Like a lot of artists, particularly painters, I've made my share of self-portraits. I did these paintings to teach myself about myself, to mark time, to solve a painting problem, a variety of reasons. Not all of them are art, but the ones that are have a special place in my practice. I look at those pictures and I can think back to the moments when they were painted. In fact, I think they contain the haptic trace of my emotional life. Some of them, many of them in fact, I have destroyed. Sometimes I've done this because they were failures as paintings and sometimes I had to get rid of them because it was enough that I knew that I painted them. I have some photos of these paintings, but the objects themselves are gone. Even though I am a painter, it is very hard for me to make a painting. It's expensive in a variety of ways.
So when I got contacted to be in a self-portrait show, I was kind of skeptical about doing it. Like I said, I am a painter but I am not someone for whom the self-portrait is a key part of my practice. The other artists in the show included Anne Harris and Susanna Coffey, both of whom I know and the latter is a dear, close friend. There was also Maud Morgan and the divine Gregory Gillespie. For that reason alone I wanted to do the show. Coffey has had a profound impression on my work. Gillespie, with his relentless reworking and extensive understanding of surface and material has as well. I was thrilled that some of my work would be in consideration with these giants.
I have a self-portrait project Circumference that I offered as my contribution but the curator was interested in paintings only. (Looking backward I also think that the underlying content in the work was, shall we say, difficult for the curator.) I have three self-portaits from a very difficult time that are very precious to me. I struggled with them in the making and there were a lot of difficulties that I resolved in the work, and they bear that out in the making. I talked to Julia Lavigne, the Associate Director at Samsøñ about them and she felt like it would be a good thing to have them in the dialogue created in the context of the show, which was called Self-Examination through Portraiture. I trust her judgment. The largest painting of the three, Self-Portrait at Skowhegan was on uncradled panel exactly the way it was painted. In order to have it exhibition ready, I had it framed with a gorgeous float frame to accentuate the irregular edges of the picture. (The folks at PSG Framing in Somerville did an amazing job.)
They were painted on panel and they are hard-won. I discovered things about scraping and sanding and allowing the surface to show in the picture that are basic tools in my practice today. My show at ICA Boston there is no one left to blame includes paintings that were begun at the same time as the self-portraits and they contain all of the lessons I learned from making these pictures.
Once I agreed to the show, I was informed that there would be a catalog for the show as well. I was also told that all the artists were writing statements. I wasn't really interested in making statements about the work and said as much and the gallery provided them with a general statement about my practice. Also, since this was for a text that was going to be published, I really balked at being asked to write something for publication without being paid for it. I was asked multiple times and advised that it could be short. So I eventually relented.
Here's my statement for the show:
Self-portraiture is a form of self-location. It is a means to understand where I am physically and emotionally, in addition to being a way to explore formal issues and materials. I made these paintings at a time when a lot of things were coming apart. There was the tremendous loss of the AIDS epidemic, my mother's decline, and my own constant fight to have an identity as an artist. I made these paintings to prove that I could do them. I wanted to make a record of myself, my time, and my likeness knowing that it would change but knowing that the paintings would hold the memory of the moment and would be a truer record than any other thing I could access. I wanted to prove that I existed in the context of art. The most concrete way I could do that was to paint myself into history and into being.
Steve Locke, Boston Massachusetts
I sent the statement and Julia and Camilø Álvårez handled the transport of the work to the venue. They managed the entire process, consignment agreements, photos of the work and all that things that they do all the time for the artists they support.
I got an invitation to the opening and I was thinking it would be fun to go if Anne and Susanna were there. I had seen Susanna earlier in the year and started doing watercolors with her at her family house in Connecticut (which led to an exciting new body of work). Unfortunately, neither of them could get to the opening and I figured I would still go alone. It was then that the curator contacted me about giving a talk about my work at the opening.
I got this email:
On Oct 8, 2014, at 10:09 AM, Audrey Pepper <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Everything is in place. The catalog is at the printer, plans for picking up the work are in place.
I am checking in regarding the talk that will take place during the reception on Thursday, October 16th. The reception is 5 - 7 p.m. and the talk/discussion will probably be 5:30 - 6:30. I hope that this still works for you. Rick Fox will also be participating. I will be introducing the exhibit and then introducing you and Rick. There will be time for you to show images of your work and considering the theme of the show, it would be interesting to hear about your larger body of work and how the self-portraits play into it. I am asking the same of Rick Fox. There will also be a chance for there to be a Q & A.
I am thrilled to have your work in the exhibit and look forward to meeting you.
