A Young Painter Asks A Slightly Older Painter Questions: A Dialogue Between Dylan Mize and Matthew Ballou
Below is an edited compilation of a Facebook interaction between Dylan Mize and Matthew Ballou. Dylan recently graduated with a BFA from The University of Central Missouri. Ballou is an Associate Teaching Professor at The University of Missouri. Here, on Neoteric Art, Ballou’s advice is offered up for scrutiny and in the hope of generating some more perspectives on Dylan’s questions. Please comment below if you have observations, experiences, or general thoughts about a life in art. From Ballou: “Those of us who keep making art after school ends are a rare breed, and we should encourage others to come along with us. I look forward to reading from artists who are 10, 20, or 30 years further down the road than I am.”
All works presented here are by Dylan Mize.
Dylan Mize: Well, as I might have told you before, my worst habit as a painter is overthinking things, questioning myself, not committing to some idea or even a type of idea, Etc. I’ve been told by many established artists that I should be finding my niche, how my work stands out, where it falls in the course of art history, what conversation I want to participate in, and all that. I spent my whole undergrad doing different shit and I’m just not sure I have a good idea where it’s going, still.
Matthew Ballou: My thoughts on all of this are really broad but I’ll try to stay on point.
First, I’m not sure that “overthinking things, questioning” yourself, and “not committing to some idea or even a type of idea” are bad habits. This kind of subjectivity is something unique – and vital – to human beings. The questions, the doubts, the rabbit holes, and the wild goose chases; these are where the adventure lies. Our creativity and inventiveness are honed in these arenas. Our lives as artists should never consist of executing an aesthetic or conceptual equation. There is no formula. And yet it is true that we must commit to something, be passionate about something. The amazing thing with art making is that one can be passionate and driven while simultaneously not being certain where one is going. Certainty is overrated. We will discover how the work fits into our deepest concerns as we explore those concerns and attempt to negotiate them. Personal experiences, background, gender, language, and worldview (as well as many other factors) are always present in our work no matter what form it takes. This means that there is always something to decipher in our various attempts to craft evocative images, and as we become better students of our work we will discover the true, deep content embedded there. It may surprise us. It will certainly challenge us. Ultimately, that’s where our niche will be found.
Paying attention to where our work is going means acknowledging what contexts and histories it comes from, incorporates, and builds upon. Part of our work as artists really is scholarship. We don’t create anything in a vacuum, and we never create anything on our own. Originality is a myth that damages artists. The damage comes from believing that we are supposed to be focusing on having a “style” and being “new.” It causes younger artists to try to distinguish themselves from others, to try to create separation rather than relationships. I think this is a mistake.
Dylan Mize, White Flag , oil on canvas, 10″ x 8″
DM: I’m not even sure that I want to be pigeonholing my work at this point, yet I want to get recognized. For example, I want my work to be philosophically influenced, but I also like just drawing and painting the figure for the joy of that kind of act. That’s why I understand where your work comes from because it combines the two. But I just don’t know how to combine all the things I’m interested in or even if that’s what I should be trying to do.
MB: I hope you know that intense, philosophically driven work and “just drawing and painting the figure for the joy of that kind of act” are not mutually exclusive. Some people in the art world (as well as in art institutions and academia) think that they are. Some contend that there is a hierarchy: conceptual concerns at the top and fundamental/traditional methods at the bottom. This is a false dichotomy; don’t let it dictate anything to you. There are many people in the arts claiming that medium is always second to the idea. They suggest that the artist has an idea then chooses the “appropriate” medium to express that idea. This, too, creates a false dichotomy, one that over-values an intellectual approach. The work will always come to trump the idea in some way because it enters the world. It physically engages with social, political, historical, and ideological contexts that the nascent idea can’t. Simply put: once the idea leaves the mind it is transformed and can no longer be the central issue. This means that our choice of medium, while certainly key to the kinds of ideas we might be able to address (and therefore the kinds of contexts with which we will engage), is itself a field of incident wherein our ideas may gestate and catalyze into different and uniquely inflected forms. Any idea may find some evocative form in any media. We may come to see one or another medium as more suited to the expression of the idea, but we can never really dismiss a medium from being an interactive zone for any idea.
