Tuesday, March 10, 2009
I sometimes think of a line from a Talking Heads song "...and you may ask yourself, 'How did I get here?'"
A mostly unsuccessful Canadian artist with no art education lands at a prestigious gallery in New York and his first show sells out. Sometimes these things happen.
The first sellout show of my career came in my twentieth year of full-time painting. Points for persistence. The preceding year, a show of the same work in Toronto wasn't sullied by the taint of commerce: there were no sales.
New York was, realistically, my last shot before considering other career options.
This is a timeline of the twenty year road to a show in New York.
1983- I quit my go-nowhere job at a bookstore where I’ve been ‘assistant to the manager’ for six years. My first and only real job. Not having gone to university, I consider this my post-secondary education. Bought and read a lot of books. Unpacked a good number as well. Discovered Edward Hopper, Richard Estes, John Baeder, books on roadside architecture, Russian and Japanese literature and any number of oddities that one finds at a good bookstore, including my first girlfriend and future ex-wife Christina.
1984- I’m twenty-six, living in my parent’s basement and have finally begun to paint. I’ve spent the previous year avoiding painting so as not to face the fear that I will suck at painting.
At first I’m doing small paintings on canvas board. I’m painting slightly altered versions of actual places, using my visual memory to piece things together.
After struggling with what feels like endless mixing of paint to get just the right colour, I yield to a few short lines describing Chuck Close’s technique in the book ‘Hyperrealism’ by Linda Chase. I decide to use only red, yellow, blue and black paints.
I’m still of the mind that using photographs is cheating. My high-school art teacher forbade the use of photographs and derailed what seemed natural to me: the use of my own photographs as a source for my art.
I paint my first ‘serious’ work on gessoed masonite panel which I will continue to use until 1993.
Highly influenced by Hopper’s haunted urban nightscapes, I begin to paint the scenes I see on the regular evening walks I take with Christina. These walks are our meager entertainment for the remainder of our years in Toronto.
1986- I finally feel ready to approach a gallery with my work. I first try Gallery Moos in the Yorkville area of Toronto. A few weeks before, I had gone to a Ken Danby show at the gallery (in my teens I had been a great fan of his work) and felt, in an aura of delusion, that my work didn’t compare unfavourably with his.
I’m still amazed that I managed to walk up the stairs to the gallery, portfolio in hand, without passing out. Such was the strength of my conviction that I managed to overcome my intense social anxieties.
Predictably, when I call a week or so later, they say my portfolio is ready to be picked up. This phrase was used by several galleries, as though I had left my portfolio for some sort of transformative process, and really meant ‘please relieve us of this burden’.
1988- I continue, through 1987 and ‘88 to leave my portfolio with various galleries. Working my way down a by-order-of-preference wish-list I manage to be rejected by fifteen galleries. I have the odd encouraging word but most encounters are deflating. I was once handed, without apology, my slipcased portfolio, flattened and covered with paint spray from a roller.
By the end of 1988 I’ve run out of Yorkville and downtown galleries and have ended up in the ‘Junction’ area of Toronto. I haven’t conceived of going this far down my list. The pleasant people at K. Griffin Gallery agree to give me my first show.
The gallery is run by a very nice family, who, strangely, also run the large funeral parlour next door.
I remember the smell of the nearby stockyards and the odd scrap of cow carcass on the road as I drove to the gallery.
1989- My first show is somewhat of a success although only one painting is bought by someone I don’t know.
This is not the skyrocketing rise to fame I had envisioned.
Two months later, Christina and I, now newly married, pack up a rental truck which leaks when it rains and head for our new home in Victoria, B.C.
1991- Still painting, feeling artistically lost. The new life doesn’t translate to this painting style but I don’t know that yet.
I approach Fran Willis Gallery in Victoria. Fran Willis, who has a signature finger-in-a-socket hairdo, expresses little interest but photocopies a page from my portfolio for her records.
At this point, the only other gallery in Victoria worth engaging is Barton-Leier Gallery and they offer to put a few of my paintings in their Christmas show. Oddly, Nixie Barton also has the signature finger-in-a-socket hairdo.
For two years, nothing sells.
1993- My paintings have become dull, sad and derivative. I’ve grown tired of how I paint and hate that they all look like I’ve done them.
Christina works at a library and occasionally brings home a book she thinks I’ll find interesting. In ‘Ralph Goings’ by Linda Chase I find, within a sentence on his technique, ‘...taking the photograph, projecting it, drawing it and then painting it...’ What? PROJECTING? Why has this never before occurred to me?
