B U R N T H E F L E E T
27th February, 2020
Toward the end of 2019 I made the decision to remove my work from the commercial art world entirely. At the end of January 2020 I advised my representative and partnered galleries in London, Barcelona and New York that I no longer wished to sell my paintings and asked that I be deleted from their rosters. In the coming months I will begin a project through which I will give away paintings for free. Before I explain the reasons behind this decision I should like to say that it is entirely personal and has nothing to do with any of the galleries with whom I have worked. I thank them all wholeheartedly for their commitment and support. I honestly could not have asked for better people to work with.
The reason for my decision to separate my practice from commerce is simple: The association has not made me happy and I have come to realise that it has had a negative effect on my approach to painting. I paint because I love it and because doing so improves my experience of living, but being involved in the commercial art world has made it a far less enjoyable or fulfilling pursuit than it ever has been in the past. The choice, therefore, could not be clearer.
Generally speaking, for artists who have encountered, studied and pursued art via the established channels, gallery representation is a major goal. For as long as I can remember it has been mine, although for most of that time achieving it appeared a quite fanciful notion. That changed rather suddenly, between November 2018 and January 2019, when three galleries from different countries all expressed serious interest in my work. I was offered representation by two of them quite quickly, and a close collaboration with the third. It felt like everything I’d wanted from my practice and my career had come to me all at once.
Before that, between 2015 and 2016, I gave paintings away for free, primarily through email and Instagram. The first time I put my work up for sale was in September 2016, but I found doing so very stressful. In an attempt to assuage the anxiety I devised a formula that would take the responsibility of pricing out of my hands. The simple equation assigned price at 5 pence per square centimetre of surface area, so a painting measuring 25 x 20cm, for example, would be priced at £25, and a painting 50 x 40cm came in at £100. A year or so later, after unanimous agreement among friends and strangers that I was underselling myself, I increased the per-square-centimetre price to 25 pence. This did not change again until my association with commercial galleries began and the prices rose to broadly match those of my immediate contemporaries. The calculation was slightly more complex but ultimately still a size-based sliding scale. The influence of money is something I have struggled with in all aspects of my adult life but I have felt it most acutely in the way I have presented my paintings as commercial objects. I have never felt comfortable with the numbers on my labels and it is a relief indeed to do away with them.
I don’t have a problem with the commercial art world in general though. Yes, it is flawed and at the higher end subject to manipulation, but it is ostensibly a free market and currently the best way for artists at all levels to make a living from their work. It’s no worse than any other structure facilitating the exchange of luxury goods and no more problematic now than when I entered into it. I am no wiser on the subject than I was a year ago, but what I have learned is that as an artist I do not function well within it - it does not bring out the best in me.
I used to be quite vocal about how I thought the art world was changing and the traditional gallery model becoming outdated, but when galleries came knocking on my door I was immediately seduced. I suppose rejecting the only structure and established “artistic career option” I have ever known and aimed for, in favour of an unproven and very uncertain theory on the future, is a lot to ask - I am ambitious, after all. I think I probably needed to experience what it is to be an artist in the commercial world for myself before I could consider turning away from it, but that isn’t the whole story. Being honest, I let my ego get the better of me and, despite a mild but palpable cognitive dissonance, became starry eyed at the thought that this might be the start of my ‘big break’.
The perception of success as an artist is an odd thing. Would I be considered successful up to this point? I achieved international gallery representation, exhibited alongside world renowned artists and had my work presented at major international art fairs. Then again, over the course of a year, with three galleries promoting me across multiple platforms, I sold nothing. Overtly, in terms of visibility, exposure and building a reputation I was certainly enjoying the markers of success, but on a real level my practice was suffering and I was losing money fast. Appearances can be deceiving. The point is that the narrow definition of success in this arena - selling work and increasing one’s visibility or prominence - does not match my own. I have realised that I have no motivation to make the creative and personal sacrifices that success measured by these criteria would necessitate. I did try though! I spun my story out as far as I could, accentuating the positives and being careful to hide away any negativity I was feeling. I was careful to manage my conversations with others in the industry to ensure their opinions of me and my associated galleries remained as high as possible. I never got down to brass tacks for fear of revealing a growing sequence of zero-sales exhibitions (I should add that I did this all of my own volition - I was under no instruction or pressure whatsoever from my galleries). I began to feel like a kind of two-bit corporate mouthpiece insidiously protecting my brands. In the grand scheme of things I realise my actions would be considered pretty insignificant, maybe even understandable, but judging myself by my own standards, I was lying. Not just in terms of pushing out marketing propaganda, but in personal conversations with friends and family and that cannot be tolerated at any price.
Problems also manifested within the day to day activities of my studio practice. Having been employed by galleries as a technician since 2005 I know plenty about the way the commercial art world works, and so felt well placed to make decisions that would help me function within it as an artist. Knowing what galleries want and need from their artists, I was confident of supplying them effectively. Not just with paintings, but with all the other associated matter required - accurate documentation, professional quality photography, logistical efficiency and so on - all the things that, when I work in galleries, I want from artists. I knew I could make a gallerist’s job easier and be a “good artist”, and that’s exactly what I did. When requests for work came in, I dutifully, willingly obliged, in certain cases even making what I had been asked to make. The people pleaser in me came out in full force, maybe more so than ever before given the attention I was receiving. As a result, much of the making process across this period has been performed under duress. I have had stressful deadlines and although I have not rushed paintings per se, I have certainly agreed to make them with far less drying, documentation and transportation time than they required. I have pushed myself too hard, agreed to too much and turned a creative process meant as a joyful indulgence into a production line. All these things have taken up time and thought that ought to have been set aside for an unencumbered creative practice and so I feel I have been dancing to the beat of an alien drum.