Walt Whitman famously declared in his Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” This statement is a great metaphor for our beingness. It is also descriptive of art. You may desire that your work exhibit all of your interests. In this you will probably be disappointed. Yet you should also be elated, since the work will come to contain multitudes you didn’t necessarily mean it to. The work will forever be both more and less than you intend. It will take on bastard resonances in the eyes of others. It will metastasize before your eyes. It will become far more than it was supposed to be and yet it will always fail to be everything it might have been. Do not try to tidy this mess up. Let the detritus collect. Eventually, that too will become precious.
Dylan Mize, Remembrance , oil on canvas, 12″ x 10″
DM: One of my main professors asked whether the paintings I did for my senior show needed to be paintings. I wanted to say ‘no’ because that’s what she wanted to hear (and I wanted to believe that representing my concept to its fullest extent is my highest priority) but, yes, they did need to be paintings… because, hell, I just like paint.
MB: Loving paint is the beginning of the answer, but it’s not the end or the fullness of the answer. Paint – particularly oil paint – was created to fulfill specific needs and make possible inventive ends that were not fully known. It carries philosophical, cultural, political, and material potential. It’s the great alchemy whereby shit and dirt become gold and color. The ancients searched for it. We have it.
I wonder … did your professor really want to hear you say “no” in that instance? I think she might actually have been challenging you to stake a claim, to declare a position, to go beyond the “I just like paint” answer to the deeper issues that your work is starting to address. The logic contained in color, material, surface, form, relationship, process, and composition deserves deeper dialogue. A painter doesn’t have to be a wordsmith, but a painter does have to be passionate enough about the work to be willing to translate it into other languages (from visual to verbal, for example). Loving the paint is a great beginning. Letting its suggestive power seep into your imagination is the next step. The work of art may be visually potent in one way and yet be described verbally in drastically different ways. Both are truths.
DM: Sometimes I battle myself, question my values and end up overthinking it, and being less productive as a result…
MB: When you say you’re overthinking it or battling yourself, can you define for yourself what the battle actually is about? Is it about crafting your own standards and expectations that reflect your passions, interests, and the historical roots of your work? If so, that’s great. But if it is about trying to live up to some other standard, some vague external, indefinite expectations of what your work is supposed to be, that’s another matter. It’s so easy to be stalled out by sensing that you need to live up to something but being unable to say what that is. If this pressure is something outside of your own engagement, well, that’s a recipe for disillusionment.
What does productivity mean to you? Not to your professors, not to what you imagine other artists are doing: you. For me, pivoting my creative efforts through specific focus points has been key to feeling productive (well, that and showing up and working consistently every day). I work hard at teaching, writing, and art making. I tend to follow my eye and hand even when they don’t totally make sense or fit into what my work is supposedly all about. Most of my successes in teaching, art, and life come from threads first followed in times of creative discomfort, doubt, and general angst. I also allow myself to PLAY and to CALL IT WORK. By ‘play’ I mean free experimentation in my studio but also just breaking out Legos or building something in the back yard for my kids to play on. The key to my productivity is often giving myself permission to pursue the things that strike me as necessary; I have spent weeks playing with Legos in order to paint better later. Find out what’s productive for you, and then give yourself permission. Anything that builds context and background for your work is productive even if it doesn’t lead directly to clear results or applications next week or next year OR EVER.
Dylan Mize, Self Portrait with Neck-brace , oil on canvas, 12″ x 10″
DM: I’m hoping that graduating, getting away, starting fresh, and being away from academic influences for a while will make it all more apparent where I’m going. Can you tell me about some of your own post grad experiences and how you dealt with some of these questions?
