Paint It Bright

In almost any café or other artist hangout in America, you can guess what the groups of two or five or ten are talking about without even hearing them. Day jobs. The need to get one, the need to survive one.

 

Tiffany Gholar, a Chicago painter and writer, explores this in her book Post-Consumerism: Paintings, 2007-2010 (tiffanygholar.com), which features prose as much as paint.

 

In this retail environment, I was disposable and replaceable, not unlike the cardboard boxes that the merchandise was shipped in, or the plastic bags that the customers carried out of the store. It was a brutal existence, yet all these things were made necessary by consumerism. I felt as though we were all being judged on our ability to sell people things that they did not need.

 

Among other things, Gholar worked in a furniture store and then sold carpet, all the while trying to develop as a serious artist and get her work exhibited. She even auditioned for television, the first season of Bravo’s Work of Art. When that didn’t work out, she had to sell many of her personal possessions.

 

Even with two college degrees, I felt like no human resources person outside a department store would let me get my foot in the door because I lacked experience. So many entry-level jobs were being outsourced overseas or eliminated completely and it seemed my options for employment were dwindling every day. And so I felt an empathy and a kinship for those with no place to go, because that was how I felt as well.

 

The problem with the day job isn’t just that it takes up most or even all of the day, time when an artist needs to be at the easel or the computer or the microphone, but that the deadening routine can sap the will to create.

 

There is no music. There is no natural light. There are clocks, but they all display the wrong time. Nobody wants to be here. One of my goals, a dream that seemed far-fetched to me at the time, was to be an artist.

 

While the artist looks at the day job as something merely to be endured, employers have a different outlook. Capitalism waits for no one.

 

I was dealt a final coup de grace when my new job fired me after less than two months for “not making connections with the customers.”

 

For any financially successful creative artist, the day job of days past becomes a joke, part of the standard biography, the punch lines delivered with a laugh: “I used to work at McDonald’s, used to trim trees, used to walk rich people’s dogs.” The mere absence of a day job conveys a status of success, even though nine out of ten artists with a career in their chosen field have no health care and face the same problems as anyone else, from child care to foreclosure to cars in need of repair.

 

Why should we feel sympathy for artists? In the main we don’t, because we have been conditioned to think of artists of all kinds as strange creatures, self-absorbed and selfish, who refuse to grow up and instead spend their lives in pursuit of a hobby. Unless, of course, they somehow make it to the top and become wealthy. Then, like all other wealthy people in America, they are no longer portrayed as selfish.

 

This message is reinforced by the wholesale elimination of art and music classes from our schools, a crime against the future which is being committed with little response from any point on the political spectrum.

 

Sometimes, even amongst my peers I felt out of place because I was more interested in art and creative writing than math, science, and computers—the three subjects that seemed, to some of my teachers and the world at large, to be the most important interests that a gifted student should have.

 

The clichéd term “starving artist” conveys the acceptance of that condition as though it’s the natural, ordained fate of anyone seeking to creatively inspire his or her fellow humans. We condescendingly pat the artist on the head, as we do a child who says “When I grow up, I want to be President.” If it’s natural for an artist to starve, then why should society provide grants or fellowships or music and arts programs in the schools? The starving artist certainly isn’t considered to be among the deserving poor (seniors, disabled veterans) who receive government aid without being shamed for it. Instead, they are lumped in with immigrants and welfare mothers as undeserving at best and a threat to civil society at worst.

The problem with living on a shoestring is that it will eventually fray, and then break, and who will be there to help you when the federal poverty line has been drawn so low?

 

The caste-like status of artists in America leads many of them to doubt their life choice, to question their self-worth and, worst of all, to wonder if they have anything to say.

 

Quite honestly, I am afraid to be an artist. I am afraid it just wouldn’t work out.

 

There is good reason to fear being an artist. While artists inspire and nurture the world, in return they are marginalized and ignored. Stressed by work, trapped by doubt, too often they just stop.

 

I can’t paint today. Today I feel exiled. Today I feel sequestered. Today I feel trapped. And all I can do is write about it.

 

All I can do is write about it. In this, Gholar echoes Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant, who wrote a song in defense of the environment called “All I Can Do is Write About It.” The similarity isn’t just that they are two artists who care about the planet and are frustrated, but that they express themselves as individuals. As individuals, all they can do is write about it. The connections with others, necessary to heal the earth or to nurture the artist, aren’t there. But they could be.

 

What I really wanted to do was to study art full time, be a part of a community of artists, and have my own studio space.

 

The burning desire to be seen or heard can lead to a search for “rules,” a quest to understand the guidelines which supposedly can steer an artist to success. Beset by insecurity and the demands of the marketplace, even the most iconoclastic artists can be bent or even broken by the need to please the gatekeepers. This is even more true for a visual artist than for a musician, as the number of places to exhibit paintings is finite and controlled compared to all the ways that music can be shared. If things don’t go well, it’s easy for the artist to blame themselves.

 

Should the materials I have used to create my work be mysteriously hidden or should they be obvious? Do the bottles in Adaptive Reuse 2 even belong there? Is what I am doing so banal and ordinary that anyone can do it? Do all my pieces need to be the same size?

 

Yet against all odds, Tiffany Gholar has managed to create an excellent body of work, much of which is presented in her book Post-Consumerism.  For her, post-consumerism means making use of the “cultural residue” of our manic drive to consume. She takes boxes, packing materials, strips of cardboard and puts them on canvases and then emblazons them with paint. She calls it “building a painting.”

 

I had been wanting to make paintings with a more sculptural quality, something approaching bas-relief.

 

Her paintings are tactile (although you’d have to go to a gallery to actually touch them and that might be frowned upon) but filled with ideas. Abstract art can be difficult to convey ideas with because, well, it’s abstract.

