Bangkok, Thailand. 04 December 2023 (2566!).
I’m in no position to complain so I shall not, but I just dropped by to say I think the artist’s studio is underrated, on several vectors, and by many who should know a whole lot better.
Before I wax nostalgic and speculative, I will try to explain what I mean by these words.
Oh, and shout out to Phil Collins, how was that man even possible?
First it’s underrated as a tool of the artist – not indispensible, but neither are paintbrushes for a painter. Let’s say a decent studio is a force multiplier for your work, and that holds for any version of “decent” and “studio.”
But it’s also underrated as a key to the artist’s vision. Some things you can very easily discover by the smallest look at someone’s studio: how much of the inevitable chaos in their mind is allowed into their laboratory? (It’s worth asking why, for any given value).
It’s easy to find extreme cases: the disheveled genius in his lair; the wounded narcissist addict thrashing about like a landed fish. But you can also get plenty of knowledge on the fast track for minor artists, even little old me. (Hint: I have no real studio at the moment, and that too says a lot.)
Here’s a short list of things to look out for:
- Is it messy? (How messy?)
- Does it have good light, at least once a day?
- Are all tools ready at hand?
- Is there a computer in the room?
- What about assistants?
I could go on, obviously. And the people who should know better? Why artists themselves, of course; and art critics, who usually do not visit studios, out of some weird sense of professional ethics; and art historians, who usually don’t get the chance and thus will downplay what they can’t own.
Dealers and collectors, on the other hand, are usually pretty clear-eyed about the importance of the studio. Though I will admit that in my art-collector role (about which much, much more some other day) I’m terrible at inviting myself to studios, and I’m not a big enough deal to be taken anywhere by dealers, so it’s clearly not enough to merely know.
Wanna deep-dive on a studio of art-historical significance? Get Thee To Matisse!
Alright then, let’s wax.
My Studios, More or Less, To Date
The first studio I ever thought of as my workspace, my magical art-conjuring corner, was not even private. For about a year I was sufficiently ensconced in the group painting studio in one of those anonymous, institutional structures that at least had the excuse of being made from public funds. You often had to call security to be let in: I don’t remember why but I didn’t rate a key. None of the paintings I worked on there were very good, though one still exists, or maybe two exist. But the fun part was that it was a year in which I was trying hard to get better at painting; and we had an inspirational visiting professor, was it Cheryl Laemmle? This was at Cal State Chico, a school that keeps records poorly if at all. At the times when I worked best (still do), it was usually either empty, or had just one or two fellow students who were serious about their work and not going to get in your face.
This shared but private space has always stayed with me as some kind of guiding light for a dream of one day having a grownup version: industrial, managed, and not only about me.
Time passed. I must have had another painting space at that school but I can’t remember it exactly. By the time I had the connections to get a cooler space, I most definitely didn’t have the funds.
My other “uni,” Tübingen, gave me some joy in making inspired but very small art – a couple paintings still haunt me, I wish I could remember where they went, to whom they were “gifted” (Midvale School For The…) – but the closest thing I had to a studio was the printmaking attic in one of the glorious old buildings (I was doing philology, Brecht-Bau, no stone columns for me). There I felt too much the outsider to go by myself. (A couple good prints, a couple bad ones, and about the lithograph I made, the only one I ever made, the only thing I can remember is that I failed to translate “disaffection” on demand, and the fuck it deserves any space in my mind but that moment is stuck there, and at least it was a learning as they say now: I know better than to discuss works in progress.)
And yet despite almost catching my hair on fire one night, which is a very “art studio” thing to do; and despite the half-forgotten unforgettable nights of vodka and tea with my Russian neighbors in the communal kitchen, also possibly the effing artsiest moments of my life, nothing I had there felt like a studio.
San Francisco was an almost, but not quite, the first time around. (My missed opportunities in SF and Berlin, between them, can only be forgiven by placing front and center the fact that I am here, now, where I am, and that is a grand and glorious place, and I never would have found it without SF and Berlin not working out.) I had a dedicated, if very small, studio on 22nd Street in what was the original laundry room (we were too broke to buy the machines, and too ignorant of false economies). But I did very little in it, and the pictures I made that were good, mostly came together in my bedroom, which was amazing. Now Zuckerberg lives a block away when he’s in a hipster mood, and I would bet dollars to donuts there aren’t any artists left in what was once known as Gourmet Gulch. But for the record: Holly Grimm, Christoph Dohrmann, Rachel Watson, and your humble host all made ideas there, and some of those ideas became art, and some of it was good art. Plus the many visitors.
And then I was in Berlin, first time living there, and damn did I play that card wrong – it was the time of very cheap real estate, but also of coal heating in Kreuzberg, and I made some work in my tiny apartment but before I could say misdirection I fell in love with Budapest, where I would end up painting on kitchen tables for way too long. And Berlin Round One was a wash, though I made some good memories: in particular with Pascal and Babak and Ulf and briefly even the elusive Nasha. Plus Andi and… and… fuck me, I can’t remember their names, but for a brief spell we were friends. Hope they made it through the years OK.
