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The Fall of the Gallery

by Miles Mathis

I told another gallery owner* to fuck off today. Some will think such language is never called for, but I think it is just the right thing in some situations. I had discovered what I had come to learn, which was that she was not someone I wanted to work with, and all that was necessary was that I inform her of that, in the clearest possible terms. I am pretty sure I achieved that.

Although she was in no position to learn anything from our encounter, it may be that some of my readers will be interested to hear it, so I will explain to you exactly what happened. I walked into a local gallery with a painting and a portfolio. I smiled and told the gallery owner my name and then invited her to drop by my studio sometime. She looked a little exasperated from the beginning (although there was no one else in the gallery and she wasnít doing anything on this Monday afternoon), so I tried to warn her. I smiled and said, ďIím not just some local kid.Ē I didnít want to brag or act snooty, so that was my subtle cue for her to get down off her high horse. She missed the cue completely. She began lecturing me. Although I am probably about her age, she assumed I was at least a generation younger and saw an opportunity to act very superior and important. I showed her the painting, hoping to avert catastrophe, but she looked for only a split second. She said, ďYes, you are very good, so I want to tell you that this isnít the way to do this. You put me on the spot. You should send me a sheet of slides, like the other artists. That is the right method.Ē And so on. I said that I understood that many gallery owners had their methods, but I also have mine. I said there was a good reason I was there in person. But she didnít want to hear it. She began scolding me again, and so I told her off and walked out.

Many people will think the problem was mine. If I want to work with galleries, I should abide by their rules. But that is to assume that the gallery gets to make the rules in the art world. I donít live by that assumption. The relationship between the gallery and the artist is supposed to be a partnership, not a master/slave relationship. I consider it a very bad sign when any gallery makes a list of rules for submission. It means they consider themselves the experts on everything, and the artist is just a petitioner to a king. I encounter this situation very often, and this is not the first gallery owner I have told to fuck off.

an artist with his gallery owner

The problem is not mine, although I admit that I have to deal with it. The problem belongs to the gallery and it affects them in many ways--although they are not aware of it. They are too busy basking in their own power while the gallery is open, and when the gallery fails, they assume it is the marketís fault or the artistsí fault. But it isnít. The fault is their own, and it consists in their ubiquitous lack of knowledge about anything to do with art and their conspicuous ignorance of their own ignorance. And it isnít just an ignorance about art, it is an ignorance about how to get along with people. A gallery owner might be expected to know less about art than artists, but you would expect a gallery owner to at least have some social skills. But no, all they normally have is a desire for easy money and a self-assurance based on absolutely nothing but the walls around them (which they have rented).

The first mistake these gallery owners make is in assuming that they can judge art from slides or photos. They canít. It is impossible even for top artists to judge art from slides or photos, and we have much keener eyes than gallery owners. To request slides is ridiculous in this day and age, considering that the quality of slides, although it has always been poor, is now awful. The quality of slide film has crashed in the last two decades, and one supposes that Kodak and Fuji are now making it out of discarded Saran Wrap. It is doubtful that slide film will even be available next year, or the next. I stopped using it long ago.

Although prints are now much better than slides, they still are just prints. They arenít even as good as web images. With web images you can adjust contrast more easily, but with prints there is only so much you can do. A print is always going to add a lot of contrast. I try to tell people, ďLook, this is art we are dealing with. These are paintings, not photographs. You canít photograph paintings. It is impossible. You should always judge art from art.Ē But no one will listen. They think they know more than I do, although I think if they knew more than I do, they would be a better artist, no?

Size is another problem. You canít judge a six-foot painting from a 2-inch slide. What these gallery owners do is hold up a full sheet of slides to the light, and then move on to the next sheet. I have seen them do it. Not one in a thousand ever puts a slide in a projector, not even a little hand-held 3X projector. So I refuse to send them slides. They get huffy and start blustering about how they have been in the business twenty years and know how to look at slides, blah, blah. But I donít buy it for a second. I donít care if they have been in the business since the time of Solomon. I donít want to hear a lot of fake horn-tooting. There is no way to judge a painting from a 2-inch slide and that is all there is to it. If they are doing that, they are very poor judges of art, period.

Gallery owners are generally very poor judges of art for a million other reasons, but judging from slides would be the easiest to correct. The fact that they wonít even correct that error means that most of them are beyond help or reason.

A majority of galleries wonít consider web images, although that is by far the best way to do it now, if they wonít travel to artistsí studios. God knows why they canít look at web images or take links to artistsí sites. One supposes it has something to do with convenience, with bowing to all their disabilities. They donít know how to use a computer or something, I donít know. You canít tell much from web images, even really good ones, since they arenít the right size and donít glow right and so on. But at least you donít have to use a lot of toxic developing fluid or waste energy trucking portfolios all over the world or fool with return postage of any of that mess. We are not supposed to inconvenience the galleries, since they are so important, but they can inconvenience us no end with all their illogical requirements.