I have a complex relationship with the individual paintings I have made this past year. I am happy on the whole because the core idea underpinning them was developed before serious commercial concerns appeared on my horizon, but since then there have been too many occasions when thoughts of ‘best commercial practice’ have come into play. The needs of others, assumed as often as explicit, have influenced what I have done. It’s true that I essentially made the same painting over and over again for the whole of 2019, and whilst repetition is key to my work and a rigorous exploration of an idea is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, my practice became bloated and detached at times. I know I made more of those paintings than I needed to, for reasons that had nothing to do with a singular creative vision or for the enjoyment of the activity. This is not to say that I don’t stand by each painting as a good individual work - taken in isolation, each one presents just as I intended (they wouldn’t have left the studio if they didn’t). The issue is that the reasons for making a fair number of them were not valid and, to be entirely honest, I don’t believe that my practice would be any worse off if those particular works had never been made.
I am well aware that all of the things I have explained so far can be described as distractions to be dismissed. Not becoming distracted is, or should be, within the control of the individual and perhaps an argument could be made for me to be stricter in setting myself rules dissociating the creative side from the business side. I can’t say this is an entirely unreasonable suggestion in general, it’s just not the solution for me. I have made a cornerstone of working to understand myself better these past few years - to identify aspects of my character which I previously wasn’t conscious of or didn’t particularly like and I am certain this is a scenario to which this way of thinking is pertinent. Over time I have recognised specific, unhelpful patterns in my own behaviour, some of which have made themselves known in my response to the commercialisation of my painting. They are deeply ingrained and parts of my character, my personality, that I feel I need to accept rather than fight. Therefore to struggle on unnecessarily in a situation that triggers these behaviours seems quite foolish, and the obvious solution is to excise myself from it. I chose to bring my work to market. I have assessed the experience, registered the outcome and am acting accordingly. It’s struggle enough to make work with honesty and integrity without additional negativity further clouding judgement and vision. Better, surely, to eliminate the problem at its source? Treat the cause, not the symptom.
The overarching theme here is of course the consideration of my mental health. I need to feel good when engaged in my practice because that’s the main reason that I paint, but I have rarely felt that way over the course of 2019. How hypocritical it would be for me to speak constantly of the importance of looking after one’s psychological state, claim painting as my main means to this end, and then quietly go on dragging myself through a process that does the precise opposite. A decision like this does not come without uncertainty, but I can’t say it was a desperately difficult one to make Once I had identified what was happening, the path forward was quite clear. Yes, there was apprehension surrounding the projected consequences of leaving my galleries and how that might appear to the wider world. Superficial as they may be, the demons of anxiety are not easily exorcised. However with the right approach they can be quietened and when this is achieved, then the most important and exciting part of this whole thing is revealed - the potential.
As I mentioned, I am planning to begin a new project through which I will distribute paintings for free. Something similar I have done before, but if you imagine there might be limited personal novelty in revisiting it, you would be much mistaken. The difference between this new project and the old one is the journey I have taken. I do not regret for a second each step that has come to bring me to this point - every one was essential and I feel lucky to have had the experience. My aim - my dream no less - was that my paintings may one day grace the walls of respected galleries and that my practice might be considered of value enough for me to be approached for gallery representation. Against odds and expectations I achieved this. It is no exaggeration to say it is a dream fulfilled. As satisfying as giving works away for free was the first time around, the fantasy that they may someday travel the gallery route existed and, had it never been realised, would almost certainly have ended up an eternal sadness for me. Fortunately (and I do credit the hand of luck in great part) this was not the case and so I do not believe I shall be left with the feeling of a dream unfulfilled. So, I go into this next phase of my practice with a sense of genuine potential. The old aim has been achieved. I have done what I set out to do and learned much about what my practice means to me. The established structures set out as the goal for an artist have not provided me the satisfaction I imagined. The prescriptive “path to success” has come to a somewhat abrupt end, so what next? I genuinely do not know, but by abandoning the accepted norms of the “insider” art world from a position of relative achievement, and allowing myself to be lead entirely by my own creative urge, I offer myself the opportunity to follow a new path, unencumbered. My first action, due to begin in the coming months is, not to “resurrect” as such, but perhaps to renew my project to distribute my paintings for free. The outcome may be similar to that which went before, but my reasoning and understanding of it are refined and deepened.
I have come to understand that at this point I perceive success to be pursuing my painting on my terms alone, in as honest a manner as I am able. If I can achieve this, then I hope I might manage to craft a practice that holds a potential other than to simply fit into the predefined niche that has been carved out for it. I am aware of no comparable existing examples to site as templates of success, and I could just as well be at the start of my own beaten path to obscurity, but I have faith that this is the course of action with the best chance of bringing me happiness, and that’s the most important thing.
“Sometimes a little bit of faith can go a long, long way” - Nick Cave