I replied that I had the opening on my calendar, but I had no idea that there was a talk. The curator then said that she had discussed the talk with Julia (who told the curator that she would have to ask me directly) and she thought I was on board. And I certainly did not know that there was a talk that would include me showing images of my work and a discussion of my "larger body of work" and doing a Q and A. All of this during the opening of the exhibition. So it's not an opening for me, it's an artist's talk and a Q and A. And there was no compensation for my time or travel offered. So I made the work, framed it, supplied a text, my gallery arranged consignment and photos, and in addition, I am supposed to provide my time and discuss my work.
I said as much in my reply:
On Oct 8, 2014, at 11:12 AM, Steve Locke wrote:
Hi Audrey, I apologize. I didn't realize that I was being asked to speak about my work and my studio practice. I thought that contributing the work and the text for the catalog was all. I guess I misunderstood. I am sorry, but I am not able to contribute my time to the talk.
I got an apology for the "lack of clarity in communication" and a hope that I would come to the opening. I didn't go.
Later, Julia did a follow up with the curator. She asked about the catalog and also about the response to the show. She got this message in return:
Hi Julie (sic),
I am waiting for the photos of the installation from Debbie. You will see that we only hung the 2 paintings that were in good shape. I don't know if Debbie has been in touch with you regarding the damaged painting. I do know that you responded to her concerned email, the day of the installation, stating that one of the paintings had a large chip of paint off of the front surface of the painting. I saw the photo that you sent back in response, confirming that you knew of the clearly damaged surface. I must say that I was shocked and disturbed that a painting would be sent out in that condition, and that you thought that we would include it in the exhibit. I was down in your neck of the woods for a couple of hours, a week or so ago, and although your lights were on, the door was locked. I had the catalogs with me at that time. I will mail a couple to you. As far as interest in Steve's work, I was there for the reception and haven't been back since. I know that they get a certain flow through the gallery, but the exhibits are mostly for the benefit of the students. Debbie is the best to answer your question regarding interest in his work and responses by students and faculty. I know that they used the exhibit as material for classwork/papers/research. These exhibits go by so quickly. This one ends this Saturday. I am making arrangements with Matt Clark to return the paintings to the gallery the beginning of next week. Does this work for you?
In fact, Julia had been contacted about "damage" to the paintings. She thought it strange and assured the curator that there was no "damage" to the works; that they were how I intended them to be. Apparently, the curator knows what my work is supposed to look like, (which works are in "good shape") more that I or the people who have represented me for years. In fact, Halo, has a small mark where I scratched to the ground of the picture to bring a dot of light to the surface. She also saw fit to reprimand the standards and qualities of the staff and owner of Samsøñ. To that end, Camilo Alvarez sent a reply:
From: Camilo Alvarez [mailto:email@example.com] Sent: Tuesday, November 11, 2014 3:20 PM To: Audrey Pepper Cc: Julia Lavigne; Disston, Deborah Subject: Re: image
My Assistant Director's name is Julia.
These paintings belong to the artist's private collection. They are in the condition the artist and I are completely comfortable in exhibiting. They would never have been released if we didn't believe they deserved to be seen. Our attention to detail with all the unique works that come through us is thorough. These works are not 'damaged'. I would say more 'damage' has been made to those who have now been unable to see them. We look forward to receiving the catalogs, installation images and works. Please note we are open Tuesday to Saturday from 11 to 6PM.
Camilø Álvårez Owner/Director/Curator/Preparator
This is really the point where I found out about any of this. Camilo and Julia worked hard to insulate me from this insulting behavior but it just got to a point where I had to be included in the discussion. Especially after the Director of the gallery sent Camilo this email:
On Nov 11, 2014, at 3:46 PM, "Disston, Deborah" <D.Disston@snhu.edu> wrote:
Camilo, I think the tone of your email is unnecessary. It was our decision to not show the large painting by Steve because it gave the appearance of being damaged and we did not want to be perceived as poor stewards of our art exhibitions and/or collections. Steve’s reputation and work has in no way shape or form been damaged. As you recall we have exhibited his work in a group exhibition Traversing Gender for which he happily came to give an artist talk. We have happily included his work in our catalog and as Audrey pointed out she was hand delivering them to your gallery and the gallery was locked during your office hours. We all take pride in our work and we should all be respected equally for those efforts. We will be de-installing our exhibit on Sunday and arrangements are being made with the art shipper. I will mail you catalogs and email you installation images. Until then, let’s continue doing the good work we all do and give each other support. - Debbie
Apparently, all of us needing to be respected for our efforts doesn't apply to me or my vision for my own work. And again, someone really feels the need to reprimand an adult who has worked in contemporary art venues for his entire career about how an artist's work should appear - an artist whom he has represented for over 7 years. And as far as my reputation is concerned, well, I'll let Camilo address that:
I thought Audrey's tone was unnecessary as well. I hope you agree. I wonder why I was admonished for expressing and defending my viewpoint?