What these gallery owners should do is visit artistsí studios. It is so obvious it is hard to believe I have to say it. That is what galleries used to do, you know, back when art was still healthy, say in the 19th century. You will say it is because slides werenít available, but that isnít it. The reason is because most galleries dealt with local artists. A London gallery worked with English artists, for the most part, for instance, and France was only across the channel. These gallery owners were interested enough in art that they actually wanted to travel to see new paintings. If you had offered them slides, they would have refused.

But that doesnít even apply here. In my case, all this gallery owner had to do is drive two blocks in her Lexus. All she had to do is treat me with a minimal amount of courtesy in the beginning. The argument for requiring photos from distant artists is weak; for local artists it is non-existent.

I consider it a sad commentary on the art market when a gallery owner is not interested in art. This is just me, but if I were a gallery owner, I would be interested in seeing all the good art I could, even the art that wouldnít fit into my gallery. Especially regarding artists in the city, I would like to know what is going on; I wouldnít want to miss anything. That is why I go to museums, for one thing. A gallery owner should be part of the artistic community: she should not feel that talking to artists is being ďput on the spot.Ē Furthermore, if I were a gallery owner sitting alone in my gallery day after day, I would welcome the opportunity to meet new people. It is called PR. Beyond that, if I were a middle-aged male (which I am) I would especially welcome an attractive, well-dressed, well spoken woman who came in carrying a lovely painting. Even if I couldnít fit her into my gallery, I certainly wouldnít jump down her throat and make her feel uncomfortable in fifty different ways. If I couldnít take her on, I would say why.

These galleries really make artists feel like second class citizens, and I have to believe they do it on purpose. It is a power struggle. We canít be seen coming in the front door, thinking we can talk to the gallery owner like an equal. We need to come in the back door and wipe our feet, or better yet, present a notarized petition and perhaps we will be given permission to send in mail, if it is in the proper form. I am constantly amazed at the levels of presumption exhibited by galleries. When a client comes in, the gallery owners act like dogs, leaping and whining and pissing themselves with anticipation; but when an artist comes in, they dry up completely. In a fair world, an artist would be treated like manna from heaven, since that is what we are to the gallery. Where would the gallery be with artists? Instead, we are treated like plague carriers or rent collectors.

What about her argument that I was putting her on the spot? More bluster. I wasnít putting her on the spot at all. I came when no one else was there, and I was not asking for an immediate decision. That is what the invitation to my studio was for. She could come by at her convenience, look around, leave, and then contact me later as it suited her, by email if she found me really scary. I donít see any spot that she is on. It is her job to field new talent. Notice that she didnít say, ďWe arenít taking anyone.Ē If she had said that and I had insisted, then I would be putting her on the spot. But that isnít what happened.

What she should have done, and what I expected she would do, is to ask me a few quick questions. She would want to make sure I was an established artist, not some local beginner, which is why I brought the painting and told her I was not a local beginner. She would want to make sure my work was in her line, and again, that is why I brought the painting (as well as some photos in my briefcase). She would want to see that I was in line with her other prices. That is why I had a resume. I donít expect her to want to visit every studio in town, but if a polite and presentable local artist comes in who would fit into her gallery, she should take the time to consider him. I could be the greatest painter in the world, for all she knows. I can see why she would be eager to weed out unpromising people, but scolding everyone who walks in the door is not the way to achieve that. Nor is making up rules. Supposing that the greatest painter in the world happened to be considering her gallery, do you think he or she would want to be treated like a flunky, like some child who needed a lecture?

If anyone needs a lecture or a serious scolding it is these tight-assed gallery owners. They have already done immeasurable harm to art, and they only look to do more. They always respond by saying something like, ďYou must think a lot of yourself, writing things like this!Ē Bah! More bluster. Who must think more of himself, the artist who scolds the gallery owner after the gallery owner has made a huge fool of herself, or the gallery owner who scolds the artist as soon as he walks in the door? How much misplaced self-regard does it take to start talking down to someone you donít even know? Leonardo could have walked through her door and she would have started giving him advice and telling him the rules. Donít talk to me about immodesty!