 

When I created my first body of work, I came to embrace abstraction. From the very first day of class, when I opened my new tubes of oil paint, I found myself enamored of the materiality of the paint. I liked its scent, I liked its texture.

 

One way around the limitations of abstract art is by the use of titles. Gholar’s work “Smother” is a group of white plastic shopping bags discarded artfully onto a canvas. The title says it all--consumerism as an agency of death for small children and for large environments (like the earth).

 

Another piece of hers is cardboard backing and waterfalls of cerulean blue paint called “Katrina,” a designation which changes everything. Instead of just vibing on the vibrancy of the color, we are left with the equation of blue equals water equals Katrina equals New Orleans equals death and we look for victims and for hope among the brushstrokes. 

 

The intensely orange color scheme of “Fever Dream” may seem obvious but it’s also a trap to pull you in, to get you to think about the things you dream about when you’re tired and hot and sick, to catch you before your defense mechanisms kick in.

 

Gholar plays with the definition of recycling with an assemblage entitled New City which features a toy bulldozer clearing the way for condominiums to be built. Gentrification is a form of recycling, albeit a hideous one.

 

Chicago was nearing the end of an era in which it seemed like every possible vacant structure—be it a factory, hospital, school, or warehouse—was being converted into condominiums that I could not afford.

 

Tiffany Gholar is enamored with bright colors, bold and striking enough to overcome a gray consumerist culture or, for that matter, weather that is often equally gray.

 

[I] create art in colors that nature was still waiting a few months to reveal. The antidote to the gloomy gray skies and formidable gray buildings were cadmium orange and permanent red violet.

 

But as this savage American winter of the polar vortex has confirmed, we may be entering an era where the colors will not return.

 

That’s what a winter sky is—defeated.  

        

 It seems that the rhythms of the earth are now so out of kilter with the planet’s natural music that they can no longer find a place to be heard and felt. Gholar’s works warn us not just to wake up, but to dream of something different. Art such as hers tells us not what a world in natural harmony would look like or be like but what it might feel like.

 

Gholar defines her work as reflecting “post-consumerism.”  But what is consumerism? First of all, it means spending a ridiculous amount of America’s resources on things that people do not need, egged on by a gigantic and utterly useless advertising industry. Consumerism deserves all the criticism that Tiffany Gholar or anyone else can sling at it.

 

Eventually you will become aware of the widening distance between what you’d like to do and what you can afford to do. But it will remind you of how long your dreams have been deferred. Not all deferred dreams dry up, fester, or sag like a heavy load. Some really do explode. And so it is with this in mind that I come to the studio and create images with shredded money. I am a recessionist painter.

 

But the catchphrase of too many critiques of consumerism has become simply that “In America, we consume too much!” Who, exactly, is “we”? We have tens of millions of people here who, despite their frantic efforts to do so, are unable to consume enough. They are poor, they are hungry, they are homeless. If consumerism means excess, then the antidote cannot be just less, it has to be enough. For all.

 

Like consumerism, recycling can mean many things. In the hands of Tiffany Gholar, recycling is a means to artistic expression and to making a statement about abuse of the environment. To many people, recycling is an important part of their lives as they seek to live in harmony with a planet that is being destroyed. Recycling can also serve as a spiritual statement—Gholar quotes John 6:12 from the Bible: “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.”

 

But recycling has also become a con job, a way of blaming the average American for the ravaging of nature that only those with way above average income and power are truly responsible for. It has become another meaningless morality play, in which the question “Do you recycle?” carries with it an implied test of political correctness.

 

For corporations and politicians, recycling is yet another marketing device and a tool to divert us from the death sentence that fossil fuels represent. The Arrowhead Water bottle sitting on my desk trumpets that it is a “ReBorn Bottle Made With 50% Recycled Plastic.” In Compton, California, a city that barely functions because local politicians like it that way, the one thing that is vigorously enforced is placing recyclable waste in the proper trash bin. This in a city where middle school band classes have been taught without instruments and where the Sheriffs Department is a trigger-happy occupation army.

 

It is our political and economic institutions, not our own individual failings, which have to be overcome if we are to prevent the death of our planetary home. The sustained mobilization required to carry out that Herculean task can only be accomplished with the clarity and confidence that artists can bring to the process. But we can’t place culture in the forefront if we allow those who create it to be marginalized or treated like circus freaks.

 

This is no small matter. Some years ago I heard Southside Johnny being interviewed on the radio. The DJ asked about Southside’s tune “Little Calcutta,” a savagely beautiful song about homelessness in New York City. Southside hemmed and hawed, made some self-deprecating remarks, and started joking around. Wasn’t he serious about what he’d created? Even a casual listen to the song (You pray to God but he never seems to hear / You're in the mayor's prayers "Lord make them disappear!") reveals a composer of great skill and insight. But for Southside Johnny, or any artist, to stand up on their hind legs and say “I am intelligent and creative and my work is important to society” is to step into the line of fire of a 24/7 hurricane of noise. From all corners of official society, that hurricane pushes artists through the debilitating filters of the mass media while talking heads everywhere proclaim that nothing to the left of TMZ gossip means anything.

 

Tiffany Gholar and Southside Johnny and their legion of peers deserve our respect and deserve to be able to concentrate on the work that is meaningful to them. This raises and indeed begins to answer another question.  Shouldn’t we ensure that everybody is able to concentrate on work that is meaningful to them?  Well, why not? That would be post-consumerism at its very best.

 

At some point experts may suggest you take antidepressants to help you better adjust to the world, when actually it is the world itself that needs to be readjusted.

 

                                                  

CounterPunch / 2014