I've been struggling lately. It goes without saying that painting is always a struggle, and that's to be expected. But it's much more than that. I think in the last few months, it's really hit me how hard this whole artist thing really is. As a student, you're so protected - assignments, mentors, mandatory feedback, all wrapped in a whole lot of big dreams and naive optimism. But it's different once you're on your own. I finally finished my degree last April, and then shared a studio with a few friends until September. Since then, I have worked obsessively, alone. For the first few months, I reveled in my new-found privacy and space. I made big strides in my work and produced painting after painting after painting. But since Christmas, the months have been ticking by, and while the obsessive working has not diminished, I have become increasingly conscious of my largely secluded existence.
In so many ways, working day after day without interruption or distraction is a gift, a privilege, a luxury. But it is also trying. The deluge of critiques that I so often longed to be free of while in school has abruptly dried up, and too often I find myself thinking back to the soggy old comments made about my old work to see if they can continue to guide me with the new. It goes without saying that they are woefully inadequate.
Of course I work hard at challenging myself - and I do. But you see, there's the rub. When you depend on your art to pay the bills, the art-making process can quickly become stiflingly goal-oriented. There are deadlines, collectors, galleries - and along with all that, is the increasingly anxiety-ridden awareness that the work is not being made for my eyes alone, that it is intended to go out into the world and be seen, scrutinized, and ultimately judged.
Most artists that you talk to or read about say that they don't care what other people think. Maybe that's true. But there's caring what other people think in a grovelling, pandering kind of way, and then there's caring what other people think in a hoping-to-connect, trying-to-communicate kind of way. And while I certainly don't advocate the former, I think the latter is much more complicated. When I was at school, the critique process at school gave each of us a test-run for our work from a bunch of interested and educated viewers. The whole process was an implicit affirmation that it does matter what other people think - as artists, we're literally trained to care. But now that that constructive process is gone, I have had to replace that audience of actual viewers with an audience of my own imagined hypothetical viewers.
And there has been the root of my struggles. My imagination seems to breed these viewers who are not only highly critical but fickle. They befriend my doubts, play hide and seek with my intentions, and dress up my instincts with costumes that don't fit.
But then today, just when the growing, chaotic crowd of bullying hypothetical viewers were beginning to stampede, I experienced an unexpected gunshot to the sky that has scattered the masses. And suddenly I feel emboldened, even liberated. And at least for today, the hypothetical viewer is just me.