Friday, June 30, 2017

Essential Questions: How Do You Prepare for a Solo Show?

Edited by Jane Guthridge

Does your process differ depending on whether you're showing in an art space or a commercial gallery? Do you think about the audience? I'm not talking about changing the content to satisfy an audience, but rather tweaking the inventory to maximize sales. For instance do you think about a variety of sizes? Do you listen to your dealers when they say their clients "want big" or "love blue"? Do you see your relationship as a business partnership or an opportunity to show exactly what you want? 

  Amy Ellingson, Chopping Wood on the Astral Plane, 2016, solo exhibition with Eli Ridgway|Contemporary Art, at Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco
Photo: John Janca, Artbot Photography

We begin with Amy Ellingson, the San-Francisco-based painter who has had 15 solo shows in the past 20 years along with installations and public commissions.

Ellingson: Nearly all of my work is produced for a specific venue, so I consider the exhibition space well in advance. I take photographs and measurements, and I study the light at different times of day. I try to get a feel for the space, and I diagram how a viewer is likely to move through the space and how the gaze will travel. Of course, I inquire about existing gallery floor plans. Then, I make a model of the space, usually one inch to the foot, which means that the model is rather large. I make the models out of Gator Board. It’s expensive and difficult to cut, but it is really sturdy, and it can hold up to water-based paint. I paint the floor of the model so that it is a pretty accurate representation of the space.  

As far as the work itself, usually I have some ongoing concerns or a direction that I would like to continue with, so the work evolves from there. I make prints of my sketches, also one inch to the foot, and mount them on foam core so that I can place them within the model. This detailed preparation springs from the fact that, even if I am in my studio 60-70 hours a week, I am only able to make around twelve paintings a year. The work is really labor-intensive so, in order to fill a large exhibition space, I need to plan things out with a degree of certainty.  A large exhibition takes at least a year to produce. 

The exhibition begins to take shape, and I continually refer to the model to ascertain what is needed to make a dynamic exhibition, in terms of conceptual consistency, as well as conceptual tension. I think a lot about mood, color balance, and formal elements that move the eye from piece to piece. Of course, all of the works go their separate ways after the exhibition ends. But for a few short weeks they exist together as intended.  

Views above and below of Ellingson's studio mockup for Chopping Wood on the Astral Plane
Photos courtesy the artist

JG: Does your process differ from a museum or art space to a commercial gallery?
Ellingson: Yes. I try to take full advantage of the fact that a non-profit venue provides an opportunity to stretch and to do things that might be considered impractical in a commercial gallery. For example, I had a show a few years ago that consisted of a 28-foot-long painting, a temporary site-specific mural, and an installation of 1700 small sculptural objects. It was a terrific opportunity to expand my practice, with no expectations regarding sales. As such, it was a great way to show my range and ambition, which, I believe, helped in terms of subsequent sales though the years.  Different shows pay off in different ways. At the very least, hopefully we learn something about ourselves and our work.  

JG: Do you think about the audience?

Ellingson: Yes and no. Since I have been showing my work for a long time, I find it interesting to see how really knowledgeable viewers respond to the whole of my output, and to changes and developments along the way. On the other hand, I don’t think it helps to try to second-guess one’s audience. People have their own relationship to my work, just as I do.  

JG: Do you see your gallery relationship as a business partnership or an opportunity to show exactly what you want?

Ellingson: For many years I was very rigid about my output. For example, at the beginning of my career, there was a long period in which I only made paintings that were 36 inches high and 120 inches long. It drove people—galleries as well as potential collectors—crazy. I wouldn’t say it was the best strategy. Now I feel that, although my large-scale paintings are still the main focus of my practice, it is nice to let people in on different levels. I do make smaller paintings, many of which I donate to various causes and fundraisers for museums and non-profits. I started making works on paper about ten years ago. And I do public, corporate and private commissions. I have gotten past seeing these things as “compromises.” Instead, I seem them as challenges. If they are a way to stretch, to expand, to introduce my work to a new audience then, great, they are worth doing. 