After the shock wears off I abandon the largely unsuccessful artistic path I've been on for a decade and over the course of a weekend, I become a photorealist.
Of course, I’m feeling the fear of change. The fear of using photos. I know that the only way I can achieve the results I want is to use photos. I just need to justify it to myself.
I don’t want to see myself when I look at my paintings and photos will make this possible.
First painting, a monochrome acrylic on paper, is done freehand from a photo in a book. I actually have fun doing it. Not what I’m used to.
Second painting, also monochrome, using a grid transferred from a photo I’ve taken. Still looks too much like I’ve had a hand in it. I find the grid is only barely more accurate than a freehand drawing.
Third painting, I finally project a slide onto watercolour paper.
I am astonished with the results. Most remarkably, it doesn’t look to me like I’ve painted it. I can look at it and feel a welcome detachment. I’m amazed at how ‘photographic’ it appears.
What to paint? I’ve decided nighttime paintings push too many emotional buttons in the viewer. I want these images to work more subtly.
From my present day vantage point I realise, at this time, I don’t really have a clear understanding of why I paint. Nor do I understand how it reflects on what I paint or even how I paint.
I start to take photos of camper vans and trailers, of which there are many in Victoria. This isn’t the land of the weekend cottage that I grew up in. People here seem to take their accommodation with them. The resulting works are inspired by Ralph Going’s truck paintings.
By the end of 1993, I have a few paintings I can put into another Barton-Leier Christmas show. At the opening I get the feeling that no one there understands photorealism and all are baffled by the subject matter. I’m simultaneously pissed-off and feeling the fool. Nothing sells.
1994- I’ve been taking pictures of old signs, neon and otherwise, in Victoria and while in Toronto to see family. THIS IS MY NEW SUBJECT! Still not sure why but at least I’ve settled on something.
These won’t be paintings of oozily romantic nighttime neon but the derelict signs in the harsh light of day: broken tubes and rusting metal.
I should mention that such were my anxieties in the eighties that I was unable to go into the street with a camera. I saw signs and buildings in Toronto that I wanted to record, that were obviously about to disappear, but couldn’t face standing in the street to do it. Perhaps feeling like a stranger in Victoria helped me overcome my fears although it’s still something I struggle with today.
1996- I’ve done sixteen neon sign paintings and haven’t yet approached a gallery. I send a sheet of slides in a rudimentary folder to O.K. Harris Works of Art in New York. I’ve made a logo that says ‘Derelict Neon’ for the front of the folder.
The few books on photorealism I've seen are full of credits for the gallery and it is something of a mythical place for me. To my amazement the portfolio arrives back home in Victoria two weeks later with a note from the gallery's director/owner Ivan Karp- 'Greetings N.M. Your work relates to some of what we show here. However, if you have 8-10 works in N.Y.C. I shall be pleased to see them.'
What I’ve expected is for my portfolio to disappear and then I’d begin the more reasonable pursuit of a gallery in Vancouver or Toronto. I’m not quite sure what to do next. Any sane person would have planned a trip to New York but after much panicked deliberation, I decide I’m not ready to go. The fear engendered by the thought of the trip overwhelms any interest I have of success in New York.
My life in Victoria is a hermetic one. Christina and I live in utter simplicity and I have no life beyond the walls of the upper duplex of a house we share with my parents who moved from Toronto on the heels of our departure. The time away from painting I spend creating and maintaining an enormous garden that has transformed the barren lot beside our house.
In this context, sending a sheet of slides to a gallery in another country takes on an air of fantasy and improbability.
The note from Ivan Karp has made me feel, at least, that I may finally be on to something.
1997- I put six packages together: a folder with slides of twenty neon sign paintings, an artist’s statement and postage-paid envelopes to take around to Vancouver galleries. Photorealism isn’t exactly a well represented style of painting at Canadian contemporary art galleries and my idea is to make the concept of ‘Derelict Neon’ perfectly understandable.
Christina and I take the early bus to Vancouver, a scenic but interminable three hour trip which includes a scenic but interminable ferry ride. I plan to visit the galleries in the South Granville area.
At each gallery I ask if I might leave a sheet of slides of my work for consideration and point out the inclusion of the postage-paid envelope.
A pleasant person at Diane Farris Gallery takes the first folder, a good start.
A young woman at Douglas Udell Gallery looks at the slides in the light of a window and suggests that perhaps I should take them to the Vancouver Museum, given the historical nature of the images. She doesn’t think they’re something a commercial gallery would be interested in.
