A dedicated artist shares what goes into a solo exhibition, including the work, the payoff, and the necessary evils.
BY JULIO REYES
(originally written and published in 2014, Artists on Art magazine)
Several years might pass in between my solo exhibitions, and for good reason: I paint damn slow, and the idea of composing and finishing more than a dozen new works in a relatively short period of time makes my knees go weak. Before signing up for my second solo exhibition at Arcadia Contemporary, I put a lot of thought into whether I should do this or not.
I cringed in anticipation of the long, solitary hours I knew I would have to spend in the studio, day after day, month after month. The pressure to perform would be high, and I would have to maintain a kind of superhuman focus to make work that would be meaningful to me as an artist. I thought of how much strain it would inevitably put on my family, and my sanity; how our finances would be stretched as I built up works for a full year, and how much I would miss human interaction after so many months of relentless pushing.
However, a solo exhibition isn’t all pain without gain. With great risk, comes great reward, and the rewards can be truly great. I thought about that too. Probably the biggest reward is that after a year of concentrated effort, I will have accomplished what I set out to do, and kept my word, at great cost, to my gallery, my family, and everyone who cares about what comes out of my studio.
After all is said and done, there will more than twice my typical output of new completed works, a tremendous achievement for me, and paintings that will (hopefully) be around for years to come. It is also a rare opportunity to show a cohesive body of my own work, convey a clear vision, to fill a gallery wall-to-wall with my own artistic expression. Yes, there will be media opportunities, and the ability to reach new collectors—but nothing beats the satisfaction of accomplishing a VERY difficult task.
Thinking of these positive outcomes and thinking myself a better man for being aware of the risks, I said yes. I proclaimed that this time would be different. I wouldn’t have the same level of difficulty as LAST time, I had learned, matured, would have greater ease … This time I would paint faster, maintain a decent work-to-rest ratio, finish all the works on time; hell, finish EARLY this time, all while engaging in regular social activities and keeping my stress levels in check.
So much for all of that! Despite my best-laid plans, I am chest-deep in the work for this new solo show and am feeling the heat. I have had to give up all social activities, all days off, I have had to perform in the studio under intense pressure, burden my wife with a terrible amount of extra work, forgo family visits, friends, haircuts, sunshine and many coveted cigars. I miss human contact, my hair is long, my skin pale, my wife grumpy, and my daily life for the remainder of these ten weeks will consist of little more than it did the last thirty weeks: paint, eat, sleep.
Building for a show is like being possessed, or addicted to crack—you do and say things you never thought you were capable of doing or saying. It’s a necessary evil; but I would never mistake it for an actual life! I get totally obsessed, isolated, and often quite lonely. I’ve become a nuisance to those around me, and burn up tons of precious fuel in order to keep up the momentum, uphold my standards of quality, and meet my deadlines.
When the sun rises, I hear my neighbor’s children leaving for school as I grab a quick bite to eat before bed. I wonder if I’m pushing too hard, and I especially wonder just how much I’ve missed out on. I’ve had to learn to focus and move forward, in order to execute my plan, despite the pangs of longing in the back of my mind. Perhaps someday I’ll find another way to do this—Ha!
I don’t want to scare anyone who hasn’t gone through a solo show from saying Yes to the opportunity, should it arise, but I’m trying to share with you what it has been like for me, and how important it is to plan, start early, and work hard. Surely it isn’t this way for everyone, but for me, for now, this is what it takes. However hard it may be, I believe that the pressure cooker of preparing a solo exhibition has really forged me into a stronger artist, and could for many other artists as well.
It is amazing how productive you can become when every minute of the day is precious! I think great artistic growth can happen when time constraints and the pressure to perform force you to find novel solutions. There’s a mandate to grow stronger, especially at your weaknesses.
You learn to focus intensely, to plan a painting better, to execute your plan with more confidence, and often, you have to ignore the incessant self-doubt that plagues many an artist at the easel. There’s no time for second-guessing. You paint on days that you felt like relaxing, and you have to do more work than you thought you could.
Eventually, you find you’ve learned to paint quite well despite the stresses and obstacles that, at one time, would have derailed you. Ultimately, you are a stronger artist for having gone through it, for having created those precious new works, and for surviving the battle it took to get there.
Composing the Work
I suppose a show to me has always represented a “pouring out” of all the various feelings and experiences that I’ve been carrying around with me. It’s a culling together, and shaping of life’s impressions on me up to a point.
I’ve never set out to make a show “fit” an overarching theme—probably because I always felt, that if the work arose naturally, out of the pursuit of my own interests, that a connecting theme would be inherent. Whether it’s the sight of balloons tied to an old fence on a lonely street corner that remind me of the transience of life; or if it’s the intensity of a boy’s searching gaze, struggling to find meaning, searing hard and hot, like a hillside set ablaze. The real treasure is often born out of the ordinary experiences of daily life.
With this new body of work, I have done my best to tell things as I see them. I suppose I’ve always been drawn to subjects that express my interest in the inner life of human beings, the conscience, in psychic and spiritual change, in hard-won self-knowledge, and metamorphosis.
Some of the images are brooding, swirling and seething, and some are full of light, splendor, and long shadows. With some works, it’s the composition, or the design, or an implied narrative that seem most important. In others, it’s just the joy of pursuing painting by exploring new surfaces and new techniques—the “technical narrative,” as some like to call it. The compositions are full of symbols, some are highly personal, and others more widely accessible.
I think it’s no accident that the people in my work often seem to be looking within, battling with something, trying to reconcile themselves to the changing world around them. I guess if there’s anything I’m trying to preserve and/or to elicit in my work, it’s the human conscience—the soul—at work, an empathic response to the real person who struggles to be free, to live deliberately, fully aware, and who seeks some solace, some clarity, even a moment of transcendence, in order to truly live.
I guess it restores me in some way, to peer into the hearts of my fellow man, and to see something of my own struggles, my own frailties. I see flawed people, capable of great heroism, who struggle quietly, doing what human beings have done for centuries—trying their best to find meaning in what is often a very tough world. We are broken vessels containing treasure. It’s not the story of a super-man, or the extraordinary man amongst us mortals, that moves me most; it’s the ordinary person, under extraordinary circumstances, that I love.
I’m still working on the second half of this show as I write this, and I find that overall, I’m very content with my efforts. Did I accomplish what I set out to do? Was it successful artistically? I don’t know, you tell me. All I can tell you is that I set out to put my heart on canvas, and I did the best I could. I don’t paint to meet a market—I wouldn’t know how to do that. I paint what interests me and what moves me most, and I am always grateful and truly amazed when people respond to it.
So, when you see me stagger into a gallery on opening night, hopefully you will take pity on me, hopefully you will enjoy the works on the wall and tell me so, and hopefully you will thank my wife for working ‘til the wee hours of the morning with me every night! Perhaps next time I agree to a solo show, I will start earlier, paint faster, keep rigorously organized … Yes, I will finish more works, bigger works, on time; hell no, I’ll finish EARLY! Yes, really early! So early, I will take my wife on a nice tropical vacation, I’ll show up to the opening with sun-kissed skin and a look of leisure about me.
Bwahhahahahahaa!!! Laugh . . . cough, cough . . . laugh . . .
Learn more about Julio Reyes at: www.julioreyes.com
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