MB: I think that graduating and getting away from those voices will be very important. Over time, you’ll start to hear your own voice more clearly. But you are going to deal with those voices from school for a very long time, perhaps your whole life. One of the hardest things I had to deal with was not getting a job I interviewed for because I was told that I sounded too much like my graduate school professors. One of the interviewers told me that I needed to take a few years to listen to myself and have my own experiences in my studio before I’d be able to teach well. She was right.
DM: And how important IS getting recognized for my career? I feel I have a severe lack of business understanding coming out of the gate.
MB: Recognition is important, but it’s all about what for and by whom. Recognition is relative. It has to do with the sphere within which you’re active. So there are a number of concerns that reach from my daily situation to my overarching aims as an artist. In whatever job you may have there will be expectations. These expectations suggest avenues of effort that can lead to recognition.
Let me briefly explain:
I’m an Associate Teaching Professor. My job description specifically lays out how I have to try to distinguish myself, and most of that is about teaching. The university is actually prohibited from assessing my effectiveness or evaluating my performance by looking at my exhibitions or curatorial activities or writing (if those don’t directly connect to research in and exploration of teaching). So in my university context, recognition is centered on hitting certain kinds of goals in teaching and outreach in the community: teaching awards, student performance and success, curriculum development, etc. (In some ways, writing this to you is part of this category).
In the broader arena of art, I have hopes for extending the presence of my work. There are things I can control and ones I can’t. This kind of recognition is, to a degree, self-determined. How much time I put into the studio? What kind of exhibitions I propose and what kind of writing I submit (and how determined I am to keep going through the rejections)? How strategic I am in submitting to juried exhibitions and who are the jurors? Do I take advantage of opportunities that stretch me? Do I collaborate with others? Do I have realistic ideas? Do I know my local, state, regional art world (since they are where most of my experience will come from)? I don’t think that it’s so much business acumen that gets us recognition; it’s the tenacity to stay with it and create our own opportunities. I have had a number of friends who have excellent business abilities. They know how to use social media, local and national resources, and professional or familial connections to effectively promote their work. I have chosen the academic mode rather than the business mode. I propose exhibitions. I write for funding. I have a presence in the local community. I reach out to artists I respect. These things are all seeds that do, in fact, bear fruit over time. Realize that all of this – no matter how you go about it – costs money, and no one will fund it for you. It took me well over a decade of serious effort to start breaking even with exhibitions.
However, some kinds of recognition are, to a pretty large degree, out of your control. They are based on networks and inside knowledge. They are based on proximity and serendipity. They are often afforded to those who have already received a place of privilege over and over again. They are often based on playing a popularity game. In order to protect yourself from being jaded, you need to pursue the areas of recognition that are available to you and not worry about those arenas that are not yet available to you. There are a lot of gatekeepers in the art world. There are a lot of systems of restriction and denial. Yet preparation will meet with opportunity. Write, speak; you never know when someone will ask you do give a talk or submit a text. Leave your comfort zone; go talk to 3th graders or folks at a nursing home. Be proactive.
Dylan Mize, Self Portrait with Red Striped Shirt , oil on canvas, 7″ x 7″
In terms of some more specific bits of advice on recognition and success, here are a few:
• Self-define success. Spend time thinking about what it means for you. Refine that definition over time. To me, getting to hang on the same wall as my heroes – to show with them and give talks with them or about them – is the recognition I care most about. Things like having Dore Ashton jury me into an exhibition, or having a two person show with Tim Lowly, or curating an exhibition with Anne Harris and Catherine Kehoe in it; these things are the measure of success to me.
• Learn how to communicate. Be ready to communicate. Get fluent with the way average person encounters art. Find multiple strategies for communicating art ideas – for 5 year olds, for non-art people, for curators and writers and administrators. Be an art advocate for non-experts (there are a hell of a lot more of them than there are experts).
• Don’t over-value the faceless expertise of the art world; there’s a lot of great stuff there but also a lot of bullshit. Learn to discern the difference.
