Help Desk

Help Desk: Recommendations for References

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I am often torn when applying for jobs, residencies, and grants when it comes to the references section. Is it better to list the names of people you do not know very well but carry more name recognition, or to list the names of lesser-known people you know well and would give you a very good reference? I often don’t ask people with “name recognition” (that I might know as acquaintances) because I worry they will think I am using them. How much weight does who you know carry in an application? What is the etiquette of asking people to serve as references?

Gerda Scheepers. Taras Bookies, 2009; Installation View at Sprüth Magers Berlin.

Gerda Scheepers. Taras Bookies, 2009; mixed media; installation view at Sprüth Magers Berlin.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who,” the old adage goes. To be honest, I fall victim to this manner of thinking as often as anyone else, even when I’m the one being asked to supply the recommendation. A few months ago, when a colleague asked me to serve as a reference, my initial response was, “Wouldn’t you rather have someone with more clout?” I assumed that she must have far more important people in her corner, and that in the squishy place that we call the “art world”—where social capital outstrips nearly every other cultural marker of success—a tepid reference from a Big Name would count for more than an enthusiastic endorsement from little old me.

As it turns out, I was wrong. I did a lot of research to answer your question, and nearly everyone said  that they’d rather have a strong recommendation from an informed source. My colleague had been right to ask me rather than someone with more name recognition, because she and I went to school together and have conducted studio visits since then, so I’m very familiar with her process and her work ethic. Our long association means that I can speak directly to her growth as an artist, and I can attest to her commitment.

Don’t get tripped up, as I did, by thinking that name recognition is always going to be more meaningful than firsthand knowledge and genuine interest. The Alliance of Artists Communities says, “While some major awards are interested in the who’s-who references, residency programs are interested in your seriousness as an artist, your dedication to a creative practice, and your ability to live in a close-knit community of others. If the program asks for letters of recommendation, ask your references to speak to these points, rather than simply what a wonderful artist […] you are.” Simply put, your recommender should be able to discuss your work performance and speak cogently about your talents and abilities. It’s best if they have a clear understanding of your work and can tell the story of who you are as an artist. Someone who has spent time with you can also talk about your personality and character (your so-called soft skills), which is often important for residency and job applications. Ask for references from the people who can provide an insider’s perspective.

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The Birth of the Author

Today from our sister publication Art Practical we bring you Andrew Berardini’s article published in issue 8.3: Art can’t do anything if we don’t. Berardini finds the place where art and self-expression exist in the face of illicit power. He states, “If it does nothing else, art gives us authorship of our experience. Layers of meaning and exchange, the nuances of aesthetics and economics, and the complexity of history and context all come later.” This article was originally published March 23, 2017.

Rebecca Belmore. Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowen: Speaking to Their Mother, 1991; Presented by the Walter Phillips Gallery as part of the exhibition Bureau de Change, July 12–September 28, 2008. Banff National Park, Johnsons Lake, July 26th, 2008; Courtesy of the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre. Photo: Sarah Ciurysek.

Rebecca Belmore. Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowen: Speaking to Their Mother, 1991; Presented by the Walter Phillips Gallery as part of the exhibition Bureau de Change, July 12–September 28, 2008. Banff National Park, Johnsons Lake, July 26th, 2008; Courtesy of the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre. Photo: Sarah Ciurysek.

Your voice matters.

A desperate holler, a drunken song to the moon, a cold and broken hallelujah. A prisoner’s prayer.

The words take shape, the vision becomes a picture, a sculpture, a photograph. This is yours. And it really matters.

Wrapped in the word author of course is authority, who gets it and who doesn’t? Many doubt they have a voice at all.

We live in a frightening time of political crisis. Maybe this truth always depends on where you’re standing. Where does art fit into this, if at all? I have often heard art disparaged as useless frippery, as a distractive entertainment, as a commodity for the rich, or as useful only when hitched to a distinct political doctrine. Art in service of the revolution. Many think art is totally useless, a few even hold up art’s uselessness is its most important trait. An art that advances human rights and an “art for art’s sake” are not mutually exclusive. John Berger wrote in The White Bird (1985): “Several years ago, when considering the historical face of art, I wrote that I judged a work according to whether or not it helped men in the modern world claim their social rights. I hold to that.” But he goes on: “Art’s other, transcendental, face raises the question of man’s ontological right.” Or in other words, our social right to existence, our right to make and explore meaning for ourselves, our right to a consciousness and a voice, no matter what we might say with it.

Read the full article here.


Shotgun Reviews

En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance at SFMOMA

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Sofia Villena Araya reviews En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance at SFMOMA.

