Marketing Mondays: In The Ghetto

Stuck in a ghetto? Artists don't have to be

Ghetto is an Italian word—probably from borghetto, meaning “neighborhood” or “enclave”—to describe the area of Venice where the city’s Jews were forced to live in the 16th Century. Given that unjust beginning, ghetto has always had a negative connotation, one of confinement, where enclave has not. Beverly Hills, for instance, is an enclave but nobody calls it a ghetto.

So, a ghetto is not where you want position yourself if you want a larger place in the world.

And yet, artists create ghettos for themselves all the time. I’m not talking about the physical neighborhoods that can be very helpful for us in terms of critical mass for living, working or both (until the developers move in, jack up the rents and drive us out). No, I’m talking categories into which we willingly jump—or into which we allow ourselves to be pushed: women artists, black artists, fiber artists, paper artists, encaustic artists and the like.

I’m not  for a moment suggesting we deny our sex or race or the medium we work with. And I'm not suggesting we never participate in exhibitions or events in which a particular element of our identity is a unifying theme; indeed, the embrace of a community can be nurturing and safe. But a community can be as constrictive as it is supportive. So I'm suggesting we think about how we identify ourselves or allow ourselves to be identified. I’ve talked about the issue at greater length here and here but I think it’s worth mentioning again because artists continue to limit their options by a simple adjective.
Ask any "fiber artist" how many exhibitions s/he has participated in outside of the fiber world. Often, it's not many. On the other hand, I don't see the any of the artists in Textility straining under the yoke of such a label. Why? Because they don't use it. They employ or reference fiber and fabric in their work--indeed, that's why Mary Birmingham and I selected them for the exhibition--but they are painters and sculptors. And make no mistake, there's a longstanding tradition of painters and sculptors using fiber, from Robert Rauschenberg and Lucio Fontana to Sam Gilliam, Fred Sandback and Louise Bourgeois. 

Textility at the Visual Art Center of New Jersey: No "fiber at" here. The medium is fiber, the result is art
I deal with this issue regularly. When someone introduces me as an “encaustic artist,” I counter that my esthetic, which embraces lush color, rich surface and a reductive sensibility, translates into the work I do in other mediums as well. Recently, digital prints). I love the materiality of wax paint, but I'm a painter, not an "encaustic artist." I myself am not made of pigmented beeswax; that would be Madame Tussaud’s Joanne Mattera.  And to my knowledge that Joanne does not exist.

Now here's an encaustic artist: wax Picasso at Mme. Tussaud's

I'm writing this as I work on the Sixth International Encaustic Conference, which I founded and direct and now produce in cooperation with the Truro Center of the Arts at Castle Hill on Cape Cod in June. It’s a fabulous experience for artists who work in the medium—not “encaustic artists” but painters, sculptors and printmakers who have found their voice largely through a demanding but richly rewarding material. This is a professonal gathering—an enclave—where we get together once a year to hear from dealers, critics, curators and conservators, as well as artists at the top of their field, to learn, share, show our work, and have a great, tax-deductible time. This year our keynote is Edward Winkleman, owner of the Chelsea gallery that bears his name. He neither shows nor is made of wax, but I expect he will offer much for our conferees to consider.

I modeled the multi-event structure of the Encaustic Conference on that of the the annual College Art Association Conference, which took place recently in Los Angeles. We all need places to convene and confabulate, to talk shop, to hang out with those who get what we do, to show to and with one another. We just don't want to be stuck there. As with the CAA, we want to be able to go back into the larger art world, invigorated, to participate in a broader forum--no adjective, all noun.

Now, over to you:
. Have you found yourself in an art ghetto?
. What kind of art ghetto were you in?
. How have you gotten out?
. Was it / is it a problem to find opportunities "outside"?
. Have you/do you continue to enter and leave the ghetto at will?
. If you're happy there, what does it do for you?

A reminder: Anonymous comments are OK if they add to the conversation. But if you have something negative to say—to me, about the topic, to a commenter—have the courage of your convictions and identify yourself. I’m not providing a forum to cowards

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Joanie Gagnon San Chirico said...

