds like a truly odd job to you, but I mention it because it was not entrepreneurial in the strict sense: it was a job I invented for myself, but its rewards were much more than monetary. Seeing the smiles and laughs on people who were bored in their environment lifted my spirits and made me laugh and smile as well. I was an independent contractor, as they called me, but I was essentially working for nursing homes, able to change my schedule when I needed to, and came home every day feeling good and filled with energy.

There are other jobs I could suggest, like working in the health industry if possible, which might also give you positive feedback at work so that you don’t feel so exhausted when you get home or to your studio.

Other possibilities are online jobs. You can freelance online if you can write good copy or design a logo or other kinds of web site production. There is an online freelance site called Upwork, and you can essentially set up shop there and comb through daily listings of jobs in your field of expertise. I use Upwork to hire people for different jobs. You can translate text for people if you speak different languages, or you can do programming or almost any other task. In this instance, it requires expertise in a field of some kind. Or there is the current TaskRabbit, a site that can generate income locally if you want to do things like stand in line for people or assemble their Ikea furniture.

In the next chapter we will talk about a few case histories of artists and art world figures who have done a variety of things to sustain and build their artistic career.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 26 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Creating a Small Business on the side

Creating a Small Business on the side

Artists today often survive off of small businesses or products they make. That means you can be a career artist with a major gallery and biennial aspirations and still have a series of works that sell all the time. Examples of that could be something for a design store. One artist I know has a career of making installations in museums and galleries. At one point early in her career, she was experimenting with cast iron, since she is a sculptor. At first she made fruit and then she made sculptural bookends for her shelves. Other people liked them and wanted to buy them. Since she felt they were not really where she wanted to go with her art, she made a choice to sell them at local high-end design stores in her own city and then in other cities. She had children at about that time, and the pressure to meet the needs of her children and spend time in the studio increased. She resolved this by selling her bookends and having a foundry cast them from her designs on a regular basis. This made it easier for her to provide for her family while not worrying about selling her installations at a quick pace. It was also not as stressful as most jobs.

Another example would be artists that make popular prints and sell them to interior designers on a regular basis. Some artists who get good at selling prints or designs on the side even begin a business of doing it for other artists, growing the supplemental income and still having plenty of studio time. An artist I know, Jen Durbin, graduated from college and had a problem that many artists have: she wanted to live in a city—Brooklyn—and she wanted a big studio to build large sculptures in. She also wanted time to work in her studio.

Her solution was to find a commercial building in Brooklyn and rent it by subletting it to other artists for studios so that the rent was paid. Of course it wasn’t that easy. First she had to find a building that was not being used. She found an old building that was built in 1896 and had a huge vaulted ceiling and was more or less falling apart. The roof didn’t leak, but she knew it would take work to fix it up to rent to other artists. She rented it and began to work on it, and in the first week she put an ad on Craigslist saying the large main space could be rented for commercial photography shoots. She had the thought that photographers and filmmakers might like it. The next thing that happened was that she got a client willing to pay a large sum for renting the space by the day for a commercial. Then more came who wanted to shoot a music video there. She told them she would fix up the space soon and paint it. They all said not to paint it or improve the interior, because that was what was attractive—it looked old and industrial.

Now she had money to make studios in parts of the building, which she rented out to artists. Then she made a nice website to market it to filmmakers and photographers by the day. Soon she began to rent some props and add to the cost of daily rental. She had found herself in a nice situation—she used the large space whenever it wasn’t rented, she also had another smaller studio, and was making an income that was paying for it all and more. The last time I talked to her she was thinking of doing it with another building and also had a child and the beginning of a flourishing art career.

Business people say if you want to start a business that will work, there is one formula to make it easy: look at another business that is successful and duplicate it in your part of the world. You could easily consider duplicating her business model in another city where there are artists and it would have a very good chance of working. If you want to see her website and how it is all set up now that she has learned a lot, search for www.the1896.com and see what she has done.

Are there more ways to make money? There sure are. I talk with successful artists all the time and I ask them how they do what they do. Many of these interviews are on the website www.artworldinterviews.com. Those interviews are all from my Yale University radio program where I interview artists as well as curators, critics, museum directors, and more. I am fascinated by how creative people build their careers and how they thrive. Unlike any other profession, there seems to be an unlimited amount of ways to survive and thrive as an artist. Either make one up on your own, design a product, or look at a model you like that works, and duplicate it.

