Usually I, your humble poet narrator, write about art. But I recently stepped out from behind my newspaper fortress and ran my own art show that featured painted electronics—like video game systems and old TVs—that I got at Sharpless auctions. The show ran for a week at PSZ gallery (120 N. Dubuque), and after the show ended I sold everything using an auctioneer (also from Sharpless) for really cheap. Here is what I learned:
Sweat the details
If you’re hanging art, measure. Measure for the eyes and head like every set of eyes is an enemy sniper. Save your troops. If you have sculptures or objects, pedestals are a must. Meticulous details—like how many brown M & M’s go in the dish, and even more realistically what kind of snacks you use at all and if people besides yourself like seltzer (spoiler alert: they do)—must be paid attention to. Things need to be presented in optimal viewing ways; even if those ways make no sense, they have to be considered. My friend Alex ended up in the back of my hatchback with the trunk open holding onto a couple of oversized pedestals for dear life while I drove slowly from PS1 to PSZ. I guess that also means that your friends should be strong of musculature and be willing to get pulled over or die for your local art show.
Consider your audience
Who are your audience members? Are they wealthy art benefactors? Are they families seeking an interesting night of images? Are they grad school kids with no room for clunky, boxy sculptures? What do you want to present to these interesting faces in the omnicolor void? Think about who might come through your show and what they might get out of it, even if what they get out of it is a coffee shop conversation and not a piece. Do you really like looking at things? An art show may be for you. The less you expect to “gain” from an art show, the more you will.
Art is not a career. It is a way to live on earth
Nobody is an artist for their job; they are an artist because that’s their way of living in the world. That’s how they speak to you and to themselves. You can teach form, function and design, but you cannot teach meaning. You cannot teach what it means to look at something and have that resonate with the consciousness or unconscious. Figuratively speaking, you can only build (painted or unpainted) doors and it is up to the audience to open them, smash through them or walk past them without asking anything.
Painting is always going to take longer than you think
I was given total free reign to paint whatever I wanted in PSZ, so I ended up painting inky blots across the walls in black where white poetry was afterwards splattered and scrawled. The show itself was so janky, so dedicated to tossed out material goods and entertainment media that I felt like the sloppy job fit really well. And yet my request to paint the doors was rightfully denied, because painting doors requires an additional ridiculous amount of work, especially REpainting them, and especially ESPECIALLY when they are made of starkly different material than the gallery walls. Painting gallery doors is not unlike suturing carpeting to a horse’s back instead of just using a saddle. Get rollers. Get brushes. Get albums you like—but NOTHING that will drive you murderously insane. And get bottles of water. Paint that drips off you and your brushes into your glass can provide a lot of beautiful, unfolding metaphors, but it’s super unsafe to drink.
Paint is expensive
If you can get free paint, use it. In fact, the more supplies you can find used, the better. They can serve purpose after purpose if cleaned and decently maintained. The way your art stands out against the walls of a gallery is a critical notion and you can’t let it be the blank space on your radar that ends up being an asteroid the radar isn’t programmed to see. That’s how shit gets extinct.
Drugs and alcohol simultaneously and equally help and do not help
In fact, in the case of alcohol in particular, that substance can be used to blur and crease the ever-diminishing lines between night and day, sleep and waking life. Night becomes day as you plan or send out Facebook invites or design fliers or think about where certain things will go or who—if anyone—will show up. Day becomes night as you struggle with your own soul-bludgeoning Facebook presence and bull-headed drive to self promote like you imagine maybe a lot of artists feel like they have to do if they want people going to their shows.
Being single simultaneously and equally helps and does not help
So have a friend (multiple friends helps) to help set up your show, to add vision, to suggest places to hang shit, to notice some drunk passed out in the corner and usher him from the gallery. Filtering reality through one’s art-lens of perception can make you long for quality company you might otherwise have driven away.. Have an important friend who can listen to you bitch and complain for many, many hours, despite the fact that you’re at a privileged enough place in your life to love amazing people and have a nice apartment and food every day, night and dead of night.
“Support local art” means a tremendous deal more to me now
Thanks to gallery space director John Engelbrecht and hard working volunteers through The James Gang’s nexus—especially space procuring superstar Becky Dewing—I was able to get a beautiful small gallery handed to me for nothing but good intentions and believing in someone passionate about a show. Hell-Ø-Scapes was a lot of fun. I had wacky Doritos and candy and seltzer. In the end it became about my friends, past, present and future. If you’re an artist or something in the primordial ooze like it, contact local spaces—business or otherwise—where you see art hanging or gaping holes where art might someday blossom, and consider setting something up. Think about intention. To make money? To have a good time? To drink coffee a lot? If your art show was a good time, you won at doing an art show.
Russell Jaffe is the editor of Strange Cage.