Excellent post Joanne! I wrote a rant on my blog some time ago about this subject. "Ghettos" do exist and I also called them such. Sad that so much talent becomes lost in cookie cutter select media exhibits.

If you want to read my take which was geared towards fiber artists, here's the link:

Tamar said...

To the extent that certain terminology defines us by categorizing our work too narrowly, it is problematic. Some terms focus on materials, others on overall style or sensibility, and invariably the categories become meaningless in explaining the work. People often have preconceived notions of what fits into those categories.

But we all engage in a degree of self-definition when we talk about our work. I am still dissatisfied with my 2 minute here's what my work is about spiel because the words I have chosen are too limiting and I haven't yet found what fits. In the best of all possible worlds, we hand out or send an image that shows the work, rather than using words to describe it.

kim matthews said...

Thank you for this excellent post, one that I hope dealers in particular will note. I actually left a gallery I was involved with partially because the owner insisted upon introducing me as a "paper artist," instead of a sculptor, and I should have known better because her gallery was full of "wood art." For those of us who use craft or industrial media and techniques especially, this is no trivial matter, just for the reasons you describe. It's bad enough having to hear the phrase "woman artist", let alone "fiber artist" or "paper artist." I'll skip my customary rant on identity art and sign my name instead of being an anonymous coward.

Robin Sherin said...

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm an artist. If they ask what kind of work I do, I drill down a bit and tell them I'm a works on paper artist who does prints and other works combining layered paper and drawing materials. I'm not sure if it qualifies as ghettoization--I suppose I'm pigeonholing myself a bit, but it does accurately describe my studio practice. Although I make prints and a large portion of my studio is my printshop, I prefer to not refer to myself as a printmaker--this description does start to enter ghetto territory. I think it's partly due to how "printmakers" are perceived--great prints are made by great artists and while most great artists do at some point create prints, it isn't something they mono-focus on the way printmakers seem to. Instead it's another medium to be explored. Part of this perception issue is self inflicted--etchers like me sometimes get lost in process--we talk about good blacks, but is it a good image? Conversely, I will wear my printmakers hat when it's to my advantage--from time to time I enter my prints into certain select print competitions or seek other opportunities specific to prints. This has served me well leading to some purchase and cash awards.

Mark said...

Finding and promoting a niche might have an appeal. The problem lies when superficial craft overwhelms everything else in the "ghetto". It's not that watercolor is inheirently (sic) shlocky, but the watercolor society types' work tends towards embarassing dreck. My friends think painting is quaint, but like the painting in this year's Whitney Biennial, can stand out when it has some ideas and chops.

Judy Vars said...

It is hard not to pigenhole or ghettoize ourselves, others seem to expect this, perhaps it helps them understand us better.
I love representional painting and have trained myself to paint with beeswax in that way. People often do not know it is beeswax and I like it that way!
My work is currently in West Hollywood that is definitely an enclave compared to Wasilla, Alaska.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, All, for your comments.
. Tamar says: "But we all engage in a degree of self-definition when we talk about our work." Yes, of course. We have to start somewhere. But how we self define can explicate our world or narrow it.
. Robin says: "When people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm an artist. If they ask what kind of work I do, I drill down a bit and tell them I'm a works on paper artist who does prints and other works combining layered paper and drawing materials." I like that she starts with the broader definition first. Of course we get specific, but she's a printmaker, not an 'ink artist.'
. Mark says: "The problem lies when superficial craft overwhelms everything else in the 'ghetto'". Bingo. this is often the case with medium-specific artsts; it's about medium and technique more than concept.
. Judy says: "Others seem to expect this." Bingo again. Don't play into their expectations, particularly when the expectations narrow your options. Declare yo8urself in broader terms! I love that you are focusing on the representational aspect of your painting, since the wax is simply the means by which you express what your firing neurons are compelling you to do.
. Kim and Joanie: The choir!

mariandioguardi.com said...

Paints you like, die happy. - Henri Miller

I will die happy. C'est la vie.