Thursday, June 3, 2010
The Problem With Productivity
This post will make more sense if you're familiar with this work.
The past 3 or 4 years have been busy ones. In 2006 we moved to New Jersey for a full time teaching position at Stockton College. With the new job, came curriculum to develop, classes to prep for and, most importantly, the constant hum of tenure anxiety. Faced with the studio art version of the publish-or-perish scenario, I became almost frantically productive. I made a lot of new work, and I took part in a lot of shows.
Since 2006 I made close to 80 new pieces, in with multiple casts of each, in dozens of different iterations and installations. I participated in 23 group shows, a two-person exhibition, and two solo shows (one at Pentimenti Gallery, in Philadelphia). During the same period, my wife and I bought a house and had our second child. I was in a car accident that resulted in brain surgery, and which cost me most of a year. I converted my garage into a studio, taught between 3 and six classes a semester, and applied for (and was granted) tenure. It has been busy.
What I am realizing now is that, in my rush to create, I didn’t leave myself much time to come to terms with what I actually made. In grad school, we called it the make-and-crit merry-go-round. I was in a frenzy of production, often seeing the work come together for the first time on the wall of whatever gallery I happened to be showing in at the time.
When things in the gallery didn’t look the way I had imagined they would in the studio, my solution was always to make different stuff, never to spend time working with what I had made. As I look at it now, I realize that these new bodies of work were much more complicated than I understood at the time, and required a lot more time to process and resolve than I was able to give them.
I was working in new genres, with new materials and processes, and creating installations that turned out to be heavily dependent on the color, light, shape and nature of the space. You’d think it would be obvious that this is not a problem that can be solved by working on individual parts, but it wasn’t obvious to me at the time. I was so focused on production, and on making new work, I didn’t think I could spare the time to assemble what I had and see how it behaved up on the wall.
As a result, the installation at Pentimenti was among the scariest two days of my professional life. I think it came out well, but at the time it was a waking version of the actor’s nightmare. I was literally drenched in flop sweat. All the confidence I had in the individual objects evaporated at the install. It wasn’t that they looked bad, so much as it was that I realized all my vague ideas about how they would look turned out to be exactly that; vague ideas. When it came time to link all the individual elements into a cohesive composition, I was totally unprepared. Again, I think it came out fine, and I was proud of how it came out, but I also left that installation with the feeling that it could have been better.
Then, this summer, as I got more and more wrapped up in this new large scale figure, I realized I was making the same mistake all over again –making new work, rather than figuring out how to maximize the work I’d already made. While this solution appeals to my production instinct, which is only happy when it’s making something new, it makes no economic sense. Because the truth is that the make-and-crit merry-go-round we talked about in grad school is really a conveyor belt. Old work doesn’t come around again. It goes into storage, or it goes in the trash.
But I spent too far long, and invested far too much in these projects to let them fall off the back of the conveyor. My plan for the summer had been to make the figure that was the initial focus of this blog figure, and his companion piece, but plans have changed. My new plan is to slow down and try to resolve the work that I have. It’s not as sexy, and it doesn’t feel as productive, but I think it’s the right move. Even if it turns out the work can’t be resolved (which I don’t believe will be the case), I will learn more spending a few months in what has past than I would charging headlong into the new.