In a conversation at his downtown studio at the Brewery, Roland Reiss, the Director of Painting’s Edge at Idyllwild Arts, insists that there was a time when artists did not learn in public. Perhaps nostalgically, he refers to an era when young artists spent years bringing their career to maturity before attempting a show in New York. And, he asserts, if your show was a success, de Kooning said hello the next morning. If not, you packed your bags.
Reiss, who was named as a new talent in the 1959 New Talent issue of Art in America, perceives a generational shift in how artists develop these days. If you have one good show out of your last four, Reiss maintains, people are likely to forget the garbage and remember you by your best work. He holds that this engenders mimicry—artists refine a stylistic development that made a success out of a peer. He sees this kind of pandering as characteristic of fashion, a slope where styles come and go.
Reiss conceived Painting’s Edge in 1999, when Idyllwild Arts, keen on rebuilding its reputation in the visual arts, approached him about developing a professional level program. Reiss’s experience in graduate arts education—he was chair of the Claremont Graduate University Art department for 29 years—and his interest in artists’ formation made him well suited for the task. Finishing its seventh year this summer, Painting’s Edge is a professional artists’ residency loosely modeled after Black Mountain College’s summer sessions: bring in big names, and you’ll attract people. Indeed, there were whispers among the artists-in-residence in Idyllwild that Roland’s dream was to recreate Black Mountain College, and the Asheville, North Carolina college comes up often in conversation.
The truth is somewhere in between. Artists-in-residence at Painting’s Edge are selected through a jury process, and they are certainly an accomplished bunch. A number of this year’s residents are faculty in undergraduate and graduate art programs, several have gallery representation and all of them show their work. A few of them are current MFA students and recent MFA grads.
Attending Painting’s Edge for two weeks in late June and early July is a bit like retreating to a monastery, and Reiss compares working as an artist to an avocation, not unlike a religious calling.
Part of the mountaintop experience for the artists-in-residence is the exposure to the headliners, people like Fred Tomaselli, Peter Clothier, Peter Plagens, and Mark Bradford. According to Neil Bender—one of this summer’s residents—you get more from the visiting artists and critics than you would in an MFA program. The visitors—Plagens, Bradford, et al—work all day, giving individual thirty-minute critiques to the artists-in-residence. Each resident will end up with feedback from 12 prominent artists and critics. A collegial attitude predominates, and the visiting critics and artists mingle with the residents over lunch and in the studios. This can be a very powerful environment—one that is difficult to leave behind for your everyday life. At times, it proves tricky to have your work under such a microscope—there is nowhere to hide.
Another aspect of the experience is the peer-to-peer interaction. Residents come to Paintings Edge hungry for dialog—about art in general, and specifically about their own painting and professional development. Painting’s Edge provides ample opportunity for developing professional relationships. In many regards, these peer interactions are more important than meeting with the visiting artists and critics. Reiss attributes this appetite to a lack of venues for meaningful discussion among young artists. He suggests that, out there—in the art world, new MFAs face catastrophic brand meltdown if they appear to have doubts about their own work.
For all its enchantments—and there are many—Painting’s Edge faces the same market forces that challenge the nature of art education elsewhere. In a delightfully cranky and tightly woven lecture on the conundrum of career trajectory choices confronting artists, Peter Plagens—the self-described plodding writer of German descent—took note of the changes young artists have made in their own “practices” . . . a word that Plagens decries as both inaccurately reflecting what an artist does and at the same time lending a business/branding connotation to the artist’s work (think: a doctor’s practice). Whereas artists of a previous generation had the option of teaching while developing their work, positions are now harder to come by, and artists have the sole option of moving their work in the market. Plagens observed that young artists track sale prices of other young, and hotly branded art stars, much like an up-and-comer in business might track her stock portfolio or the progress of the Dow.
The recognition towards the influence of the market is everywhere in art circles, and like its counterparts, Painting’s Edge contends with this question. To an outsider, it may be difficult to discern the difference between a market research focus group and the hardedge critiques that happen in an environment like Painting’s Edge. In a variation on Ecclesiastes, one of Reiss’ familiar refrains is, “Paint something I haven’t seen.” For Roland, this comment is about discovering one’s own territory and a refusal to settle for dim retreads of the past; he pushes artists to contribute to an ongoing conversation. In an art world that is increasingly market driven, artists have to distinguish that statement from “What will sell?”—sometimes a difficult task. Most often, it’s a lonely struggle in the studio; Painting’s Edge offers a chance to share the struggle.
Painting’s Edge 2008 with Mark Bradford, Peter Plagens, Roland Reiss, Wendell Gladstone and many others, Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., (951) 684-7111, www.riversideartmuseum.org. July 22–August 16. Public Reception: Saturday, July 26, 2008, 6–9PM