I’ve been making new drawings on my iPad. They’re simple and colorful, and they don’t resemble anything I’ve done before. I enjoy making them, but each one underwhelms me. They feel immature. I complained to a friend: “My drawings are very young.” She grinned and said, “What, like seven?”
Actually, they are more like teenagers—insecure and self-conscious. And like teenagers, they seek approval and then question it. They’re afraid of being exposed, but they want to be seen. Even though the work is tentative, there’s a point when it wants to be let out and hear voices other than the one inside my head.
As an artist, when your work enters an unfamiliar realm where you don’t have experience or a track record, you might be hesitant about showing it to anyone.
I brought up these issues of exposure and vulnerability with a friend who is an accomplished writer. She told me about her writing group, which has been meeting every other week for fifteen years to read aloud and critique what they are working on. I asked how the feedback affects her.
“Once I put something new out to the group, I turn my judgment over to them,” she said.
“Sometimes, if one member is unimpressed, I have trouble hearing anything positive from the others. I have to find my way back to believing them.” Then she added, “Whether it’s positive or negative, all of their feedback is legitimate. They know what they are talking about.”
A few years ago, I was at an artist residency where, each evening, one artist presented to the other residents. On the day of my presentation, I told a colleague that I was going to show—i.e., expose—the videos I had just made. She said, “You’re showing new work? How brave!” Her warning was prescient. I had hoped to gain perspective, but later, when I presented, one audience member’s careless—and harsh—comment overruled. Since my work was untested and vulnerable, his remark derailed me. It took me a full day to realize it wasn’t worth listening to.
How we accept (or dismiss) responses about new work is important. But to fully understand the feedback we’re getting, we have to acknowledge the environment in which it is delivered and received.
During the pandemic, the only way that most artists saw one another’s work-in-progress was on a screen. I attended several artist presentations on Zoom, where some participants had their video turned off. Was their attention divided? Were they making dinner? Folding laundry?
And then there’s Instagram. I’ve had many valuable interactions with other artists on the platform, and it’s been useful as a destination, a place for my young drawings to put a toe in the water. But that water is murky.
We all know that the number of “likes” is an unreliable measurement of how an audience feels, not only because social media algorithms prioritize certain content over others, but also because viewing is, by nature, so casual. The other day I watched someone rhythmically glide through Instagram: scroll, double tap, scroll, double tap. Did she actually look at anything?
I’m also conflicted about casual posting—a “this is for today and I’ll post something else tomorrow” attitude. Revealing new work is anything but casual for an artist. When we put something out there, we seek a response, and it’s nearly impossible not to be affected by the numbers. Why does this drawing get more likes than that one? Are my other drawings unlikeable? Should I change them? As a software engineer once advised me, “Beware of making art to appease the algorithm.”
But what if I am shaping the work for a particular platform without even realizing it? This occurred to me when, in the middle of making a new drawing, I stopped because I thought, ‘Oh, that won’t look good on Instagram.’
Recently, after sixteen months of the pandemic’s enforced seclusion, I had an IRL studio visit with a long-time friend. We both wanted to show each other our new work, and we took our time, luxuriating in four hours of looking and talking. When she left, I felt elated, not because of positive reactions—we barely spoke of what we liked, instead concentrating on aspects such as size and materials—but because we had honored each other’s work with our focused attention.
When I expose my young drawings in circumstances beyond my studio—however public or intimate the conditions are—I want them to go out there with courage and openness and come back to the drawing board (or iPad) with a sense of where they want to go next. Hopefully, as they gain confidence, whatever feedback they get will contribute to their maturity. ca
© 2021 W. Richmond