Another example of a method that you could use are subscription plans for your work. An artist that I mentioned earlier, Jorge Pardo, who is a well-respected artist in a major New York gallery, created a subscription plan for some of his sculptures.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 25 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / More on Jobs for Artists

The artist Chuck Close says that in the 1970s, you could rent a loft in New York City and pay for that loft by working one or two nights a week at a restaurant or bar. Since then the equation has changed dramatically and artists living in cities like New York or San Francisco are working full-time just to pay the rent. So if you are not going to pursue a career in the arts aggressively, you need a full-time job that will sustain you yet give you time to make art.

One such job is teaching art at a university. These jobs arealso getting competitive, so this goes back to the question of MFA or no MFA. The College Art Association (CAA) is an online resource that also holds events designed to help academics and teachers in the arts. There are job postings there for lecturers, teachers, and other academic positions.

The question about an MFA degree is about your decisionto teach or not to teach. If teaching is something you are driven to do, you should pursue it, and use all the means necessary to help you. My parents were both college professors, so I have a bias there. I grew up hearing about the politics of academics at the dinner table, and it was not pleasant. I have many friends who teach, and I hear many of them talk about the stress of the job, the pressure of tenure, the pressure to exhibit and publish. It is certainly not a cushy job, as it might seem. Probably because I grew up with teachers, I also have a natural leaning toward teaching. I have lectured in colleges but never taught in one. Instead, I write books, teach workshops, and have online classes.

If teaching is in your bones, then there are other options besides a university. Online classes are becoming more and more popular. I teach an ongoing online class on Facebook and it is very rewarding because the class begins to support its members, and that is valuable as a teacher. If you want to find a way to teach, there are now many options. Platforms like Udemy and Coursera are just a few that offer classes.

The real reason most artists want to teach is so that they will have a consistent income while making art. That is no longer the easiest or the best model for a steady job, since the field is now competitive and requires a masters and or a doctorate to gain an edge on your peers. Before talking a bit in this chapter about other job alternatives, perhaps it is good to ask if teaching is good for your art.

Most college professors are working artists, as they should be. However, the environment of the university classroom is a world apart from the art world we all experience. The well-known poet Daniel Berrigan once told me that he would never teach for more than a semester, though he is asked to teach for a full year and more. The reason he doesn’t do it is because he said the university atmosphere is too cozy—there is no edge to it. He explained more: he said that when a teacher is an artist, they tend to surround themselves with adoring students, who in many cases begin to make work like them. This, he felt, was an unnatural situation in which the teacher was elevated to an illusory status. He said if the teacher is doing well, the faculty will also be adoring, and all of that was not helpful for the artist’s ego, because they will tend to want more and more of it and find it impossible to be in a situation that is the opposite.

There are of course exceptions to this idea, but it makes sense to me that teaching can surround the artist with an atmosphere that has little to do with the “real world” beyond academics. That is a question for you to consider if you are leaning in that direction.

Besides teaching, there are many other jobs that can support an artist without enduring academic pressure or the insulation it may create.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 24 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Jobs for Artists

Teaching and Learning and Jobs for Artists

What is the role that academics play in the career of an artist? Many artists also teach, and it has a profound effect on their career. As the Master of Fine Arts degree is pursued by artists all over the world, what is the ultimate value of that degree and how does it affect an artist’s career? This chapter will discuss the role of teaching and learning in the university setting and how that can affect a career in positive and negative terms.

There are more MFA graduates than ever, and now for teaching positions, a doctorate in the fine arts has also been created and is being pursued by artists. I am often asked by artists if they should go back to school to earn an MFA, which they feel would help them in the art world and would be a type of credit or pedigree that would get them further in their careers. That is how MFA degrees are sold to some extent—you are told that this is a way to advance your career, to develop your practice. What actually happens in an MFA program varies depending on the institution, but in general, you are given plenty of time to work in your studio, and you are given “crits,” which is the controversial part that can either help or literally hurt you.

I have worked with several artists that have been wounded by their MFA experience, and by that I mean that they are the opposite of enthusiastic about getting their work out into the world and applying for residencies and grants. I have also spoken with many artists who did complete an MFA program and felt invigorated and ready to reach out. How do these points of view become established? It is important to look at theories of this if you are to consider an MFA or if you have one and want to teach. The interview at the beginning of this book with Robert Storr also points out some of the advantages of an MFA degree which the interview with John Currin makes clear as well.

When pursuing an MFA, besides studio time and history classes and lectures, there is the inevitable “crit,” which is designed to teach you how to defend your work. A “crit,” which is short for “critical appraisal,” is designed so that the teacher and students in a class offer criticisms of the student’s work that is being shown. As the student, it is your job to defend your work. This can be a valuable skill to learn. If you are talking to curators or gallery owners after you graduate, and you are giving them a studio tour, you might use this skill if you are asked what your work is about. Or if you are told that something in your work doesn’t work and you get the suggestion that your art needs to be “pushed” or “evolved.”

That is the moment you most likely would want to defend yourself and explain why the work is moving in the direction you want it to, and why the person making those comments was not quite right. It is a chance to articulate where you are coming from and give the viewer a way to understand your work.

Is that training worth eighty to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars? I am not sure, and hesitate to form an opinion since some see value in it and others do not. If you want to teach art someday, then it is necessary. The only way to teach and not have a masters or doctorate is to have the professional equivalent—meaning that if you have had enough exhibits or are published widely, you can often teach at a university level without the higher education degrees. In general you need those degrees to teach, but not necessarily to make art and be successful.

The downside of the “crit” and the MFA experience is often told by artists who leave graduate school in a state of shock and with a battered sense of self-esteem that makes it nearly impossible to venture out into the art world and feel safe. The reason is that there are other ways to react to criticism by your peers and teachers besides being stronger. Have you ever experienced someone telling you that your work was not good, or worse? For most artists will easily go into a tail spin, it doesn’t take much. Making art is already a delicate balance of believing in yourself and not listening to the world’s opinion of you. For the more sensitive, which is the majority of artists I would say, the idea of constant critical feedback does not make them stronger: it erodes self-confidence and a sense of vision. If that happens to you in your MFA program and then you leave realizing that you are not sure what to do, and on top of that have a big debt and no job prospects, it is depressing to say the least.

Keep in mind that MFAs are a recent invention, and that most of the great artists from the past that you can quickly name did not have MFAs. One major issue is that there is little in the program for professional development of the artist’s career. The notion of helping a college graduate with a career is a recent idea. I know because teachers are using some of my books to develop the practice. For decades, talking about building a career in the arts was forbidden in higher education because it smacked of crass commercialism. After all, it is not about making money, is it? Can you imagine telling that to someone studying to be a doctor that it is not about the money or a job, it is about helping people and that should be the focus? That doctors should get a day job to support their practice?

That is what artists are told: it is not about money, so focus on your practice and don’t think about making a living. There are many sides to this argument, but in today’s competitive world, it is not easy to be a full-time artist with a side job.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 23 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Mysteries of the Soul

Mysteries of the Soul

As you present work or tell others about your working process, which is essentially what Duchamp, Beuys, Banksy and other examples have done, you could also talk or write about things that are truly mysteries of how you think, feel, and work. There are no half-truths, just the nearly ungraspable nature of the creative process. By that I mean that instead of making up a historical event or describing your work as something it is not, you can present it as a way of investigating something more existential, like the nature of your creative well itself. Some artists talk about their working process as if they are possessed by another entity, or like channeling a spirit of some kind. Books have been written where the author claims to have been told what to write (the Seth books to the Gospels) and many artists have spoken of a similar experience. You don’t have to be religious or even spiritual to think this way, because creativity itself is a mystery, and no one really knows where ideas or inspirations come from.

In this version of creating a mysterious and an intriguing version of yourself, you are saying something very sincere indeed. Think back to the dating analogy, because all of this chapter is about presenting yourself to a curator or dealer of some kind and making an attractive presentation so that they want to know more about you. In this version you can discuss the ideas that stimulate you, the source of your investigations, or the questions you continually ask, or even wear your heart on your sleeve and talk about the intimacy of your art.

Sincerity is what this version is about, and it can take an intellectual, emotional, or psychological direction. Just as in the date conversation, it can make a memorable impression so that more is asked of you, and that is what you want when you begin a relationship with a potential supporter or gallerist.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 22 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The quote from Beuys

One example of an embellishment would be to tell a personal story and add more drama to it, maybe even something incredulous. Joseph Beuys is a well-known pioneer of conceptual art, and he wrote an artist’s statement worthy of revisiting. I have used this example before concerning artists’ statements, but I reprint here to compare it to Duchamp, whom I have not written about before.

The quote from Beuys is as follows:

“Had it not been for the Tartars I would not be alive today. They were the nomads of the Crimea, in what was then no man’s land between the Russian and German fronts, and favoured neither side. I had already struck up a good relationship with them, and often wandered off to sit with them. ‘Du nix njemcky,’ they would say, ‘du Tartar,’ and try to persuade me to join their clan. Their nomadic ways attracted me of course, although by that time their movements had been restricted. Yet, it was they who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness.

The last thing I remember was that it was too late to jump, too late for the parachutes to open. That must have been a couple of seconds before hitting the ground. Luckily I was not strapped in—I always preferred free movement to safety belts . . . My friend was strapped in and he was atomized on impact—there was almost nothing to be found of him afterwards. But I must have shot through the windscreen as it flew back at the same speed as the plane hit the ground and that saved me, though I had bad skull and jaw injuries. Then the tail flipped over and I was completely buried in the snow. That’s how the Tartars found me days later. I remember voices saying ‘Voda’ (Water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat, and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.”

It is a wonderful story, isn’t it? But it never happened. Perhapsit is not a “wonderful story” but a memorable one, and helped people to understand his work and turn him into the cult figure he became. But now I want to compare that to Marcel Duchamp and Chris Burden, both legendary artists, now deceased.

Marcel Duchamp was a highly intelligent man, a chess master at a young age and an avid reader of mathematical theories. He felt that in general, what he called “retinal” art was art that was seen with the eyes and was dull in that respect, because the eyes were so easily tricked, as was the mind. As his work is revisited and reevaluated, he begins to have things in common with Beuys, especially telling half-truths or total falsities in order to engage, mystify, and create a cult of himself. He often made works that he said were ready-mades, as if he took them off the shelf and just exhibited them, but on further investigation, he altered almost every object he showed, though it was not always apparent. Rhonda Roland Shearer, a Duchamp collector and art historian, first explained this to me.

She had numerous examples of his art in her collection to show that what Duchamp said the artwork was, it in fact was not, but everyone believed him nonetheless. One example will suffice. In one work called 3 Standard Stoppages, Duchamp dropped three one meter threads, he said, and preserved their shape in glass and wood. It sounds simple enough, and who would investigate this? But historians have, and those three lengths were of different sizes, and not equal in length as he said. The reason this is important, is that long after his death, people are still debating about why he would say one thing and do another. Not unlike Beuys, he was creating a mystery that would survive long after his death.

Chris Burden is a sculptor that died in 2015. One of his mythic performances of the seventies was when he had himself nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen, crucified in fact by driving nails through his hands and into the car’s roof. There are images of this, but it is hard to see the actual nails going through his hands, though most people believe it happened. There are images of him on the car in black and white and though it looks like he is crucified on there and it is a memorable image, it is hard to see the details. But we will never know if it actually happened. Burden, like Beuys and Duchamp is a cult-like figure whose following hinged on mysteries like this that have taken on historical significance.

These may or may not be things you want to try. I would not suggest you crucify yourself! But there are ways of creating mystery and a lasting impression that may fall somewhere between Basquiat, Beuys, and Duchamp. I know it seems bold and even unethical to some to use this type of technique, but it also is effective marketing. There are YouTube videos using a similar technique all the time.

Have you ever seen the video of the cell phones placed ona table near kernels of popping corn? The video shows the phones ringing at once and then the kernels pop. It is an illustration to show how cell phones emit radiation strong enough to pop popcorn. It also went viral and was completely fake. Another video was made to show how it was done, resulting in yet another popular video.

I make the comparison between high and low (Duchamp versus popcorn video) because similar tactics are used no matter what the content is. There are more ways to create a mystery, so next I will talk about a type that involves less gray area than these examples of half-truths.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 21 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Whitney Biennial

The Reaction

That was long enough and probably filled with so much information that was so personal in some parts, that either the curator skimmed through it or decided that based on our conversation and work she had seen that she either liked us or not. It is an example of simply not giving away all your information in a resumé. The curator did call a few weeks later and invited us to be part of the Whitney Biennial, which was indeed a glorious moment in our careers and lives.

You may be wondering if you should have your resumé on your website now, or if you should be giving it out so easily. In general, I think it is not needed on a website because all that information is not called for when evaluating art. You can always say that your CV or resumé is available upon request. Again, think of dating websites. Are there résumés on there? You might want to know if they have been divorced before or how much they earn a year, which is exactly why that information is left out. Instead, you have room to describe yourself in a way that sounds charming and will attract the right type of person without revealing details.

The same is true for presenting yourself on the web. Why give away so much information? Isn’t it enough that visitors can see you make beautiful art? If they want to know if you went to Yale or a community college, they can ask. Like dating, you want to generate interest—questions can be asked later. Of course you can adjust this idea to suit your needs, but keep in mind that the less you say is to your advantage, because, after all, you are a visual artist.

One thing you can post is a short biography if you are feeling that you must say something. I would avoid an artist statement as that is problematic, but I will talk later in the book about that. For a brief biography, consider the form that authors use. On most book jackets there is a brief biography about the author. That is a wonderful form for an artist to use. It is usually less than two paragraphs and can either be very straight or laced with humor. It is enough to give a potential fan of the author enough information to understand where they are coming from in general terms.

Other Forms of Generating Mystery

While I do not want to overuse the online dating format, it is important to note that there are many things you can say about yourself that are half-truths that can generate a powerful response. It can of course be as creative as you like, and ideally something you can follow through on in person.

Other forms of creating a mystery can be more deliberate. Graffiti artists have practically made a recipe out of this that takes different forms. The well-known artist Banksy has made a career of not revealing his identity, which helped to generate interest, especially as his work began popping up everywhere as graffiti in public places. After he had already achieved fame, in 2013 he came to New York City and among other public murals, he had a vendor in Central Park selling his work from a stand for about sixty dollars a drawing. It was not announced, and no one knew if it was by Banksy for sure. Later it was announced through a press release that the drawings the vendor sold were indeed by Banksy and that very few people bought them even though there were worth ten times what they were being sold for! That is a good example of how a mystery can also be a media coup.

Other graffiti artists have done the same thing with their own twist. When the late Jean-Michel Basquiat began his career in New York City as a graffiti artist, his images were themselves mysteries, like a rebus puzzle that you couldn’t figure out. As they appeared in different places, it stood out. The late graffiti artist Keith Haring did something similar with his graffiti, for which he also became a famous contemporary artist, much like Basquiat.

The idea of doing something that is out of the ordinary of what we might expect is a way of generating mystery and drawing attention to something. The graffiti artists I just mentioned did that, but so did Andy Warhol and others. Memory experts say that it is easier to remember something when it is odd, or out of the ordinary scheme of things.

That technique has been employed by artists as I have mentioned, but there are innumerable ways of interpreting that. The latest trend in making YouTube videos memorable, it to use odd non sequiturs or strange cuts. I was just watching a video of one business coach who is using this technique. She is talking about time management and saying what most people say about it—make blocks of time available in your calendar, and make to-do lists. She also said to remember that time is on your side, as opposed to the opposite. The talk might not have been so interesting if she hadn’t cut to funny illustrations. When talking about time, she cuts to a quick clip of her singing with friends, “time, ah, ah, ah, is on your side, yes it is,” and it caught my attention. This is not directly creating a mystery, but it is creating a memorable impression that has little to do with content, and more to do with delivery and humor.

Artists have also simply made up stories entirely! Events that never took place, relationships that never happened, accidents that never occurred. There are also embellishments—perhaps the event was real, but it becomes exaggerated and made into something much larger.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 20 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Erased Biographies of Praxis

These are the biographies that were sent to the curator who ultimately chose Praxis (my wife and I) to be in the biennial. We choose this title the document this way since we had already said we did not believe in the past:

The Erased Biographies of Praxis (partially recovered from a damaged hard drive)

Delia Bajo was born in Madrid, Spain in 1974. Her mother was (is) a dancer and a psychic and her father an airline engineer. The last daughter of six children, she came of age in the post-Franco Spain.

She began studying Ballet at the age of three and continued to practice through her adolescence. Attending Catholic schools, she was known as a rebel, challenging authority and asking too many questions. At ten years old, she asked why the Pope was wearing so many rings and surrounded with such luxury if he was trying to emulate the life of Jesus.

She was an undergraduate at Escuela Superior de Artesy Espectaculos. She studied acting in Spain under various mentors and began working in experimental theater. Some of the theater groups she worked with include, Grupos Oscuro, Compañia de Teatro Tierra, and Gran Teatro de Ayer.

At twelve she began meditating on a regular basis and reading philosophy to move herself into a world that she found more peaceful. Developing a love for all animals she also became a vegan and adopted numerous cats.

In 1995, she moved to New York City to live and work. Her first job as a waitress in a restaurant didn’t last long because her English wasn’t fluent and she asked all her customers to write down their order, which she would hand to the chef. She studied theater at the Raul Julia Training Unit and continued her focus on it, while making a living as a lounge singer and dancer.

Performing her compositions unscheduled on the street became some of her first “actions,” which would lead to more street performances that she did alone. Composing “Symphonic Flamenco” music became a passion for her as she began collaborating with other artists. 

Moving into a larger studio so she could work more on paintings, her work began to incorporate various media creating “theatrical” installations.

Viewing all her work as “in progress” she did not pursue gallery representation. Rather, she viewed her processes as hermetic and wanted to safeguard them as well as let new ideas germinate freely.

Her sister had also moved to New York City and together they began designing avant garde clothes under the label of Elena Bajo. Delia helped organize and create elaborate multi-media runway shows and always performed in them. The clothing line became successful and the shows received much press attention. Throughout this period she would often draw portraits of subway passengers and sketch intensely in public. She began to write about all the behavior she was witnessing and combined it with her drawings. This was the beginning of what she would later call her “Sangré Period.”

In the spring of 1999 she met Brainard Carey and almost immediately began performing with him in the streets as well as at other venues.

As their work and lives began evolving together, she devoted herself entirely to developing a new language for communications. This meant reading about gestures and languages from cultures all over the world to improvisational experiments that helped her create a new way of understanding body language through intuitive and analytical processes.

In the last three years she has continued her collaboration with Brainard Carey creating Praxis and performing extensively on the street as well as in their studio.

Brainard Carey was born in Manhattan in 1968. His father is a composer as well as a doctor in music. His mother is a musician and teacher. He was the third and last child.

As a young child, some of his favorite pastimes were talking to himself and his secret friend, following around his older brother hoping for a ride on his go-cart, and taunting his older sister in various ways. His older brother died at fifteen years of age when Brainard was seven years old. This death had a profound impact on him that would manifest itself in artwork later in life.

Attending an alternative high school which taught a process of learning without classrooms, he began to explore bookmaking and photography.

Upon graduation, he attended SUNY Purchase for undergraduate work. There he created a multidisciplinary degree. He wrote a thesis on the homeless in NYC, which included a participant study of the homeless whom he lived among for two weeks. The sociology department was Marxist and this formed the basis of his critical thinking. He also wrote a second thesis on performance art which included a video of several performances he did as a student as well as paintings that were used during the performances. He worked with Antonio Frasconi and created many artist books at that time.

He performed and acted as God Killing Himself (star) in the cult film Begotten by Elias Merhige, who was also the director of the recent Shadow of the Vampire. He moved to Block Island, RI. There he founded a small gallery and began publishing a magazine and also created a lecture series focusing on freedom of expression. He did a collaborative text installation with the poet and priest Daniel Berrigan.

The magazine became a cultural examiner. That is, by exploring through texts and photographs he continually pursued the documenting of the community he was living within. The gallery was an anachronism in a community that had never seen installations or performance, nor cared much for them.

He photographed several performances he executed in private. Most notably, in Burial, he self-documented himself burying objects all over the island.

On Block Island he completed two major projects. The first was a series of cement tablets which he poured every week for five years. He would invite anyone from the community to come down to his studio and after a short period of unguided silence all present could write whatever they wished in the fresh tablets using a nail. When the tablets dried, he arranged them in a rough wall shape that began winding over hills and through fields. In all, approximately one thousand tablets were poured.

The other major project was the hand copying of theBook of Job. Making a unique edition of one, he used ink and a seagull feather he hand cut to transcribe twenty-eight lines a day. This project took eighteen months to complete. It was exhibited at Granary Books in NYC, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and is now being showcased in a collector’s home. This projects received much press attention including the NY Times as well as magazine features.

Both projects and Burial were emblematic of his dualistic approach; social and interactive as well as hermetic and meditative. At this time he also developed a language and an invented alphabet. With a look similar to Arabic cursive writing, he would create large canvases which resembled book pages which he never translated to the public. Scrolls of this new text were also made. In several performances at alternative spaces in and around the New York area, he would read from these scrolls to audiences creating sounds that made a new context for the language, but still did not translate the texts literally.

In NYC in 1997 he created Radical Anxiety Termination in his 10th Street studio with DJ Olive. RAT was a monthly event that allowed passerby to play with turntables with a limited amount of records in a temporary installation. These events were all recorded creating social soundscapes. The sounds of these “amateur DJs” made a compilation that among other things questioned the “skills” of DJ culture and illustrated the freshness of “beginner’s mind.”

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 19 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Myth-Making Basics

Myth-Making Basics

This chapter will discuss how artists as well as curators create mystery around their work and projects so that it intrigues and engages the viewer.

Historically, this is what artists have done for ages to create interest in their work, and you will learn how to do this yourself, in your own words, so that you can add mystery in a meaningful way. Mystery may mean simply that you have a truly interesting idea or way of working, or that there is a lingering question about whether or not something actually happened.

I say all of that with a smile, because as much as it seems the art world is “mysterious” and this book is meant to “demystify,” I believe that sincerity is always the best policy in business relationships like working with a gallery or museum, or presenting your ideas. Nevertheless, there is a place for mystery, and it can be done in very creative ways. Allow me to use the example of a relationship between a man and a woman.

Initially, while courting each other, the man and woman do not want to reveal everything about themselves. It would be “too much information” and a turn off in most cases. So instead of going through their resumés of past relationships and family life and what they do for a living, they talk about something else. That “something else” is what builds your personal mystery and makes you potentially attractive.

Of course this is about your personality and style. So if we stay with the dating analogy for a little longer, how would you spin a little mystery without divulging all? Perhaps you would tell a story, or even better, ask questions. If you tell stories, they should be brief since this is a conversation, not a lecture. Maybe a story you tell will be about something funny that happened to you yesterday. In the telling of it, you are giving details about who you are by the way you deliver the story, and the observations you make point to what is important to you and how you see the world. If it is an entertaining story that makes someone laugh, it is immediately attractive because laughter puts us at ease and we let our guard down.

The other method is to ask questions of the person you are dating. The questions do not have to be about who they are or what they do, but could be more philosophical questions about life, or about the origin of language or anything you are interested in. The notion of asking questions creates a mystery and an interest in who you are. Because when you ask questions, the other person must answer or at least think about those questions. It moves the conversation and the relationship into a mutual territory where ideas are shared instead of personal information. In a sense, the ideas you are sharing with each other carry hints of your personal preferences and interests, but not directly.

This is also true of presenting yourself as an artist and creating a mystery. When I was writing letters to museums and the Whitney Biennial curator asked for an interview, she said to bring a resumé. Instead of bringing a resumé, I went empty-handed. Part of the reason I didn’t bring a resumé was because I did not want her to know all about my past. It wasn’t that glorious, and I wasn’t represented by a gallery though I had owned a gallery for several years. At the interview my wife and I were both asked to attend since we work as a collaborative, the curator asked for our resumés, and when we said we didn’t bring them, she asked about our past.

The reply we thought of in advance was that we would tell her we didn’t believe in the past, and that we were only looking to the future. We told her this and she smiled and was also probably a bit frustrated. This was a big interview, and I knew it could be the show of a lifetime. The truth is that my wife and I are very sincere and straight-forward people. We do not appear arrogant to most people and will easily give the details of a situation if asked. However, we were being calculating in this instance, even mystifying by not revealing our past. Just as in the dating analogy—you might not want to explain all your past relationships—we did not want to talk about past shows, largely because we didn’t have too many of them.

The curator asked us different things about how we made art together and how we started this project, which we answered in a very straight-forward way. But by not revealing our past or discussing it, there was a mystery in the air about who we were and where we came from.

At the time we were living in New York City and the last thing I wanted to say was that I was on Block Island for several years where I owned a gallery and frequently gave myself shows. In retrospect, if I was doing this today, that might be a good thing to say because galleries in urban areas curated by artists are in vogue now. As the conversation progressed and we avoided talking about our past, she ended the interview by handing us her card and saying to keep in touch, and if we could send her something (with a tone of exasperation) about our past, such as universities we have attended, she would appreciate it.

We left feeling excited and nervous, but had to think of how to respond to the question asking us about our past. Do we just give her a resumé? We decided to write something that was not a resumé but more of a biography. What we sent is below, and though it is all true, it is our interpretation of events and presents our life and work in an unconventional format.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.