Welcome to the 12th edition of Open Call. Today we’re talking about ‘gimmicks’ and starting with a pair of emails, one from an artist who has one, and one from an artist who wonders if they need to choose one in order to stand out, and I pull in The Queen of Double Eyes, Alex Garant, to weigh in as a special guest.
Email us at email@example.com with any questions you have, concerns, success stories, challenges, or any other topic you’d like to discuss with a Gallery Director. Every other Monday we’ll publish a few of our favorites along with my replies. If you don’t see your email published, it does not necessarily mean it won’t be saved for a future installment. There have already been way too many good questions to make it into just one edition. Visit my online author profile and stay updated on past editions. **Some emails have been edited for length.
I am a masking tape artist. I tear up masking tape into tiny bits and create images with the pieces. I have had a decent amount of success with my work with sell out shows and a steady flow of commission work. However, I sometimes feel silly calling myself a “masking tape artist” or a “tape artist”. Especially when trying to break into a really good gallery. I went to a portfolio review once and someone from a reputable gallery told me that the title of “masking tape artist” was holding me back. He said that the second that I introduced myself as a masking tape artist, that his interest in my work disappeared and he expected to see some very cheesy, bad art work. Lucky for me, he was impressed by my work and swiftly informed me that I need to call myself something different. He suggested a simple “contemporary artist”.
I don’t know how to feel about this!! I work in tape, so I’m a tape artist, right?! But I do know that it sounds cheesy, and if you look up #tapeart on instagram you come across some really terrible stuff! So I know that is why a serious gallery may have a hard time taking me seriously.. At the same time “contemporary artist” sounds so bland to me. I know in the end that my work just has to speak for itself, But I need to get past the initial introduction and hold the attention of curators without sounding like a novelty act.
Should I just call myself a “contemporary artist” and leave the phrase “masking tape” in the medium description?
Thanks for any advise you may have!
I am new to the world of traditional art and have only started painting seriously in the last year. One issue that I’ve been struggling with is the need to develop a narrow style and stay within a narrow range of subject matters. How critical is this for success? I find myself drifting in such a way that I have a half-dozen sub-series of paintings, with each series in a slightly different style and choice of subjects. The work generally falls within figurative fantasy and pop-surrealism, but I fear that is not cohesive enough or unique enough to stand out. Do I truly need a single “gimmick”?
Thank you for your time,
Hi Kayt and Lee,
I’m going to try to talk about both questions at once since I a lot of my thoughts would be the same for each of you. Personally, Lee, I don’t believe I would ever go to an artist and suggest that they come up with a gimmick. Part of the issue is the word itself. There are a lot of different things that people who love art are looking for, and a lot of different things that artists would like their work to communicate or for other people to see in their work. However, I think if you had to sit down and make a list of things that are generally if not universally true, one thing that I’d put on my list is ‘authenticity’. A lot of people are going to associate ‘gimmicks’ with being contrived and cheap. So it’s just semantics and might not be a huge deal and I wouldn’t get stuck on it, but I would probably suggest that you try to limit or erase that word coming directly from you when describing or presenting your work.
So Kayt, I wouldn’t suggest selling yourself as ‘masking tape artist’. Most of why I feel this way is because it seems like doing that is not leading to all of the results you want, and even when it does, you have felt like the tape-thing has been an obstacle. Try taking it out of your title, and maybe when it comes up try to make your choice more specific to the works in question, or that you like working with the tape as a medium because XY and Z, rather than being like, “this tape – it’s who I am!”. Maybe you should shake it up and see if you have a different result.
With all that said, I do think that it’s good advice for an artist to push themselves and their work to a place where it’s recognized as their own. If you think about some of our favorite artists working right now, you know their work as soon as you see it. That’s true even if they might use a certain technique or style choice that maybe has been used before. People on the outside are probably going to put your work into a category whether you like it or not. It’s a superficial thing that isn’t necessarily a criticism, people just associate. I remember a certain time in the early 00’s when some bands were upset because they were being called “ska” bands by fans and the press, and they wanted to point out that they were not ska bands, they were ‘punk bands with horn players’. If you talked to these people they usually had a good argument, but they didn’t see that the whole campaign was futile. It was a total waste of time. What I think is much more important than policing what category you’ve been put into, or avoiding one entirely, is to make an effort to be the best at whatever that is. That’s a plan that will more easily lead to your work standing out and being recognized.
