Bradley Wester

Artist to Artist #4 (On the Occasion of my Guggenheim Rejection)

The conceit of the Artist to Artist series is a personal letter to a real person like in previous Artist to Artist #’s 1, 2 & 3. In this case, the piece began as a letter I sent to my Guggenheim Fellowship recommenders—those who wrote reference letters on my behalf.

Letter To My Recommenders:

Dear Recommender,

You are receiving this email because you are a friend, and one that holds the special place of being one of my reference letter writers, in this case, one of my Guggenheim Fellowship recommenders.

Choosing to become an artist and making it your number one priority for a lifetime—nearly forty years of this lifetime so far—might be seen as an insane enterprise. Perhaps this is why for some of us it is not a choice but a state-of-being. Otherwise we would indeed be insane to choose this path when, in these eleventh-hour days, being a true artist goes against the very crux of civilization as we know it—there is no place for an art for arts sake, or an art in service of change, in late market capitalism’s obliterating operation of supply and demand.

Not being in demand is the real state-of-the-arts for the vast majority of artists. The ambitious among us would certainly like it otherwise, yet the ability to tolerate rejection might be the ultimate gauge of whether we are artists or not. The best of us, I believe, aren’t so much after the art-star-in-demand version we hear so often about, with her full-page magazines spreads, or his hob-nobings with movie stars, or their waiting lists for inoffensive over-priced paintings. There are many artists whose primary ambition is to be a vital part of the conversation, which, beyond finding the means, time, and space to make work, means finding proper context for the work. Sure, solid representation and a modicum of sales are an important part of this, but more importantly should the work be written about by smart writers, referred to in other articles, discussed by other artists and art students, and most decisively, put on the radar of smart curators who contextualize the work in important group museum shows, biennials, and surveys, etc.

Going after the high-profile Guggenheim grant was just one of the ways I hoped would move my work toward its proper context. Context is everything as far as I’m concerned these days. And it has been by far what my career (hate that word when associated with art making) lacks the most. Context is what can transform my work from being a collection of smart aesthetic objects, ostensibly for sale, to the life’s work of a serious, thinking, passionate artist who is in meaningful conversation with other artists and the issues of their time. The problem is, without context, my side of the conversation has been hitherto suppressed. All the more frustrating for how deeply I am engaged in this conversation through the discovery and study of some of its best and brightest voices.

And speaking of brightest, and the desire to shine, the most serious concern of my recent work, as you well know, has been for the ‘politics of shine’. And it is through this important interest that I want to join the conversation. These days, when anyone wants to disparage the inflated art market or our art-fair culture (and there is a lot to disparage there!) they describe the worst possible kind of art as ‘shiny’. While this is an understandable slur in this context, it has become a foregone conclusion. I’m interested in restoring the transgressive agency to shine, celebrating it while critiquing our contemporary shiny commodity fetish. Art does not have to be complicit with it. Remember, my mission is to put the disco back into DISCOurse

So I’ve started an article about the #shinegeist, as I call it, (please use the hashtag) which will be an expansion and re-working of one of my ‘Artist to Artist’ letter-formatted articles already on my blog. Here it is, the original blog entry Artist to Artist “Shine and its DISCOntents,” made better by very recent edits:

Soon I will have a longer more detailed article that I will share with you, and for which I hope to find a legitimate and proper publication. Part of my new strategy: to write my own context for my work and do my best to get it out there. I believe writing may have a better chance at bringing other writers and curators to my work than the work itself has been able to do thus far.

The paradox is that in the last three years I’ve made some of the strongest work of my career (that word again), and had two of my best solo exhibitions, including at the acclaimed Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York, and a review in Sculpture Magazine. Yet I have sold less than in the past nearly fifteen years, and am no closer to a major museum show. Part of this may have to do with the current condition of the gallery model, market forces, the plight of the mid-career artist who is not famous, and plain luck. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot to be grateful for these days, an incredible home and studio, awesome friends, mobility, and the freedom to focus most of my time on my work.

A lot to be thankful for, even on this day, the day after receiving a form-letter from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation that I did not make the 178 person cut, out of 3000 applicants, despite the extraordinary recommendation letters each one of you wrote for me. I get it. There are too many good artists (Clearly some insane ones!) and hundreds more being minted each year by MFA programs across the globe. Or at least too many for our granting institutions and residency programs whose funding and facilities are no where near commensurate with the numbers of applicants these days.

For me, the Guggenheim rejection marks #17 of a record 21 applications in less than a twelve-month period. Granted, more than half were writing related and writing is a medium for which I have less of a track record. Still, 17 rejections in a row out of 21. I may have to change my speech to students: “Don’t bother applying to only one thing. If you’re getting all your ducks in a row for one, you just as soon apply to ten. You are likely NOT to get just the one, but likely to get one in ten.”

What was it I said about the ability to tolerate rejection?

I must have an extraordinary ability. Only twenty-four hours after this news, I’m choosing to let it roll off my back, double down on my article, and to continue reaching out every chance I get to writers and curators, and dealers and artists. Here too I must have a thick skin, because I can tell you, I’ve often been met with silence after spending days writing long thoughtful responses to articles and art exhibitions.

There is part of me though that hates having to be responsible for this salesmanship aspect of my career, that hates having no other word for ‘career’ but needing to use it, and hates that we teach art students ‘professional practices’ these days, no part of which has anything to do with the mindset of making art. Yet I will say that reading, and especially writing, and the numerous efforts I make at communicating what I’m doing in order to get a grant or a residency, a job or a show, has more often than not made my work, and my relationship to it, much stronger. Still, when a rejection comes, after all these years of experience and succeeding (my resume is nothing to scoff at after all), there can still be this shameful interior voice that says,

“What are you doing wrong. It’s your fault. You’ll never be able to ask for another letter of recommendation again. Nobody likes a loser.”

I know several artists that simply can’t ask again because of this voice, even after one or two rejections. It’s a big ask, because it’s not the easiest thing for someone to jot off a letter, especially a sincere and good one, especially by someone significant enough to make a difference and who therefore has been asked by many others. And it’s particularly annoying for them when each organization wants a different format. So I want to thank you guys again, sincerely, for being in my corner, for believing in me, no matter the outcomes. It’s difficult to express how important it is to have a few friends and professionals in their field recognize in my work what the larger world hasn’t yet. It’s confirmation, on those bad days when it’s not going well, that if my work has attracted the likes of you, I must be doing something right.

So count on it. I’ll be asking you for another letter soon!

Love, Bradley
April 2016

(Above image: “Conversation” (detail) drawing/collage, Bradley Wester 2016)

Artist to Artist #3 (Shine and its DISCOntents), made better by recent edits, and from which I will develop a larger article here

For other Artist to Artist entries and other writings, click on blog link at margin.