At John Ramsey Gallery a disheveled man, who might be John Ramsey, grimaces as I hand him a portfolio which, I might add, I never see again.
A woman at Equinox Gallery continues to type as I stand before her desk in the empty gallery that I have just noisily traversed. When she deigns to look up I deliver my line and she replies: ‘We don’t accept artist’s portfolios.’ then turns to resume her typing.
I crumple up the introduction letter as I leave but don’t have the nerve to throw it on the floor of the gallery. It does, after all, have my name and address on it.
Feeling a little beaten, I make my last attempt at Bau-Xi Gallery where a somewhat reluctant Tien Huang agrees to take my portfolio.
Christina and I call it a day. I’m sure I’m not the most pleasant of company for the rest of our day in Vancouver.
Three days later I get a call from Xisa Huang at Bau-Xi. While I sense she’s not the least bit persuaded by the subject matter, after some discussion with others at the gallery she has agreed to see if the actual paintings look as accomplished as they appear in the slides.
I make another trip to the gallery and leave them with ten paintings to consider. A few days later Xisa calls and offers me a show.
Later in the week, Diane Farris Gallery calls to request a viewing of the work and I have the pleasure of regretfully declining the opportunity.
1998- My first solo show of photorealist work ‘Derelict Neon’ takes place in June at Bau-Xi. The show is well received but only my in-laws are buying. There is a palpable bit of neon sign mania in the visitors. An interview I have with David Grierson on CBC radio brings in a flood of sign fans.
In the end, Xisa feels the prices were a little high but is glad to have had the work in her gallery. I get the sense there will be no follow-up show.
Ironically, in a few months, the Vancouver Museum has an exhibit dedicated to Vancouver neon.
As the summer goes by, despair forces me into a plan to lower my prices and to plead with Xisa to try the paintings at their gallery in Toronto. She’s happy with the price reduction but will leave it up to the staff in Toronto to make the decision. They like the work and offer me a show. All of this is easy to relate in retrospect but was excruciating to execute.
1999- ‘Derelict Neon’ in Toronto. The show does well. People not related to me have bought paintings. I get a small amount of press. The problem is, I’m tiring of neon signs and the people who love them. The subject has come to dominate the artist.
Perhaps there’s an element of self-sabotage in abandoning the subject matter when it starts to sell but I really don’t want to be known as ‘the neon sign guy’.
I do one or two more but I’m already wondering what’s next.
Neon sign paintings without the sign? I paint ‘ Vacant Building’. A cityscape? I paint ‘Winter Skyline’.
I’m still photographing signs but now it’s any manner of sign: hand painted, backlit plastic and even the odd billboard. The buildings the signs are attached to are also creeping in to the frame. I have faint stirrings of wondering why I choose this imagery to paint.
2001- ‘Relic’ is my transitional second show in Toronto. The neon sign is giving way to its urban context. Graffiti on buildings, signage on buildings, the buildings themselves. I still feel like I’m sorting it out. What do I paint? Why do I paint it? Of the seventeen paintings, only seven sell. Three of those to my supportive in-laws.
More importantly, I’ve decided to go to New York with last season’s de-framed neon sign paintings while I’m in Toronto. I’ve called O.K. Harris to let them know I’m coming. Ivan Karp tells me to call when I’m in the neighbourhood.
It’s March, pre-9/11. My first trip to the U.S. begins with the excitement of Toronto’s bus station in the late evening. I’ll take the overnight bus, clutching a small plywood box with $14,000.00 worth of paintings, go to the gallery, wander around and take the next overnight back to Toronto. Having lived in Victoria, B.C. since 1989, the crowd heading for New York seems a pretty exotic bunch.
I’m prepared to be turned away at the border, given the scare stories I’ve been fed by a few people about trying to get things into the United States. From what I could find on-line it doesn’t seem to be a problem but still, I’m worried.
It doesn’t help my mood any that while waiting in our bus at the Niagara Falls, Ontario bus station around midnight we’re witness to a full blown, guns drawn, police takedown.
Once the cops let us go, we’re on our way to the border.
All goes well. I’m allowed in after random, humourless questions about the contents of my box. Thankfully, no one asks to see the paintings.
The droning journey ends with the sun rising pink over the Manhattan skyline, looming strangely familiar and the sudden shock and scramble of midtown as the bus emerges from the Lincoln Tunnel.
