Walter Gabrielson Painter


Couple of months ago I noticed in the local paper that a poverty agency was having a competition about the subject and was offering three prizes, $1,000, $500 and $200 for the best three entries. I have an interest in the territory and have done some works about it along the way so I thought It worth combining my idealism and shameless commerce, subsequently painted a 24 x 72" painting called "At Home With the Homeless (SB)" which I submitted to the competition. About sixty other entries were judged by four (countem) four jurors.
Homeless Painting (small)
Enlarge Image (big)
Enlarge Left Side (biggest)
Enlarge Right Side (biggest)
On the evening of the awards presentation I showed up and greedily partook of a modest buffet consisting of cold buffalo wings, veggies and donated wine, noted that just about everybody in the room knew each other. agency staff and art submitters (Part of the deal was to sit the gallery for one half a day and while doing that I looked at a brochure of their budget, around eight million dollars went to staff salaries). After a tiring prologue of windy speechifying and agonizing over the plight of the underclass and how art could change all this (give me a break) we got to the good stuff: the awards. The president of the outfit later said that he like my painting the best (take that to the bank) and would have purchased it (hah!)if he were not soon leaving the job. Then the loot was handed out. I only got honorable mention. The three top prizes went to (l) a moderately dreadful image of lumps of homeless sleeping under a freeway pass, (2) a pretty good sculpture of a young woman and a child begging on the street and (3) a truly abominable painting of some guys looking for work. The rest of the show was mostly well-intentioned but ineptly executed commentary on cardboard or other poverty art materials done in summer-camp beginning painting style.

Looking over the field I thought there were at leas three good works, my own, the sculpture that got second and a drawing that didn't get anything. My feeling was that the sculpture and I were contenders for first prize and the drawing was a solid third and everything was variations on awful. I know everybody is a critic about art and I am sounding very elitist, and who am I to make these judgements but by experience, career, education and time in the trenches I think I can do it. I do believe that in the art dodge you simply have to come up with images that are powerful,provocative, enlightening, challenging and all that. The well intentioned amateur hour is sometimes interesting but seldom gets off the ground.

Admittedly, judgements about art are difficult but not impossible. We all do it. In this case however I strongly felt that there were other events in play. For instance, why was there four jurors? I have juried shows singly, no big deal. I have heard of two jurors for huge shows of a thousand entries, no big deal.
But four jurors for sixty works? What you wind up with is a committee and most likely the intent was to satisfy constituencies of the organization that sponsored the event. What they were there to do was to make certain that various people were not left out,that some were rewarded for their contributions or "hard work", etc., you name it. What they were NOT there to dowas to give a thousand bucks away to a total stranger to their system (me) in a thousand years. I was to be bought off with an honorable mention. So be it.

Which brings up the next reality in art judgements that are rendered in some official capacity, that there is almost always a scenario going on that you don't know about and they NEVER TELL YOU ABOUT IT !!! I have seen it happen many times. When the National Endowment for the Arts was shovelling money out to artists through "Peer Groups", these guys would call up their friends and make sure that they had applied. Architectural competitions are loaded with fears that the winners won't "offend" community sensibilities. ON and ON. It is the dirty little secret of the arts, that there is always some kind of fix in place and the only way to survive is to be IN on it!

One of the reasons people can get away with this is that to paraphrase writer William Goldlman (talking about Hollywood) that is in the present tense, hardly anybody really knows what art is, It is a mystery. We know what is selling what people are talking about, what's hot, what's not but beyond that, nobody knows. You know what art is fifty, a hundred years ago but right now, everybody is really guessing. As a result, looking at the vast. amorphous stew of seething ambition and strident advocacy, anybody can judge art to be anything they want it to be, and, they do. The little drama I was in is just a reminder of the larger artgame and I have only myself to kick for being so naive so as to have forgotten it.

As a result, contemporary art becomes a game with bizarre rules which mystify everyone outside th loop. My definition of the game is that art in any particular time is a form of collective hysteria about some look or other that rewards enough players long enough to create employment, rewards and celebrity until it all wears out. Then the next fashion cycle starts with new people who need careers, rewards,, celebrity and so forth. The cycle continues as long as there is hope for people to get something out of it, when it is all filled up it quits and dies. This is why it is so incomprehensible to understand because the only logic that makes sense is the logic of expediency and career. Occasionally some good stuff even happens!

I know, I know it is silly and stupid but there itis. The emphasis is on being a game player and artists force themselves into the whole Faustian deal, get terrific rewards until the devil demands his due and forget about tomorrow. If you are IN the game it works, and if you are not in the game then you are a pariah, a fool, a dolt, an outcast, an untouchable, lower than low. I know the feeling well. It is what I have experienced explicitly and implicity for a long time. You also get their contempt, yes the contempt they have for those not on their plane, or perhaps it is really fear of the outsider, I don't really know. But it is there and they punish you in various ways, keeping you away from the goodies, the awards, the loot, the legitimacy. The irony for many of these folks is eventually the tab comes due and they crash and disapear, give up art, go on to selling aluminum siding, whatever.

The reason I bring all this up (besides whining and snivelling) is to pass on , as I believe it is important to pass on in any tribe the history and rules of the game you are in to the next generation. My shot at it is over. I haven't played the game very well so I should not complain too loudly that I have not shared in the rewards. I am sad about it but not very angry any more, that takes up too much energy, and frankly, I don't think it will ever change. What I do believe is that anyone looking at an art career ought to really think about the ramifications of such a rash act. What you should think about are issues like,"Could I do this for a long time with few rewards but inner pleasure and would that be enough?" Or, "Should I get in the game and pursue the success god and forget about the price tag?"

We exist in a brutal world. Art is seldom a part of it. We who attempt to create it need it. Everyone else is getting a part of the dream. What's in it for them? It seems we just do things and hope it will all work out. Sometimes it does. You catch a break, a patron comes out of nowhere, you get lucky, you're in the right place at the right time. And other times, you are ground up and and put in the sausage.

I guess it winds up being just the kind of game you can live with.