Jacolby Satterwhite. En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance at SFMOMA, 2017. Courtesy of SFMOMA. Photo: Charles Villyard.

Jacolby Satterwhite. En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance, 2017. Courtesy of SFMOMA, San Francisco. Photo: Charles Villyard.

Jacolby Satterwhite, an African American artist well known for his virtual worlds of queer desire, presented a live performance at SFMOMA’s Gina and Stuart Peterson White Box Gallery on March 17 and 18, 2017. My particular account of this event highlights the incongruence of the museum’s conception of safety that disallowed the experimental and community-making aspects of the piece to fully unfold.

Friday, March 17, 10 p.m.: The waiting crowd is invited to take the elevator toward the gallery. At the entrance, a small sign warns that there will be smoke and blinking lights. Inside the gallery, the space feels like a dance club warming up; people are drinking and conversing.

Satterwhite, wearing a futurist black jacket, jumps on stage. People appear amused by the universe-like, immersive quality of the space, made possible by Satterwhite’s double presence in virtual reality and actual space, projections on the walls, the vibration of the electronic music, pinkish lights, and the dense smoke.

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San Francisco

Cynthia Daignault: The Pure Products of America Go Crazy at CAPITAL

Cynthia Daignault is always confounding our ideas about the nature of painting—and asks if it has an essential nature at all. In her latest show, The Pure Products of America Go Crazy, at CAPITAL in San Francisco (a sort of return home for a prodigal daughter educated at Stanford), she has done it again. Daignault has placed seventy oil-on-linen paintings like dinner plates on six tables throughout the gallery space, orienting the viewer to look at the works from above. The idea of painting as a still life with its own subjectivity, as a stand-in for itself as a common utilitarian object, is another radical move on Daignault’s part.

Cynthia Daignault. The pure products of America go crazy, 2017; installation view, CAPITAL, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and CAPITAL.

Cynthia Daignault. The Pure Products of America Go Crazy, 2017; installation view, CAPITAL, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and CAPITAL.

In her past project Light Atlas (2014), a result of a yearlong road trip throughout the United States, the artist explored the social and geographic characteristics of paintings as what she calls “place settings,” or stakeholders—as objects that create meaning from particular representations of claims to space. Daignault’s odyssey resulted in an epic portrait of the country in the form of 360 paintings, which spanned more than 300 linear feet of wall, filling the gallery from edge to edge. Prior to embarking on this project, Daignault realized that she could name over a hundred canonical works that depicted and defined the country, all produced by men: Twain, Dylan, Guthrie, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Evans, Ruscha, Smithson, and so on. Light Atlas is a feminist corrective and as close to a performative as painting can get.

As in all of Daignault’s painting–installations or painting–performances, each painting in The Pure Products of America Go Crazy can be experienced as an individual work or as part of a larger theoretical and optical puzzle. The artist explained that the work was made “100% post-election,” as she was reckoning with the new order of things in a “deep fog,” and the fuzzy images of the series Matrix (2017)—based on front pages of U.S. newspapers that feature headlines and photographs of Trump’s victory—can be read as trembling reproductions of horror.[1] Alternatively, they can be read as the current U.S. condition and in relationship with violent pop-culture icons, such as the machine-gun-toting Rambo or Schwarzenegger depicted on a round plate set on an adjacent table. They prompt the question: Whose dinner party is this?

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Jeff Downer: Handsome Rewards

The artist ordered his friend an undying houseplant as a gift. To contextualize Handsome Rewards, Jeff Downer’s solo exhibition at Duplex, the artist shares this anecdote in his press release: “I found myself flipping through [a] merchandise catalogues…while walking it straight to the recycling bin. What caught my eye was something called a ‘resurrection plant.’ According to the ad, the plant can survive extreme dehydration and can live for several years without a drop of water…I bought it for a friend who is absolutely terrible with plants.” More catalogs for other, vaguely useful objects began to arrive in his mailbox courtesy of Publisher’s Clearing House, a marketing company that tenders large checks to winners of dubious sweepstakes and lottery drawings. To them, Downer was now a potentially returning customer. Would these images compel him to buy more shit? Fortunately, a fluency with images spared Downer from buyer’s remorse, as he instead fixated on the inexplicable ways these objects were staged and dramatized, and the feeling of “What even is this?”

Jeff Downer. Handsome Rewards, 2017; Digital Print. Courtesy of Jeff Downer. Photo: Capture Photography Festival.

Jeff Downer. Handsome Rewards, 2017; digital print. Courtesy of Jeff Downer. Photo: Capture Photography Festival.