• Don’t be elitist, but don’t reject what’s special about your field, medium, or approach. Be proud of that tradition and history without being a prick. Don’t under-value the personal, direct expertise of real people who are living a life in art, including you. Sometimes just pushing through with years of effort is all the reward you will get.
• Value experiences over products. Recognition is a product. Success is a product. Be self aware of what you’re doing and really participate in the experience of thinking about and making art. Ultimately that reflective, examined life will give you more than endlessly hoping for accolades. Value the attempt! Consistent effort, not one-off events, will lead you forward.
• Keep good records!!!!!! Document your work!!!!!! Have both readily available!!!!!! These things alone will get you more recognition than you can imagine. Being ready is the best prerequisite to recognition. I have had numerous opportunities extended to me because when the call or email came in I was able to respond with quality materials quickly.
• Think about the potential of failure and have a short memory when the failures hurt. You’re a painter, so you know that most of what is going on in painting is serendipitous failure. While working we make attempts and find out that our failures help us to discover something beyond mere intention. The same principle applies to trying to get our work and ideas out into the world.
• Learn to practice generosity of spirit. Many, many of my greatest opportunities have come directly through people I helped or encouraged or just had positive contact with in the past.
To conclude these thoughts on recognition, I want to raise two more issues. The first is a statement, the second a question for you to consider.
The fact is that white males are heirs to the most intensive ongoing system of privilege the world has ever seen. Since both of us are young white guys, we need to be honest with this reality. Just because I was not personally party to the ways that white patriarchy established structures of denial to disenfranchise non-whites and women does not mean that I have not benefited from those actions. Generation after generation of white dudes has received the honors and wealth of entire continents. Century after century they hedged their social, political, and economic systems to protect their position. We have inherited huge advantages from this three-millennia-long project. This project is, at this very moment, exercising power to deny opportunities to millions of people. Because of this, we should be careful not to expect, demand, or feel entitled to success. We should work to make sure that women and minorities are recognized fully in the arenas where we work; their successes should be a triumph to us. Being a thoughtful, engaged, professional artist means acknowledging the ways in which the art world has afforded – and continues to afford – a disproportionate number of its exhibitions, honors, market share, institutional positions, and overall wealth to white men. We should never feel put out when people other than white males achieve the heights of success. We should, rather, see it as an appropriate and valid corrective. Does this mean that we don’t work for our own success? Do we not seek recognition? No and no. It means that we admit our privilege, work for equality, seek out collaborations with people who are different from us, and accept that it is important for women, minorities, and non-Americans to be heartily represented in the art world and its institutions. I gained great freedom when I learned to get over myself and believe that someone else getting an honor or a show or a fellowship or a teaching position really does not denigrate my career or take anything away from me. Their success does not take away from my opportunities; rather, it crafts a broader arena within which my work can operate.
Statistically, my hard work is more likely to be seen and recognized than the female artists in my circle. That makes no sense, especially when 85 to 90% of my students have been women and most of the best teachers I’ve had have been women. Questioning the art historical canon and the current models of exhibition, funding, and institutional structure is absolutely necessary for me. Ultimately, this is not about merely setting accounts right or using a quota system. It is about making certain that diverse voices are heard. It is about believing in the validity of diverse experiences. It is about knowing that a plurality of ideas and perspectives really does make the world better.
Dylan Mize, Lotion , oil on canvas, 18″ x 14″
Ask yourself if the last 100 years of art making and art theory and art philosophy is more important than the preceding 99,900 years. Human institutions, particularly in the West and particularly in academia, value pretty recent ideas. Recently I have become suspicious of the way we seem to disqualify artists or artworks that are not based heavily on Modern or Post Modern art theory and philosophy. Artmaking is not a 20th and 21st century concern; it extends deep into the past and incorporates the developments of biology, society, and intellectual thought that have driven the last 100,000 years of human history. We should treat it that way.
Thanks for asking me these questions, man. I look forward to seeing how you develop in your career over the coming years.
Top Image: Dylan Mize, Dangling, oil on canvas, 12″ x 16″