Leaving the Port Authority Terminal Building I immediately begin walking in the wrong direction. I take refuge in a quiet greasy spoon to get my bearings. It doesn’t help that I’ve been awake for more than 24 hours.
I eat my breakfast, drink my coffee and tell myself to get a grip. It helps to look out the window, see people heading to work. Normal folks doing normal things amidst the perceived chaos.
I walk all the way to SoHo enjoying the unfamiliar buzz of New York. I kill time in a cafe around the corner from O.K. Harris. After 10 am I call the gallery and Ivan tells me to come on in.
It’s a remarkably friendly experience. I put my paintings out on a long wooden table. Ivan and longtime employee Rick Witter have a look. Ivan is astonished that I’m not staying in New York longer. After all, who visits New York for an afternoon? Ivan looks at the slides of newer work that I brought. He says the neon sign paintings are ‘charming’ but he thinks the paintings in the slides are far more interesting. He implies: ‘Who comes to New York with old paintings?’
He tells me to keep showing in Canada and come back to see him in a couple of years. ‘Next time, bring me your new work!’
Ivan writes a little note for me to take to Bernarducci-Meisel Gallery: ‘Greetings Frank. Please take a look at these. Good stuff.’ Rick tells me to try Gallery Henoch but no one knows their new address. They give me a New York Gallery Guide and send me on my way.
When I leave the gallery, I call Christina back in Victoria. I tell her what’s happened. I say ‘Fuck Canada!’.
I walk, quickly, to Bernarducci-Meisel on West Fifty-Seventh. Most normal people wouldn’t have walked. When stressed, I find comfort and control on my feet. I blame this on my car-less upbringing.
At Bernarducci-Meisel, Frank Bernarducci doesn’t confess to being Frank Bernarducci until I show him my note from Ivan Karp. He admits to having a lot of respect for Ivan. He proceeds to belittle my work.
I look back on this as a quintessential New York moment. A semiserious back and forth bluster about the work while he stuffs envelopes. Before I leave, I take back Ivan’s note. Frank writes one of his own for me on an announcement card: ‘Nice work if you can get it. Frank.’
I walk over to Chelsea in search of Gallery Henoch but no one seems to know where it is. I don’t think to look at the gallery guide and have just enough energy to make it back to the Port Authority Terminal Building.
Back on the west coast, I’m a little confused about how to perceive the success of my trip to New York.
2002- I talk to Phen Huang at Bau-Xi Vancouver to see if they’d consider showing me there again. She thinks I should be in a gallery that can sell my paintings with ease, implying this would not be the case in Vancouver. I know she’s right.
I consider approaching galleries in Seattle and Portland but never make the effort.
2003- ‘Vestiges’, my third show at Bau-Xi Toronto opens in March. More transition. I’m beginning to turn away from graffiti, billboard signs (although these are represented in the show) and beginning to find an affinity for storefronts and odd commercial buildings.
After the opening, I plan to take another side-trip to New York with an armful of paintings from the last show. These, although not recent, are representative of the new direction I’m taking. I expect this to be a glorified sightseeing trip with a brief stop at O.K. Harris Works of Art.
Instead of the overnight bus, I board a cheap flight to Newark, N.J. and take a shuttle to Manhattan. I make my way down to SoHo, a veteran of the streets of New York.
I’ve called ahead, same routine. Ivan recognizes me from the previous trip. I arrange my paintings on the wooden table.
Ivan calls to his son in the office: ‘Ethan, come see these!’. The first flutter of things not going as expected.
They both look through the paintings, Ethan says: ‘We can give him a hallway show’. First, says Ivan, they’ll need to see more paintings.
I tell them I can return with more after the end of my show in Toronto.
In a daze, I spend some time with Rick Witter looking at photorealist paintings in the stacks, Goings, Baeder, Penner, McLean.
Nothing sells at my show in Toronto.
At home in Victoria I plan to head back to New York as soon as possible, in case they forget about me, in case someone else acts more quickly.
I’ll head to Toronto to de-frame the paintings Bau-Xi has on hand and take yet another armload across the border.
After attending a neighbour’s party, several days before my trip back east, an agitated looking Christina confesses to me that she thinks she’s gay.
After twenty years together, our symbiotic lives change in an instant. I become painfully aware of how isolated our life has been, that I’ve made no effort to make friends in Victoria.
Under this shroud of confusion, I go to meet my fate in New York.
I fly to Toronto. SARS fear permeates the city. A friend who was to drive me to New York on his way to a meeting at IBM headquarters in Westchester County, N.Y., has had his appointment canceled due to the organisation’s fear of the disease.