Now, I realize that I donít come off as the most modest person in the world in these writings. I donít intend to. But my problem in art gallery situations is too much modesty, not too little. I absolutely guarantee you that one of the reasons she thought she could take that position with me is that I walked in smiling and tried to be polite. I didnít let rip some long-winded yarn about how great I was and who I knew and how many paintings I had sold and so on. I quietly showed her one painting and invited her to my studio. Also deadly was the fact that she had seen me on my bicycle a couple of days earlier, when I came in the first time to look around. No one who thought a lot of himself--no one you were required to think a lot of--would be seen on a bicycle. Can you see John Currin touring around town on a bicycle? An expensive Harley, maybe, at 200 decibels and with enough chrome to choke the East River, but never a bicycle.

No, if I absolutely have to do things this way, in person, I would be much better off coming in with a couple of gorgeous long-legged models, all of us smoking brown cigarillos. I should park my Ferrari SUV over the curb, almost in the gallery garden, get out of it very slowly, making sure my Tag Heuer was visible as I closed the door. We should look at the other art like it smelled of urine, and the girls should laugh loudly at some unknown joke. That is what impresses these fake gallery people. All style and no substance. In this regard, the realist gallery is just as bad as the avant gallery.

I also find it amusing that she kept telling me that my art was very good, while she was scolding me. I wanted to say, ďYes, I know it is good, but I didnít come in here for a critique. I donít care what you think of my art. My only concern is whether you think you can sell it. If I want a critique or an opinion on art, I will go to a better artist. I sure as hell donít go to a gallery to find out how good my art is.Ē

I have had many gallery owners start on this line. Sometimes they will take you on and then after a few months they will try to unload a critique on you. You should be painting different subjects or with different colors or with more stuff in the background or something. I look at them in amazement. I want to say, ďHey, if you canít sell my paintings, just say so. I wonít blame you. You did your best, as far as I know. But donít give me any advice, please. When I start taking artistic advice from salespeople, you can shoot me.Ē

Gallery people, like other soi-disant arts professionals, work under the shadow of a grave misconception. I am reminded of a magazine editor, whom I quote in my letters to the editor, saying that she was ďresponsible for directing our artistic future.Ē What in the name of all that is holy makes her think she is qualified to do that? These pathetic people insert themselves into a field they know abstractly, if at all, based on no qualifications except that they have an art history degree or a pocket full of dirty money, and immediately start giving directions. And they give directions to artists! If anyone should logically be directing our artistic future, it is artists. And that is the reality of the situation, once you sweep past all this bluster. It is the artists who are making memorable paintings who are our artistic present and future. The paintings are the facts and artifacts, not any receipts or financial transactions. These artists also teach younger artists, which is our artistic future in a nutshell. Critics and gallery owners and magazine editors vastly overrate themselves. They accuse me of lacking humility, but who is going to remember a critic or gallery owner in few years? Can you name a gallery owner from any other century?

The gallery owner should see him or herself as a liaison or link, not as a judge or jury or director. Given an artist, a client, and a gallery, the gallery is the least important entity in the long term. An uppity gallery should be shunned by both client and artist, and the only reason such galleries arenít shunned is that the artist and client do not communicate anymore. The gallery has made very sure of that.

No doubt this gallery owner will say, ďWell, my dear, I did look at your painting, and I could tell immediately that it wasnít any good. I said you were good because I wanted to get you out of there. I am not losing anything from this.Ē That must sting, right? That a non-artist should look at one painting for .27 seconds and dismiss me. Ouch! All the gallery owners in the world could look at all my paintings in person for hours on end, and then dismiss me as an utter failure and child molester, and it would affect me as much as a mosquito bite. Less. The mosquito at least knows what he is doing. A mosquito must have some qualifications to achieve mosquitohood. Surely God gives them some test on biting and buzzing. Who can say as much for a gallery owner? No, they buzz and bite without oversight.

Now, not all gallery owners are such complete assholes. I have found a few who are well-educated and polite. They donít have a superiority complex when it comes to dealing with artists. A couple of my galleries contacted me, to start the relationship, and a couple welcomed me when I walked in unannounced. I donít think any of the galleries I work with have a rulebook posted on how new artists should contact them. Greenhouse Gallery now has a very offensive list of rules, but they didnít when I used to work with them. I donít remember how I met them, but I am pretty sure I didnít have to fall down and anoint their feet with lavender and myrrh.