As far as business partnerships with galleries, in the best case, we are equal partners with an equal investment in success. I understand the risks a gallerist takes. The higher we go, in terms of price point for the work, the riskier it is for both parties. Ideally, the relationship should be strategic and collaborative, focusing on goals and outcomes, as well as esthetic innovation and growth. I think it’s possible to do both: to focus on the business end while you let the work develop as freely as possible. It requires a bit of compartmentalization but it is possible. I try to see everything as an opportunity: a chance to stretch my limits, or develop a new audience, or keep the ball rolling, or keep things fresh. I also think it’s essential to find gallerists who believe in you and support what you do. So, if you work large, and they want small, perhaps you’re not right for each other. In the end, I do feel that I show exactly what I want, but it happens within the context of a collaborative, communicative relationship.  

More voices

Whether through training, experience, or necessity, artists are in agreement about most aspects of preparing for a solo.

Howard Hersh: My preparation is to know the space, usually asking for a floor plan. That way I can curate the work to be specifically for that venue.

Lynda Ray:  Are there art writers in your area who might come in and write about the work?

Debra Claffey: I approach each solo as a chance to have all the pieces centered on a theme. I make a mockup to scale so I can place the work myself when I can, working with the venue so that there is a rhythm to the color, line, and shape of the sequence of panels. If it's a commercial venue, I will try to have some smaller pieces available. I make a calendar of deadlines, too.

Krista Svalbonas: Yes, totally different approach with a not-for-profit space than a commercial gallery. In not-for-profits I get more freedom and more chances to experiment, so I tend to do more installation-based work, not thinking about sales. Commercial gallery relationships are definitely partnerships based on a give and take. I listen to my dealers and I am sensitive to the fact that they are thinking about sales and not just creating exhibitions (as one would in a non for profit space ).

As far as planning goes I normally do 3D mockups of the space in Photoshop, so I can plan accordingly with how many pieces and what sizes. With the installations I have to do virtual mockups as those are what help denote how the installation is created. As often as possible I try and visit the space and take my own photographs. If that isn't an option then I ask for photos of the space from the venue or at the very least precise measurements to generate a mock up.

Joanne Mattera: I look at a solo show as an opportunity to tell the story of what I've been doing for the past year. I tend to work small (12x12 or 18x18 inches) given the nature of working edge to edge in wax, so I almost always think about creating a grid of paintings on one wall. This is how I view the work in my studio, and I spend a fair amount of time moving the paintings around to create an installation that pleases my eye. Of course there's the not-so-hidden agenda of showing viewers--i.e. potential collectors--how nice the works looks in a grouping and-wouldn't-you-like-to-acquire-several.

Each new group of works tends to have a related palette—it's the nature of having a certain number of paints on the griddle at one time—but thinking about the solo as a commercial venture as well as an aesthetic one, I make sure I hit a number of chromatic notes.

In terms of planning for the show, I keep separate folders—actual and virtual—for every show I’m participating in or preparing for in a particular year, both solo and group. Each folder gets a to-do list:
. When work needs to be completed. The gallery may want to make a studio visit at this time, or request a virtual visit via digital photos of what’s on the wall
. Designated period for post-painting work: trimming, attaching D-rings, making the storage boxes.
. When work will be photographed. (A promotional image may need to be shot before a scheduled photo shoot)
. When updated resume and statement need to be emailed to the gallery. This is also a good time to provide the consignment list with images of all the work
. Date the work needs to be packed and shipped, or hand delivered, or picked up by the gallery
. Hardly anyone does print ads anymore, but online promotion—the gallery’s and mine—needs to be done, and I work those deadlines into my schedule as well. This is true, too, for postcards. The turnaround for printings is fast now, so I can insert these dates into my schedule as necessary.

If you want to do an exhibition catalog you have to plan well ahead. Some galleries will do it for you, but you still have to think about which images, who will write the essay, and when you’ll be able to view and tweak the page proofs and, of course, proofread.

Leslie Neumann: I remember distinctly an experience I had many years ago that colored all my subsequent experiences with one-person shows. I did my homework, insofar as I got a floor plan, and I tried my very best to figure out what would be the best layout for my show. Then I brought the work in to my commercial gallery; the owner had years and years of experience, and she laid out the show completely differently, and it looked beautiful. It was a huge success. So planning ahead is great. Being flexible is really crucial.

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