I am never worried about perceptions. I think if you had shown the painting and someone remarked about its perceived 'damage', it could have been a teachable moment about the artist's process. Steve and I spoke about that very work and its moments and the fact that there is no such thing as perfection. Considering it is a self portrait, the correlation of 'damage' upon the painting by the artist makes it art. Think: Dorian Gray. The reflection of time in a painting, with the artist...
I also didn't mention anything about Steve's reputation. The inference was that I (or the artist) was being irresponsible by unleashing a 'damaged' painting into the world was an affront to my responsibility. Thus it was more about my reputation being sullied. It seems to me more worry was felt about the perception of your respective reputations in fact by not exhibiting this work.
It is impossible to respect all equally. Some do more than others. I do a lot. I've been told I do good, sometimes great work. I have also been told I support great work and whenever anyone questions the inverse, you can expect to hear from me about it.
Best to you and yours,
Camilø Álvårez Owner/Director/Curator/Preparator
You can see why I love him so much.
I found out about all this as I was driving to get groceries. I saw the email string and had to pull over to a parking lot to get a hold of myself. I am used to being insulted about my work. I am used to being misunderstood. I am not used to not being taken seriously as an artist and I do not appreciate being told that the decisions I make about presenting the work I make are not art, or worse that they are "damage" or mistakes, or evidence of me not caring about my work, the venue, or the viewers. This has the weight of a gutter insult to me. Especially in light of the way this whole thing has been handled.
Camilo calmed me down and I was able to drive the rest of the way home. He told me to forget the whole thing. I just cannot. I sent the following to the Director and the Curator:
Debbie and Audrey,
I am really at a loss to understand the events that have taken place around this show and my work in it. I have learned late that one of the works I sent at your request (Self-portrait at Skowhegan) was not exhibited because it was perceived by the two of you to be damaged. I cannot believe that you think that I would send a damaged work for exhibition. In fact, I had the painting framed at considerable expense to HIGHLIGHT the irregularity of the edge of the support and the difficulty in layering the painting’s surface. This show was supposed to be ABOUT self-examination and that guides every aspect of my practice. Had you seen there is no one left to blame at ICA Boston, you would know that the surfaces and edges of my paintings often show the stresses and decisions that happen in creating a picture. In a show that contains Gillespie (who famously reworked and abraded the surfaces of his pictures) I find it hard to believe that you could not or would not see my work as part of that conversation. I cannot believe that I am so disregarded as a maker that my choices in the way I make my work are questioned and dismissed because of the way they may look to viewers.
My work is supported by the statement I wrote for the catalog.
Camilo Alvarez has known me and my work since 2002 and he and his staff, particularly Julia Lavigne, are deeply knowledgeable about my practice and my ideas. A simple call about the situation would have allowed them or me to educate you about the pictures I make. My “reputation” and my career are in a great amount due to his belief and support of my vision and my work. I found Audrey’s and your messages to Julia and to him very sad. They really do not deserve to be addressed as though they do not understand the work of exhibiting and contextualizing works of art.
Lastly, I was asked to contribute a text to a catalog, for free. I framed and prepared the work for exhibition at no cost to you. And I was put forward to give a public talk about my work under the guise of coming to an opening with no compensation for my time in speaking about my work or my travel. I loved coming out to SNHU and talking with students; it’s part of my life as an educator. But speaking at an opening or giving a talk about my work and my practice with images is not something that any artist would be asked to do for free. I am left with the feeling that my refusal to participate in the talk was the reason for the removal of my work.
After the wonderful experience of participating in TRAVERSING GENDER I am completely shocked and frankly, hurt, at the way my work and the people who work so hard on my behalf have been considered.
I advised my friends Anne and Susanna about this. I feel a little bit better after getting this all out. It boggles my mind that in 2014, this is the way that people make determinations about their audience, the people with whom they work, and what they think deserves to be seen. It is difficult to bear that a work I made to prove something to my self and to the world was hidden from view because people could not understand the difference between intention and their own ideas of art.
One of the greatest works of art of the 20th Century is
. In addition to being an image yanked from one of the unspeakable horrors of the murder of European Jewry it is a painting that refuses to obey the conventions of paintings of history. It's a modest size instead of being epic. It is painted in tonal neutrals instead of a rich palette of color. It is on a warped and angled stretcher that prevents it from being a regular rectangle and instead presents an uncomfortable image in a new form. This is because of Tuymans's choices, both formally and conceptually. I can imagine the curator and director of this exhibition keeping this painting from view because to show it would make people think badly of them. I think badly of them because they do not understand that art is not about comfort or ease. It provokes a public conversation. It's sad that they do not trust themselves or their viewers enough to ask the question, "Why did the artist do that? What are they saying to me?"