One person I thought would know a lot about this is Alex Garant. She makes heavy use of a double-eyed optical illusion in her painting and has been called The Queen of Double Eyes. Something that seems to have caught on more and more over the time I’ve known her. So I asked if she’d share her own experiences as an artist with a ‘trick’.
PS: Thanks for doing this, especially from inside the middle of an airport. I’ll be quick!
AG: Thanks for asking me to share my deep thoughts!
PS: So when did you start using double eyes consistently in your work?
AG: I was always interested in symmetrical compositions and patterns. I have been playing with duplication, symmetry and transparency since art school 13 years ago. But it really became a fundamental element of my aesthetic 3 years ago when I started producing a lot. As you create more and more pieces, you realize that some elements keep coming back naturally. It could be a specific color or the way you draw eyes or a specific animal you recreate over and over. Sometimes, you don’t even see the trend right away. Sometimes you need to take a step back and look at your last 20-30 pieces and you see what links all of the works together.
PS: I don’t think I’ve ever asked you, where did Queen of Double Eyes thing come from? Did you give yourself that name, or was it given to you?
AG: The title “queen of doubles eyes” was given to me by an artist friend whom I had a few local shows with. I kept bring paintings with this specific feature for group shows and one day he just told me “ wow, you are really becoming the queen of double eyes” and it just stuck after that. Became a nickname.
PS: Well, it seems to me that you’ve really embraced your place as the queen. Is that true, and if so did you always feel that way or did that come over time?
AG: As an artist, I think it is a very positive thing to hold on to those self-imposed trends. First they reinforce your brand and make your signature “style” easy to associate with your name. Secondly, creating a specific image over and over could be a sign of a forgotten source of inspiration, your subconscious triggers your like of dislike of certain visual preferences. Those images could be the roots of a deeper source of inspiration that first appears early in your life and I found it natural to embrace this self-discovery.
PS: And finally, do you feel like you face any unique limitations, where that be from the outside or creatively, because you’re so well-known for this?
AG: I do not feel like this specific style limits me, I feel like there are endless ways to interpret a theme and I love the idea of exploring an idea to the fullest. It’s very inspiring to let an idea evolve and see how far you can bring it. I truly embrace this visual signature and the whole creation process that comes with it.
Thanks Kayt and Lee. Hope this helps!
– patrick & alex
p.s. Alex is featured in a brand new CBC mini-doc where she tells her story of the freak heart attack she suffered at 30, and how the experience inspired her change her life, including the decision to become a full-time artist. It’s an amazing story and you can stream it here.
I hope my question isn’t too vague but basically what is the best way to “start” a hobby of art and turn it into a viable art career??
I’m at the point now where I have stacks of drawings that I’ve been selling to friends, people at work, etc. Once I get some more I’m gonna start a blog just to promote myself and get my stuff out there but is there something more I could be doing, better ways of networking?
I get this question a lot and usually the first thing I say is that being a great artist, and having a viable art career, are usually two very different things that require their own skill sets. However, it sounds like you’re already showing a lot of understanding in making the transition.
There isn’t necessarily a ‘best way’. But by thinking about sales, and promotion, etc., is a good way to start yourself on the right path. One thing I would suggest to you as a next step, is to get outside your comfort zone. It’s amazing and important to have a good support structure, but sometimes artists who are starting out and making their plan based too much on feedback and sales from friends and family, end up surprised and confused when other people and new audiences don’t fall in line with what they’ve heard. If you get caught in a situation like that, it’s easy to get derailed so it’s best early on to avoid that trap entirely, in my opinion.
I think that often times the scale at which your business is growing will dictate what to do, or what you need to do next. Get out into your greater art community, meet new people, other artists, etc., and listen and share experiences, increase your own artist, and learn the best ways within those networks to create new opportunities and partnerships. You’ll get busier, and you’ll at least see what you need to do next to keep things running smoothly. For most people it’s a gradual increase, although there are often intermittent sort of ‘breakthrough’ moments. Unless you know for a fact that you are at the cusp of one of those, and know you have to get ahead, focus more on the work and the workload you have now and make yourself better and smarter when it comes to handling that, before you get caught up in building something you don’t need yet, or at all.
Networking is more simple than it’s made out to be a lot of the time. Put yourself info situations within your own arts community or those that you have access to, and just be an engaged and available human being. Be natural. That’s a good place to start.
Thanks for writing.
Have a question for Patrick? Send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Shillenn is the co-founder and director of Arch Enemy Arts in Philadelphia. He doesn’t think he has all the answers. He just wants to have the conversation.
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