This superior attitude affects art; this lack of knowledge affects art; and this upside-down hierarchy affects art. It affects it, first of all, by loading the galleries with inferior art. Inferior judges choose inferior art. The first hurdle of this problem could be leapt by ditching slides, but the galleries havenít even gotten that far. The art in the galleries looks like art that was chosen by slide. It is that obvious to someone with an eye. It is art that lacks all subtlety. What kind of subtlety can you see in a two-inch image, through a mylar sheet, held up to a distant light? What kind of deep emotion is going to infect you from a colored smudge the size of a frito? All you can see is a broad indication of color and a broad indication of composing, and that is what 99% of realism now is. The other painters in this gallery today had some talent, or I would not have been there, but they all fell into this category categorically. They had learned a respectable amount of technique somewhere in some way, but they had not found a real subject. The modern realist painting tends to be some big head or body, painted realistically, couched in some big jungle of drips and color fields, with maybe a real piece of cloth glued in and painted over, or maybe some other oddity welded on and blinking. The modern realist painting generally tells you three things, in very clear terms: 1) I, the artist, can paint figures. I am talented. 2) I, the artist, am modern. That is why I have done these clever things like drip paint or add foreign objects. I know who Anselm Kiefer is, and I have been to the big city. 3) I, the artist as artist in a realist gallery, know that you want this painting to look good in the living room. That is why I have not been too weird and why my painting looks like a color-field landscape, if you squint.

The reason I choose to go into the gallery in person when I can is not to break the rules or bother the owner; it is because I know my art suffers from photography. And, yes, it seems to suffer more than the sort of modern realism that is created specifically to appeal to gallery owners looking at slides. My art does not make use of bright colors or drips or color fields or foreign objects glued onto the canvas or by background energy or by other modern tricks. My art is simple in subject and composition and subtle in color and emotion. This is not just my opinion. Other gallery owners have actually told me this. This gallery owner today recommended I send slides. Other galleries I have worked with have recommended I never use slides or photos. One said, ďI thought you were very mediocre until I saw your work in person. Your paintings have a weird quality, one I have never really come across: photography completely devours them.Ē**

Imagine how much real art has been overlooked through the mylar sheet, by the mylar-brained gallery owners of the 20th century. Imagine how boring a Vermeer or a Chardin or a Corot would look as a two-inch smudge, held up to a fluorescent overhead light. That is also why you almost never see any drawings in modern galleries. A charcoal or pencil drawing is at an immediate disadvantage in a slide sheet. It cannot compete. A drawing is all about subtlety, and the modern gallery has done with that long ago.

This has been going on long enough to completely bastardize the entire field. Most artists in my position canít or wonít fight back. They are forced to take the market and the gallery on its terms. Not only do they agree to send in slides, they agree (subconsciously, perhaps) to paint the sort of paintings that look good in slides. To impress a certain sort of person who is judging in a certain way, there are certain things you do to increase your chances. You use a lot of color, you have a lot of ďenergyĒ in the painting, and you choose subjects that have a built-in explanation. You donít want anything subtle in the painting, since that wonít come through. You donít want anything that isnít immediately recognizable as modern and edgy. You donít want anything that is ambiguous. Purposely messy and meaningless, yes; but ambiguous, no. You should give a lot of ham-handed psychological clues, of the sort the modern person is used to seeing, of the sort that can be seen at two inches or two miles; but you shouldnít have your figures actually feeling anything themselves. That is strictly old-school.

Another problem is the fact that these artists are chosen on their lack of demands. All the artists who have any subtlety are weeded out first, via slides and other illogical methods of judging. Then, in a second round, all artists who are capable of taking offense are weeded out. The gallery owner treats them like stupid children: if they can take it, they make it to the next round. If they canít, they donít make it. After three rounds of this, you have removed all the wheat and you are left with only the chaff. You have a gallery full of spineless artists who will prostitute themselves to the market, whatever it happens to be.

the artist takes his gallery for a ride***

What amazes me is that the galleries still seem to find clients by this method. A large percentage of them go out of business fairly soon, and many stay open only with a constant input of money from the rich owner. But a great number of paintings still sell. You see them in peopleís homes.

Many or most people donít seem to notice the complete lack of subtlety or the high levels of phony and clunky tricks and ďstatements.Ē The only advice on art they ever get comes from the gallery owner or director or salesperson, so of course they would be expected to share the same faults. The client learns to look at a painting the way the gallery owner does, as if it is a two-inch slide viewed through mylar, held up to a fluorescent light. A color-field blob with an emotive aura to it. An expensive thing over the sofa that means something, I forget what, but the artist is from Argentina or Cuba or Outer Mongolia. He has dreads and a funny name, and practices voodoo, and has a very interesting two-headed wife. Her picture is taped to the back of the canvas!

*A Muse Gallery, Taos and Columbus, Ohio. I recommend all artists and clients avoid this gallery and any other gallery that posts a list of rules for submitting artists on its website. Also, if you see a gallery owner holding up slide sheets to the light, run for the door. Off the top of my head, I give you John Pence in San Francisco, Baczek Gallery in Northampton, MA, Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, and Downey Gallery, Santa Fe, as places to be shunned. They have treated me with condescension and contempt and so I return the favor.

**George Attal, Austin Galleries, 1996.

***photo by Jeremy Ginsberg

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