In light of all this, I got
email from the director of the space. You would think that I made all of this clear, but apparently, I still don't know what I am talking about when it comes to my own work:
Dear Steve and Camilo,First I want to preface that I know you both are committed to your profession and do great work. I have always admired the verve with which you engage in the arts and this is one of many reasons we invited you to be a part of our exhibit on self-portraiture.
I believe there are some significant misunderstandings here which I would like to attempt to clear up. First, “Self-Portrait at Skowhegan: is included in the exhibit, It was “Halo” which we chose not to exhibit because there was a significant white spot (chipped paint)on the surface. I contacted Julia the minute I noticed this to let her know of the condition. She in turn sent me an image showing that there was a chip of paint missing. We were not provided with the explanation that such a thing was intentional. Audrey and I discussed what we wanted to do and chose to not include “Halo” .
Here are a few thoughts about your comments about compensation.
It has been our practice at the McIninch Art Gallery to ask our exhibiting artists to speak at our opening reception, to provide bios, artist statements. I do not pay a stipend for that. If you were a guest speaker and not an exhibiting artist, I would. Why is this? Out of our incredibly small budget, we pay for advertising, marketing materials, the cost of printing catalogs, art shipping, insurance, installation costs, staffing, curatorial fees, hospitality costs, taking the artist to dinner after the event. And then there is the in-kind cost of time spent working with professors and providing them with didactic materials so that they can utilize the exhibit in their curricular activities, which is all the time. In exchange for all of these expenditures, I feel that it is fair to ask the artist to speak at an opening reception. It is entirely your prerogative to disagree and chose not to participate.
We are very proud of the exhibit. There is still time to see it. The show runs through Saturday.
The art will be returned next week. I will be forwarding installation shots and more catalogs.
Her initial message states that the "large painting" was not shown. At 20-by-24 inches,
Self-Portrait at Skowhegan
is the largest work. But now she says that painting was shown and
was not. So truly, I really have no faith in anything about this at this point. Listen, if you don't want to show the work, fine. I don't really care. Just don't tell me that my work is damaged and don't be "shocked and disturbed" that a contemporary art work might try to trouble conventional standards of art. If this is so upsetting, maybe the curatorial career choice is a bad one.
So even though Julia sent them a photo saying that she knew about the spot on the painting and that it was intentional, they still decided it was not. It was also good to see where the gallery's priorities are; they have so many expenses that their operation sort of requires the artist to work for a meal. And clearly, if they were so concerned why didn't they just send the piece back to me? Why hold on to it, not show it, not inform me that they were not showing it, and then tell me reprimand me and Samsøñ for sending it? I am deeply confused and feel silly explaining this over and over again to them. I contacted my two friends who were in the show and let them know how ridiculously unprofessional this whole thing has turned out to be. I found out that one of them hadn't even been invited to the opening and that neither of them had received the catalog. If I was to go out to see this show at this point, it would be to take my work off the walls.
What you referred to as chipped paint on the surface is called a mark. I put the mark on the painting. It's not an accident, it's not damaged, it's not "chipped." Julia made this clear to you. It would have been better if you let me know you were choosing not to include the work. That would've given me the opportunity to take all of my work out of the show. My question to you is this: why do you assume that I do not know what I'm doing as an artist and that I don't know how I want my paintings to be seen?
Samsøñ provided you with my bio, my CV, and a general statement about my work. They also provided at no cost to you Hi-Rez images of the work for publication.I was asked to craft a special statement for this exhibition. Since as you probably know language is part of my practice as an artist, this is also artwork. Since this was to be published as a document in a catalog for the exhibition, it would be normal for an artist to be compensated for a contribution to a publication.
Lastly, there is a difference between speaking to someone at an opening and being required to provide a slide talk with images and an overview of one's work. As I said, I enjoyed talking with students during Traversing Gender. That is a very different situation.
Joe Biden famously said, "if you want me to know what you value, show me your budget." Thanks for making your priorities clearer for me.
I've advised my colleagues Anne Harris and Susanna Coffey about this unfortunate situation.
If artists are only valued for their ability to entertain, then they are not valued at all. In this case, the appearances were more important that the message of the works. Instead of seeing the artist who poses a question ("Why is that white spot there? Oh wow, it really makes it seem like it's a piece of dust illuminated by the light, doesn't it?) the artist is an irresponsible person who sends out damaged work and needs his "reputation" maintained. Again, this entire thing has left me very sad. I cannot wait to get my paintings back from this show.