Wednesday, November 21, 2007

pep talk / sour grapes

At this point in my blogxperiment, I find that I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what this blog should and shouldn't be, rather than just being. I'm sure that'll take care of itself in time, but I came across recent posts by Liz Kuball and Cara Phillips that inspired me in that they openly dealt with the doubt and rejection that plagues all of us who spend a fair amount of time, money, and energy making work that more often than not, is met with a form letter, informing us that they're sorry, but our work just didn't make the cut. In fact, I got one just earlier this week. Two if I count the press release I just came across announcing that John Baldessari beat me out for the Whitney Biennial. Fucking Baldessari beats me out yet again. Alright, that was a long shot... I won't count that one.

I'm guessing that for most of us, the immediate response is disappointment and maybe a little bitterness. There's a good chance that you immediately check out many, if not all, of those who did make the cut, and then face the sting that either their work really was stronger, or completely different than what you do, or every now and then, it seems obvious that the judge(s) are prone to drink. Kudos to Liz for recognizing those who beat her out and, in the ultimate act of good sportsmanship, she gives praise rather than flipping shit. Shit-flipping is one thing I've decided this blog definitely isn't about. That's not to say that I don't have the occasional strong opinion about what I dislike and why, but you'll have to meet me for a beer to hear it.

I was recently talking with a poet friend (does that sound like a cliche?) who writes constantly, but doesn't bother sending her work out for fear of rejection. To a certain extent, I understand and admire the idea that the work itself remains the most important thing, and she's the rare exception who can remain inspired and dedicated enough to just keep plugging along and produce work without recognition. Yet, I can't help but think that there's more than ego at play for those of us who do send it out… that it's important to put the work out there in order to share the story you're trying to tell. Sure, I make the work because I've got something to say. But it sure is nice when there's someone listening. And an audience is a great motivator to make better work.

Anyhow, I've received my fair share of rejection letters, and to add insult to injury, my checkbook suffers far too often from the application fees associated with juried shows. But when I consider the alternative- keeping the work in my hard drive and/or closet, and spending those dollars on more paper, film, burritos, etc., I keep coming back to the idea that for me at least, it's worth it to try and subsequently fail than to not give it that shot in the first place. One keen insight I remember hearing from an instructor long ago was to always be expecting something in the mail. Always.

A few years ago, I joined the exhibition committee at Blue Sky Gallery, a great gallery with an amazing dedication to quality photography and democracy in our process. Joining the committee is simple- you have to care about photography enough to just keep showing up. After a few meetings, you're given the power to vote. For those who are just dabblers, two nights of consecutive weeks is usually enough to make them see that they really don't have enough interest to sustain the effort. Aside from being able to see, and learn from, submissions from photographers all over the world, one great thing I take home each Tuesday night, is how the process of getting your work shown isn't necessarily as simple as making good work. You try getting a group of people to agree on what "quality" photography is. I can think of at least three great photographers whose work has been rejected simply because a majority of the committee, on that particular night (or nights), wasn't into it. Like all families, it's a complex relationship, and at times, personalities seem to come into play. There have been times that I've wondered if someone's vote in one direction might come more out of opposition to a vote on the other side than from an interest in the work itself. And sometimes I come away far more discouraged than inspired, but somehow, if you look through the gallery's track record, we still end up with lots of great work on the walls, year after year after year. And other than my mental inventory, nobody keeps track of the work we haven't shown (but should have... sigh).

It seems fitting to point out that my own show at Blue Sky, back in 2003, accepted before I knew anyone here or moved to Portland, was initially rejected. Sure, it stung and I spent a little time sulking, but in addition to sulking, I fine tuned my submission, rewrote my cover letter and statement, and sent it back and asked them to look again. The second time it worked. Now maybe I just caught them at the right time, maybe the dissenters from the first go-round were tired or vacationing or even changed their minds, but in any case, it worked. Whenever the subject of rejection comes up with students or friends, I simply encourage them to feed off the rejection, look at the work, look at the jury, make the work stronger, and find the audience who'll appreciate it. Good work gets rejected from good places all the time. If the work's strong, you just need to find the people who'll recognize it as such. Lord knows that can take some time. Anyhow, I'm sure that this is just the first of many posts on these issues. I think my next rejection is scheduled for another week or two down the line.

By the way, as for my rejection earlier in the week, I haven't looked up any of the winners yet. I was too busy working on a submission for something else.

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