Am I only going to write about the not studios? Right. There were also some pseudo-studios, I will mention Downieville where I had for many years turned the Spare Room into a makeshift studio, sort-of, for summer use in combination with a sturdy card table and a metal easel outdoors. But it wasn’t the real thing.
The real thing almost broke through on an extended San Francisco earning trip, the first I think, in the form of half an attic, and nothing even close to legal about it, in the shared rental with Imre and Anna and Cheyenne (RIP), for which I gladly overpaid as I was flush and most of my friends were not. I had a slice of attic, basically, and the rest was unruly storage. But when I was there I was there alone, and could do a little work in pure solitude.
By then I was living mostly in Budapest but I was continuing to make work on tables in rentals. Finally I bought a place and dedicated a room to be the studio – and promptly watched it spend the vast majority of its time as a combination of guest room and office. I sold it for a handful of peanuts to Madeleine and Bullet (RIP) and a lot of art was made there over the years, but I only reluctantly consider it a studio. Because I had an ambition for it to be, and in a limited sense it was. And also: lessons.
Among the many pictures from there, the biggest one that survives is titled Chico Full Circle and is on Thing Two’s wall (that is to say, Mihály Andrea). At least it was the last time I checked.
After finishing that painting, I had to return to California for a few years, to right the ship as they say. Which led, for better and also for worse (sorry about the party! fuck you about the living room!), to a cohabitation with Jim Mason, one of the low points of which (but also high point!) was finding Matthew Barney’s industrial boogers all over my clothes when I removed them from the dryer one day. But also: I had a studio! A single tiny room, but dedicated to nothing but making art. I couldn’t go wild but I also didn’t have to be too careful, the room was a little beat. I got an unbelievable desk at the Goodwill (still out there, I hope) and make some damn find paintings if I may say so. A few survive.
Then, as one does, I moved to Berlin. And being in Berlin for the second time and having some money, I was not going to not have a studio again! And so in the searching I stumbled upon Winsstrasse 17. I sublet in the cold from an American (Canadian?) child of privilege and Yale, whose work was interesting in a fragile way, and who is probably a professor of renown by now. And then I ran into the Russian lady who handed me the lease to her tiny studio in return for, as is the Berlin custom, buying her crap-ass furniture for ten times what it was worth. (Or infinity-times: it was worth nothing.)
And then I had “the Wins.” Too small, too damp, too dark, too cold, but for once a dedicated space that was officially mine by lease! And it was literally a two-minute walk from the main art-supply shop in Europe, Boesner. It was a stunted little version of heaven.
But I fell in love with Budapest again and couldn’t square the circle, and it turned out having the place when not really in Berlin was a lot of trouble. And then they kicked me out in order to renovate, and were Not Amused when I showed up moments before eviction to demand another month (my right) and also ask if they’d sell me the place. No, in short, they would not.
Eventually, after at least one mildly humiliating rejection ritual – lookin’ at you, Jurányi: enjoy your dictatorship, you earned it! – I ended up stumbling into the grandest studio I’ve had so far. This was in Hegedű utca, and it was huge, and felt very properly studio-like, and I made a bunch of paintings in it, but it had serious drawbacks.
First, the building management was a bunch of jokers. Their concept failed and they tried to make a nightclub and a hostel in the same space as a bunch of art studios.
But second, the neighbor above had some kind of Ausdruckstanz thing going on and the ceiling would shed plaster into my wet acrylics whenever his none-too-svelte customers were at it. And they would shit up the bathrooms, no doubt from the stress of having to jump up and down above my head, and His Dancerness would not lower himself to accept any responsibility for this. Really, cleaning the shitter after each session would’ve been enough.
The hostel thing got me kicked out of my giant studio but as luck would have it, a disgruntled artist and drawing-teacher above me bailed just then, and I scored a top-floor unit and had to remove hundreds of nails from the walls. That’s solidarity for ya. And that studio – I’m pretty sure it was Kati Verebics’s studio years before – had a leaky roof the management refused to fix. In the end it was too much and I dropped the key off with some harsh words after moving my stuff out on a weekend.
And since then it’s been half-rooms and whole rooms but always in the flat or condo. And I very much yearn for the next real studio, I’m ready to rock & roll! One is under construction in the Canaries; another is forming in my brain in Isaan, bit by slender bit; but the urban industrial space will have to wait for a while. I can almost see it in my mind’s eye, just not quite – even the vision needs a bit more money and a bit more ภาษาไทย.
For now, it’s my easels and tables and trolley carts in my office and I’ll make it work.
This has been a bit of a ramble but I may return to each of these places in a future post, they all have their stories.
And what, no pictures? No, it’s late, I’ve been on the road, I’m almost out of ice cubes, and I can’t be bothered to rummage through the archive, i.e. the “archive,” and while I may or may not be looking for an excuse to play with ripgrep I must confess that my filing skills are deficient.
But! I was just in Mae Hong Son. Here, have some mountains: