Lonely Ocean chats with Rebecca George of The Art House about the impact of solitude on artistic practice and how being under quarantine is changing the art world.
Painting in solitude for this past year after relocating from Chicago to a log cabin in the Michigan woods has offered me many opportunities to go deeper into a dimension where my beliefs and motivations about painting are challenged. I am more interested in where my work could go rather than living with a stage that may seem satisfactory on the surface but lacks invention and discovery. Over this past year, I have become intensely aware of what my motivations for painting are, and this reinforces the importance of not being distracted by the “role” of or “image” of an “artist” that is cultivated by actively participating in social media. It is the curiosity and genuine engagement of art-making that is at the heart and I want to spend the majority of my life in that place.Rebecca George
Lonely Ocean: Hi, Rebecca, what are your thoughts about how the art world is changing under quarantine?
Rebeca George: Galleries and museums are being quite innovative in how they connect with people. They are doing online gallery tours, letting artists showcase their processes, and doing informal classes. I wouldn’t say it’s a very refined yet, but artists, galleries, and museums are experimenting with new things. In fact, recently, I participated in one by a contemporary dancer, Bobbi Jene Smith, and she shared her process so generously. Some people would be very interested in that, a window into the private practice of the artist That is something that would never have happened this quickly if we hadn’t gone on quarantine.
LO: Do you think the art world would have moved online anyway?
RG: Yes. Years ago, I opened a brick-and-mortar space in Chicago because I couldn’t find the right venues for my students and myself. In the past year, I have been doing shows exclusively online, I’ve sold more work all over the world than I ever sold in physical shows.
LO: Why are online venues more successful?
RG: It takes a lot of time and energy to do a physical show, and then the exposure is somewhat limited to the people who come in the door—this is particularly true of one-night and pop-up exhibitions. I can take that time and energy and put it into curating online shows and creating in the studio. The result is better quality work, and the feedback was immediate. Typically, I would sell five to eight pieces a year in physical shows. Last year, going exclusively online I sold 50 pieces all over the world…all kinds of people were buying the work. The online format created a venue to successfully sell the work.
LO: So online galleries are the way to go?
RG: Yes, but there are some drawbacks to the current options. That’s why The Art House is launching a new online gallery this summer. It is a collective that will present artists professionally with regular online shows and actions. Artists and collectors will be able to communicate directly, including studio visits via video. It will be a custom web application with a lot of “behind-the-scenes” of the artist’s studio work, how they think about their work, and why they are making it. That level of transparency isn’t currently allowed by many sites. We want the collector to be thrilled with the artwork so we will let them virtually preview the work in their homes. The Art House will never take a cut of the purchase price from the artist or mandate free shipping, two common practices that tend to obscure the true value of the work to the collector.
LO: That’s exciting news! Keep us posted!
LO: Do you think artists themselves might benefit from this time in isolation?
RG: It could be. For me, I sought solitude. A year ago I moved out into the woods. I moved my studio into a barn. I’m miles from the nearest road. When I had a studio practice in Chicago–the city not the suburbs–I was also teaching and curating shows. So I had a community of sorts, and I was used to people seeing my work in progress all the time. Honestly, I was happy to share space, still, it’s nice to have a studio that’s separate from the business and teaching side of things. Even with the shift from having people see my work all the time, to working alone all the time, ultimately the same things are important to me. That is, to be completely present while I’m painting, not to try to do anything, and to detach from the outcome.
One thing that helps me detach from the outcome is having several things going at the same time. This is really an ideal set up for that. My studio is a 40- by 60-foot pole barn and that is a real asset, a real gift honestly. Everything is accessible. I get more ideas for things I want to work on. I am currently working on 5 or 6 large-scale works on linen and canvas and 20 small-scale works on paper. I can have stations for printmaking set up as well.
But in addition to having more room to spread out, do you think there is a benefit to working alone?
If you work in solitude, it can pull you away from the distractions that come with cultivating your image to other people–whether it is in person or online. Doing things without an artist community or getting feedback and reactions (which is what I had for so many years with The Art House) I find it lets me separate what is real for me at any given time from the idea of success, whatever kind of judgments, comparison, or outcomes that may come from the work. People don’t talk about this, but artists tend to see that type of thing as “Here’s proof that you are good, here’s evidence that you matter.”
Working alone, as an artist, you can go deeper to get in touch with why are you doing this in the first place, how to sustain an art practice in a way that is consistently truthful and meaningful to you as an individual. If you don’t have that connection to why you are making art, then I think loses whatever kind of transformative purpose it might have on your life. Right?
Agreed. That’s been my experience as a painter. Why do artists find that so challenging?
There is an image-making that goes along with being an artist, many artists feel they need to cultivate their own image. It’s a very competitive, isolated kind of thing. Artists think, “I should already know this, I should already be doing this, so I’m not going to ask for help or invite criticism.” Visual artists tend to be solitary. They tend to avoid opening up and fully sharing their process.
I think the most helpful thing I can do is, to be honest about what I’m going through because at least I am going through it. I can’t back out of it anyway, because it’s like I’m abandoning myself. I have to go through it.
LO: Tell us about the process you are going through.
RG: I don’t want to paint the way I’ve always painted but I also don’t want to throw away everything I already know. With that sometimes I don’t know what to think of what I’m doing because it’s so different. I don’t feel connected to it because it’s so different. My reaction is, “Why can’t I do what I already know, and do something that feels familiar?” Then my assessment of that is, “That’s just the same thing I’ve already done.” Conceptually, you’d think that the pendulum will settle down into a balanced place, and I’m working to get that balanced place. I have never been one to want to do the same theme over and over again. To take a formula and then offer it a hundred different variations. I have always worked like that and thought those people are limiting themselves unnecessarily.
LO: To me, that kind of goes back to the influence of Andy Warhol, he very intentionally made art into a business and he was very aware of the power of a consistent image and the facade.
RG: And I would say Jeff Koons falls into that category.
LO: Definitely. I think the pendulum may be swinging back away from the influence of Warhol and the idea of the artist as a brand to something else. Honestly, I cannot conceive that someone would go into art as a business proposition. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.
RG: No. I taught Business for Artists at The University of Chicago and I would tell you no. I have certainly made money as an artist, right, but why people buy work is a mystery. I couldn’t tell you why people have bought my work and they aren’t going to be able to articulate it to you either. Not in a way that you could translate into how you would paint so you could sell more work. Because who is to say they would want two of them then? Who is to say someone else would like one? You have no idea, really. So you can’t incorporate that into your work in a way that would sell more work.
If you did, you wouldn’t be making work that is original anymore, and you wouldn’t be coming from a motivation of true creativity. You would now just be doing something for the purpose of selling it. So now you are just doing something for an outcome and you are not completely present in the process. You are just trying to get to the finish line so you have something to sell. This is an inherent difference between having a career and being an artist. You have to bring it and you have to do whatever you have to do to call yourself an artist. No one else is going to give you that title.
A mid-career artist, Rebecca George (b. 1972) has been curating gallery shows, teaching artists (in person and remotely), and maintaining a professional studio practice since 1993. Check out her current show on Artsy, called Intimate Abstracts. With fellow artists Ken Hogrefe, Daniel Martin Sullivan, Steven Tritt, and Sarah Berman. And keep an eye out for The Art House’s new online gallery launching later this summer!