Plan ‘B’ is the bus.
A familiar scenario: unpacking my paintings on the big wooden table at O.K. Harris.
Everyone gathers around. Ivan says: ‘These certainly qualify’.
He then asks Rick and Ethan , as my heart sinks: ‘Do we have too many people doing this?’
Rick says no, one of their photorealists is doing abstracts now. This seems to end the discussion. When I pack up my paintings, I ask Ethan: ‘What’s next?’ He says: ‘Nothing.’
They have my name, address and phone number on a small scrap of paper. Eventually, when the time comes, I’ll get a call.
I head back to Toronto. The folks at Bau-Xi, ever supportive, wish me luck. I attend the 50th birthday party of new friend and fellow Bau-Xi artist Brian Kipping. I’m in a fog, not knowing what’s ahead in Victoria or New York.
2004- Christina and I are separated. I’m still in the big duplex with my parents, Christina in an apartment. Our dog is the only reason I have for waking up in the morning.
We still talk every day, trying to come to terms with the new realities of our existence. I feel as though her life has begun anew and mine has ended.
Some time in the late spring, Ethan Karp calls from New York and gives me the dates for my show. When I hang up, I pump my fist in the air then collapse into twenty minutes of uncontrolled sobbing.
My painting production slows to a crawl.
In September, I return to New York with my paintings so they can choose the images for the show. They also choose the painting ‘Silhouette’ for the announcement card. It feels fitting to be represented by the shadow of a person.
I frame the paintings in Victoria, build a large crate and ship them off in late November.
In December, four days before I leave for the opening in New York, my eighty-five year old Father is diagnosed with esophageal cancer. When I leave, he’s already had exploratory surgery and has a long hospital stay ahead of him.
I arrive in New York the day before the opening. At O.K. Harris I remove the tape residue on the glass of my paintings and generally hang out at the gallery. Rick prepares an astonishing nineteen-seventies John De Andrea work for shipping. Someone comes in with a sheet of Andy Warhol’s cow wallpaper that he wants to sell. I feel what a remarkable privilege it is to be there.
The next day, Saturday, I leave my tiny room in the Chelsea Lodge and head to SoHo for the opening with the late afternoon sun in my eyes. The streets are jammed with pre-Christmas shoppers and sidewalk vendors.
I open the big black door of the gallery and enter. Five solo shows opening at once means a healthy crowd. I make my way to my space, a thirty foot long hallway connecting galleries. I feel like I’m in an airport at Christmas with a steady flood of people going by.
I find myself telling people the framed images aren’t photographs and get a lot of double takes.
Friends and family from Toronto arrive. Christina arrives with her family from Toronto.
Three hours disappear. At six o’clock, Ivan starts to flicker the lights to shoo people out.
The artists, their guests and some of the staff follow Ivan and his wife Marilynn Gelfman to dinner across the street. Christina’s my guest. I wouldn’t be in New York without her years of support and encouragement.
It’s a memorable evening. After dinner, Christina and I head back to Chelsea, where she too is staying at the Chelsea Lodge with her sister. We stop for coffee and mull the day over. I don’t think we acknowledge the insanity of our situation.
I spend the next day on my own, wandering the streets, taking photos.
When I leave New York, only three paintings have sold, two through friends.
Do you get a second show in New York when you’ve only sold three paintings at your first? I somehow doubt it. I wonder how long I can milk having had a show at a famous American gallery.
The fog settles over me again in Victoria. I visit my Father in hospital every night. He’s recovering from his surgery but has contracted C. Difficile. It isn’t diagnosed right away and he loses a lot of weight and strength despite being fed through a gastric tube.
Ten days after the opening I’m roused from my funk by a morning call from Ivan: ‘Do you have any more paintings you can send? We’ve sold them all but one.’
I have a closet full of unsold paintings to send, which I do. As well, I get Bau-Xi to send their remaining works to New York. Virtually all of these paintings sell in short order.
O.K. Harris Works of Art has sold every painting I’ve made since.
I’ll save the ensuing drama of my life for my autobiography or another blog posting. It gets a lot worse before it gets better. I’m thankful and lucky O.K. Harris has been patient with me.
I’m still sorting out why I paint, what I paint and how I paint. It’s all related to the question of how one ends up married to a gay woman.
The answers lie in the murky inaccessibilty of childhood detritus. Traumas endured or witnessed.
The paintings are the questions unconsciously being worked out through art.