Handsome Rewards—which is also the title of the exhibition’s accompanying artist book—re-presents a selection of product photographs culled from such merchandise catalogs. The product images, scanned from the catalogs, are enlarged and pressed against the wall with plexiglas. The products, originally presented to appeal to the behavior of consumers, become images presented for a different onlooker “potentially returning customers” are replaced by an art audience, who cock their heads as they try to discern what they’re looking at, among the friendliness of each image’s colors and the models that demonstrate the products’ use.

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Buenos Aires

Objeto Móvil Recomendado a las Familias at Espacio de Arte de Fundación OSDE

Is it still important to talk critically about Surrealism today? This avant-garde episode of international art history has been revisited over and over again, from tributes and revivals to critical works and retrospective exhibitions. From a purist, restricted view, Surrealism is reduced to a datable European movement that ended in the mid-20th century. For others, the term is a tradable currency, a flexible category used to label anything that exceeds an “average” or realistic representation of things—a superfluous application that doesn’t consider the historical grounds on which the concept was developed. Between these two poles, there’s a vast area that demands a renewed approach. It is within that space that Objeto Móvil Recomendado a las Familias, an exhibition on Argentinian Surrealism at OSDE Espacio de Arte in Buenos Aires, occurs.

Installation view with artworks by Orlando Pierri, Zdravko Dučmelić, Mildred Burton, and Tobías Dirty. Courtesy of Fundación OSDE. Photo: Tania Puente.

Objeto Movil Recomendado a las Familias; installation view with artworks by Orlando Pierri, Zdravko Dučmelić, Mildred Burton, and Tobías Dirty. Courtesy of Fundación OSDE. Photo: Tania Puente.

Curator Santiago Villanueva states in the first lines of the exhibition’s text that there was no specific outline or agenda for the Surrealism movement in Argentina. The most concerted attempt to establish a Surrealist group in the country took place in 1939 (fifteen years after Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto) with Grupo Orión, a collective of visual artists that couldn’t maintain a stable and unified aesthetic project for long. Their dissolution was imminent. Ambiguity, however, can nevertheless provide a fertile ground for possibilities, and that is precisely what Objeto Móvil Recomendado a las Familias tries to prove: When no one is looking at the margins and without strict limitations on parameters, loyalties, and particular interests, things can be built.

Surrealism never actually left the Argentinian art scene. It coexisted with many manifestations in different stages and moments—at times more visible, while at others, segregated by the indifference of institutions and the art market. Instead of following a chronological order or sticking to an aesthetic script, the artworks included in this exhibition follow a survival model (in the way that Georges Didi-Huberman conceives it), where images gain and lose force in a continuous and anachronistic fluctuation. Their arrangement by the exhibition’s designer and artist, Osías Yanov, asks spectators to take an active place in viewing the works. Yanov installs a series of dark metallic structures that can either frame or disrupt the visitors’ stare, depending on where they stand. With this specific display, what are we supposed to look at? Should we identify similarities and discontinuities? Do these structures gather the artworks into one big picture? The museographic resource challenges the exhibition’s spatiality.

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Interview with Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas has long illuminated the histories of racialized labor, Black cultural economies, politically crafted imagery, and their cumulative roads to revolution. His keen examinations of political gesture are steadily outgrowing their categorization as visual art and becoming increasingly discursive projects rooted in actualization. On the heels of his recent exhibition at Savannah College of Art and Design, Willis Thomas offers new avenues for politicizing creative work without the reduction that accompanies art-world trends.

Blind Memory (Indigo), 2017 Image courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design

Hank Willis Thomas. Blind Memory (Indigo), 2017; mixed-media installation. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: John McKinnon.

Ashley Stull Meyers: You just opened an exhibition at Savannah College of Art and Design. Can we talk about the installation Blind Memory and the site-specificity of it?

Hank Willis Thomas: The museum at SCAD has a very particular history. It was once a 19th-century railway depot. I did an installation in what were previously loading bays but are now vitrines. They call them “jewel boxes.” We filled them with four commodities that were popular during the era, that would have seen a lot of movement through that space—cotton, tobacco, indigo, and rice—all of which would have been handled by slaves. The containers are twelve feet high, so it’s a large quantity.

ASM: What does it mean for the site to now be a museum? Do you think this history is something that SCAD will always grapple with in public? Or was the exhibition an opportunity to make transparent something that’s treated with hesitation?

HWT: That history will always be a part of the building. Not every artist chooses to make commentary on it when they’re invited, but for the public, that’s part of the lure of the place. A history of slavery is part of the lure of Savannah. So many people and things moved through here that it’s embedded, and I was eager to work with that.

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