Showing my true colours
This year, I started showing my work again after more than a ten-year hiatus of chosen non-exposure. I showed works that I thought I would never show to anyone. I created them in the privacy of my studio and without the intention of ever making them public. It was blissful and very necessary for my creative process. In my twenties and when fresh out of Art College, I couldn’t get enough of showing my work and creating work specifically for exhibitions. I was represented by a Geneva gallery which moved my work into international biennales and fairs. It was a validating feeling to know that my work would be seen by many as it travelled around to be exhibited in different locations. It was also a strange feeling to let go of these pieces and to not know who and how many people saw, formed opinions and sometimes acquired them to be part of their personal collection. It was an exciting experience and one which I am truly grateful for, and the opportunities it opened for me. However, it was something that I also found difficult to manage.
I think for any artist your work is somehow part of you or reflects parts of yourself. I do not know any artist who does not in some way feel personally exposed when they exhibit their work. I am not referring here to the question of whether or not the viewer likes it, but rather to that specific aspect of having others see what you made and letting that now be open to their interpretation. I am not sure whether it is a gained maturity (I am literally twenty years older than when I started) or the gained experience of having shown my work a lot, but I am less affected by if people like my work or not. I today have a confidence that I believe takes some forging to acquire, but it does not mean that showing my work is any easier to deal with.
Art college definitely helped to forge a basic confidence; when you expose yourself to regular group studio critiques as part of a four-year degree course, you definitely learn to stand up for your work and not take yourself or it too seriously. But of course, when you are twenty, you just do take everything hugely seriously and personally! Everything seems more dramatic and I remember taking hugely seriously and personally the feedback and criticism I would get. The criticism would inevitably shape how I would then go about my work, as evaluation from one’s tutors should and does when committing to a degree course you hope to at least pass. But I only let it shape me to a certain extent, which may explain why I only scraped a pass as the end result.
I am well familiar with the experience of clutching my wine glass at the opening night to an exhibition whilst trying to focus on a conversation rather than reading the expressions of the people that stand before my work. I would be lying if I was to claim indifference when they move on before I have had the chance to exchange in some way with them. I still get sleepless nights in the build-up to an exhibition. I still stay awake until the early hours after the opening night is over, partly from the euphoria of having “got myself out there” and partly due to the interminable self-criticism that inevitably follows. But that predictable deflated and analytical state, once an exhibition is over, is also invaluable for my creative evolvement. It is what shapes my future artworks, what forges an authentic creative progression where I have learned to remain true to myself, no matter what is said. Much as I believe it is important to listen to and observe peoples’ response, I do not let it make me lose my footing. On the contrary I will always try to turn it into something that allows me to go further, dig deeper and express myself more fully. That said, I am intrigued by how much the knowledge that a piece will be shown to even one other person still affects some choices as I create. It is in part what brings to fruition an otherwise completely intangible and personal idea to become something coherent and expressive to others.
Knowing that I can bring someone a different perspective, open a new possibility in their awareness and somehow move them, drives me to continuously endeavour to perfect my art. This is partly what making art is all about for me: bringing people together to experience and share moments that resonate and make sense to them personally. That another, or others, could make sense of a very private and personal way of seeing and communicating thrills me. I think that juxtaposition of wanting to show and hide, be private and express, will always drive and yet torment any artist. Being an artist certainly has a self-absorbed and introspective side to it. But without those moments of digging deeper to refine your art, showing your work to others can be extremely disorientating if you did not stay true to yourself.
Every artist dreams of being able show their true colours and that these be appreciated for what they are. But the more you expose yourself, the more you feel exposed. And yet the less you expose yourself, the less, most often, it communicates anything to others. Exhibiting your work, whilst staying true to yourself, and dealing with the exposure, is part of what makes the life of an artist be as complex and challenging as it can sometimes be. You cannot go into this wanting everyone to like your work or you will never produce anything authentic. And I have always preferred authenticity and truth over comfort and ease.