Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Every Little Soul Must Shine, Shine

When I first decided to do a portrait series for my senior thesis at MECA I felt apologetic about it, wondering if, after 4 years of art school, I ought to be doing something more avant garde or conceptual. Was portraiture quaint and outdated? I started a conversation about this on the MECA Campus Dialogues and received great feedback and encouraging support. People have responded very positively to my portrait series, yet it's been my experience that the major galleries around here do not want to show them. I'm told that figurative work and portraiture in particular doesn't sell. (Do you have to be a famously established artist like David Hockney or Lucien Freud in order to have your portraiture taken seriously?) So I feel like I'm back at square one, wondering if what I do is valid in the larger "current art world" scheme of things. It seems like such a game at times. So many questions come up for me around this: Why do we make art? Who do we make it for? (What is art?) Who decides what is worthy of being shown in the sanctified White Cube? (the galleries and museums) Do we even need the White Cube? I'm glad to show my portraits in more communal spaces, like the student center at UNE, and the Dogfish Bar and Grille, but sometimes I wonder if my work is simply "not good enough" for the more...(more what? upscale? sophisticated? hip? relevant? respected?)...important places. I'm also talking about my own judgements and expectations here. Why do I want to show my work in those places? Recognition? Money? Of course that kind of validation feels good, but that's not what it's all about. In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes:

"So do not feel concerned with the fruit of your action - just give attention to the action itself. The fruit will come of its own accord. This is a powerful spiritual practice. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the oldest and most beautiful spiritual teachings in existance, non-attachment to the fruit of your action is called the Karma Yoga. It is described as the path of 'consecrated action.'"

"When your deeper sense of self is derived from Being, when you are free of 'becoming' as a psychological need, neither your happiness nor your sense of self depends on the outcome, and so there is freedom from fear. You don't seek permanacy where it cannot be found: in the world of form, of gain and loss, birth and death. You don't demand that situations, conditions, places, or people should make you happy, and then suffer when they don't live up to your expectations.
Everything is honored, but nothing matters."
Reading this helps me to remember to simply show up, be here now, and do the work that I feel led to do. We all have gifts to share.
"Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house." Matthew 5:15

Zoe with Strength, 2005
pastel on Rives BFK, 22" x 30". For Sale.
The Interim Dean (Jon Calame), 2006
pastel, oil, charcoal, watercolor and collage on Rives BFK, 29" x 41". NFS.
Joanna and Son, 2004
pastel and oil on Rives BFK, 22" x 30". For Sale.
Molly Levine with Her Grandmother's Onyx Brooch, 2006
pastel, oil, charcoal, watercolor and collage on Rives BFK, 29" x 41". For Sale.
Arthur Halvorsen with Henrietta and Lucille, the Lesbian Flamingos, 2006
pastel, oil and charcoal on Rives BFK, 29" x 41". For Sale.
Edwige Charlot, 2006
pastel, oil, charcoal, watercolor and collage on Rives BFK, 29" x 41". For Sale.
Sophi, 2006
pastel, oil, charcoal, acrylic and collage on Rives BFK, 22" x 30". For Sale
These are a few of the portraits that I have on exhibit at Dogfish Bar and Grille in Portland until the end of April.


Don Gray said...

A great post, Martha. Wonderful portraits and really interesting thoughts on portraiture and the reasons for making art. Touches on profound ideas.

My observation of people in general regarding portraits is that most can't imagine owning one unless it is of themselves or someone they know, usually family. They also seem to think a portrait should always show what I call the "snapshot face": smiling, self-consciously aware and flattering. An introspective or psychologically probing portrait seems almost embarassing or even frightening to them. Why is this? It is puzzling to me, since this is not my reaction at all to a great portrait.

martha said...

Thankyou, Don. Yes, this is true about portraits. I've sold most of my portraits to the people who posed, or their relatives. (I have sold several portraits to other artists, though...) I get very bored with "the snapshot face" - it's usually the product of working from a photograph. I, too, love a great portrait (like your birthday self!).

Showing up for the Muse said...

I love your approach to portraiture- by capturing the soul of your sitter it is accessable and symbolic-so i can't imagine they aren't embraced by the general public.
That said, did you notice Alice Neel- who was such a fantastic portrit artist- had racks and racks of canvases piled up in the halls of her apartment...were her sitters insane not to snatch up the paintings? She was doing portraits when it was really unpopular in the art world. Right now things are different- people need contact. Maybe calling the series something other than portraits...maybe "Faces"...would make it more intellectually embracing.?

Martha Miller said...

Yes, I love Alice Neel, and have read her biography more than once. She really didn't start to get attention until the '60's, when she was in her sixties, and she really made an effort to promote herself at that time.
People do love my portraits - it is the gallery owners here in Portland who balk at showing them. One curator said that although she liked them, she didn't think that they would be of interest to people outside of the Maine College of Art community. (Ouch). Another curator called them "fresh and fabulous" but that her gallery was not the right venue. A couple of other gallery owners just said that they don't show figurative work or portraiture because it doesn't sell. They have all wished me well and hope that I can find a place to exhibit. I have found an arts center out of town that would like to show them, and this is good news. I have to let go of my ambition (not easy)to show them in one of the prestigious galleries here in town - and remember that the important thing for me is to share them. Ego is a pain in the ass.