Today I was sanding the edges of one of my latest pieces, brushing off the sanding dust, and in general fine-tuning several of my pieces for the Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Exhibition coming up in July. As I was doing this, I reveled in the care I was taking to make these works presentable, clean, and gallery-ready; and I suddenly recalled back to an incident, or rather, series of incidents in which I was judged for perfectionism. With a bit of a chuckle, I remember it being a passive aggressive statement to start with, where he said, “Oh, you’re editing that photo to make it perfect?” Initially, I did not detect the sarcasm, but later as this same person called me “uptight” and continued to judge my “perfectionism,” I realized the intent of the statement. And at the time, it made me uncomfortable, because not only was there an implied negativity with this statement about my perfectionism, but it also seemed to question my character as a whole. I won’t go into detail about the ways in which I managed my feelings about this judgment or this relationship, but ultimately I did realize that it is unworthy of my time and especially my emotion. What I do want to discuss is the IMPORTANCE of perfectionism. It is not something to be ashamed of at all, despite what some critics may say. In fact, the critics whose opinions and critique we DO welcome and that WILL actually help us probably value a certain amount of perfectionism.
Presentation is everything in art. A well-presented work demands respect and attention. It deserves its place in the gallery. For example, if I were to leave my wooden frames un-sanded, dusty, and with splotches of spilled paint, even the tiniest drop of paint, it would seem careless and sloppy. There are so many moments when my all too human brain thinks, “is this really necessary?” Our minds and bodies naturally seek out the quickest, easiest way to obtain a goal, so it stands to reason that even in complex, unnatural tasks like creating and preparing a work of art for display, my brain would want to make sure it’s expending the smallest amount of energy possible. So it wants me to cut corners. And then I imagine the work on the wall in the gallery on opening night, with (hopefully) hundreds of eyes on it, from peers to family to mentors to professionals, and everyone in between, and I think, “NO, this does have to be done.”
The edges need sanded. The white paint needs touched up. The corners need dusted, and each piece needs to be thoroughly inspected. If I were to present a sloppy, jagged, blotchy, dirty collection of work at a show attended, hosted, and presented by other artists and clients who actually do care enough to spend time perfecting their work, it would be insulting at best. I would in a sense be implying that this exhibition is not worth the time and precision it takes to display polished, professional work, thus devaluing the time of all those participating.
It seems that some people think of art as messy, or that artists are flighty, disorganized, and casual. The “starving artist,” perhaps? That misunderstood “genius” who arrogantly flips off anyone who isn’t also a free-thinker and who scoffs at others’ 9-5 jobs? If you picture most artists in this way, it does make sense that you would also believe that most artists are not perfectionists, do not care much for presentation, and live in a juvenile fantasy world where professionalism and respect are tossed to the wind and represent far too much societal pressure and standards to be bothered with. This is simply not true, and does a disservice to those artists who take their work seriously, consider it a true profession, and work 9-5 or 6 or 7 or 8 AND weekends because their work is important to them and their business is important to them.
I am surrounded by professional artists who respect themselves and their peers as any businessperson respects their colleagues. My work is a reflection, not just of my creativity, but of my pride, my consideration, and my respect for myself and others. This is not to say that the work itself should demonstrate some sort of perfectionism… art is, after all, a world of unlimited possibilities, creative flow, and emotion.
In fact, my current body of work is abstract, a result of a failed experiment that provided me with a unique material that I fell in love with. They can be irreverent and the colors and materials may seem random to some. But in fact each piece was carefully pored over and loved. Each frame and substrate was carefully polished and painted. In other works, I may splash paint, smear it, sand it, adhere paper over it, and then scrape it off with a palette knife. I may mix spray paint and acrylics and smear them haphazardly about to achieve a certain texture. I may layer encaustic wax over a layer of uneven, scraped paint, and then adhere tissue paper to create a ghostly illusion. It can be messy, even painful as I burn myself with hot wax or the heat gun, or cut my finger with an Exacto knife. The creation can sometimes be carefully planned, and other times, based on mood or the strike of a lightbulb. Who knows?
What I do know is that I will never jeopardize the integrity of my work again by doubting, even for a moment, that presenting polished, thoughtful, belabored work is in any way a fault or character flaw. There is no formula to my work, but before it makes its debut on gallery walls, it will always receive a final once over to render it gallery-ready.