Drifting toward diabetic coma

Cupcakes have become the “in” thing in the culinary world: They’re sweet, have lots of gooey frosting, are easy to eat and hassle-free, no plate or fork required. They do, however, lack the elegance of a torte or the substance of a pound cake. But what does all this have to do with the local art scene?

In 1987 the Asheville Citizen-Times published Robert Godfrey’s classic piece, “Is Asheville in Danger of Becoming Cupcake Land?” In this short essay, Godfrey posed the question, “How does a community avoid what is simply popular culture and wedge in ideas and artifacts which are challenging, perhaps controversial?”

Having recently visited seven of Asheville’s commercial galleries, I think there’s little question that our fair city has edged closer to confection. There are plenty of well-crafted paintings, but few that would provoke a lengthy philosophical discussion. All but one of these galleries seemed to be taking the “something for everyone” approach: a mélange of artists working in totally different styles, with different intents and uneven results. In most cases, there was nothing to tie the work together. Indeed, in some cases, there was little indication that the gallery had any vision or purpose beyond trying to sell something.

Owning an art gallery is not as easy as it might appear. There’s a lot more involved than just getting dressed up for an opening and smiling at potential patrons. Decisions on which works to show and how many risks one can afford to take with exhibits can be heart-wrenching: Should you use your costly space to showcase work that’s not readily accessible, that requires more than a fleeting glance in order to be understood?

Some artists, of course, have instant, broad appeal. They execute their work in the color scheme that’s currently in favor, and they demand no serious contemplation from collectors. In short, the work is marketable: The gallery can keep the lights on and pay the rent. Galleries must take these things into consideration; no one is served if they close their doors.

Artists face the same dilemma: Should they make art that challenges and maybe even disturbs, but feeds their own soul and honestly expresses their ideas? Or should they tone it down, producing something pretty that enables them to pay their studio rent on time?

At no time in recent memory has the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce sent out a brochure that did not promote Asheville as an art mecca. Hotels, restaurants, gas stations and shops all benefit from the perception that Asheville is an “arts destination.” Extensive—and expensive—studies and surveys have been conducted by HandMade in America, Appalachian State University and the North Carolina Arts Council to document the local arts scene’s economic impact—but is that really why we should value art and artists?

Robert Godfrey and Kevin Hogan are two of Asheville’s most mature and professional artists, yet neither has exhibited work here in years. When I asked him why, Godfrey just said, “No comment.”

Hogan, meanwhile, remembers that 20 years ago he’d be asked, “Why don’t you show in Asheville?” Now, he says, he’s asked, “Why is there no place in Asheville for you to show?”

Hogan believes there’s a growing awareness among collectors of the overcommodification of art here, coupled with an absolute lack of representation for art with a serious intellectual aspect. “It’s just a market, a grocery store,” he says. “There is no focus on quality—all we have is Bob Ingle. It may be OK for peanut butter, but for art with any real meaning, we have to move past Laura Lynn. Eventually, if people come here because of all the art hype and see that it’s all hype and no substance, they will stop coming.” Hogan, however, says he hangs on to the old-fashioned notion that “the commercial world taints the work.”

Ursula Gullow, a young painter who’s active in the local arts community, says, “Asheville artists can be isolated.” A graduate program at a nearby college or university, she maintains, “could bring visiting artists with influence from the larger art world to inspire and encourage us. This is a small town—everyone wants to be safe and polite—and so no one pushes the envelope. There is no serious dialogue or criticism of other artists or of the galleries.”

Gullow has many ambitious and perhaps unrealistic ideas about how to improve the situation for local artists: better press coverage of non-mainstream arts events; expanded outreach and more challenging museum exhibits; meaningful grants and health care for artists whose work is not commercially viable. Arts education, she believes, is the key to collectors being willing to explore art that’s edgy or dark. “But a commercial gallery with tunnel vision won’t stop people from making their art,” she notes. “It just might force them to find more interesting and creative outlets to produce and sell their work.”

Still, a new year always brings new hope. JoAnna Fireman, for example, creates small ceramic sculptures. Raw and vulnerable, they depict creatures half-formed or in a state of disintegration. “The intention of my work is to awaken the senses and the heart-disturb, to provoke and ignite the imagination … enticing the viewer to wonder about our place in the family of things,” her artist’s statement reads.

Fireman’s work is showing in the Blue Spiral’s Focus Gallery this month. The gallery has shown courage in hanging these intriguing little in-your-face pieces. Now let’s see if there’s anyone here with the courage and insight to buy one.

[Asheville-based painter and writer Connie Bostic formerly owned Zone One Contemporary gallery on Biltmore Avenue.]


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6 thoughts on “Drifting toward diabetic coma

  1. hauntedheadnc

    Well, I have to admit that it’s certainly refreshing to read an invitation for artists to starve. Usually all you ever hear about is artists trying to make it big and sell their work so they can afford to eat in nice restaurants again. But hey… if mac ‘n’ cheese works for you, that’s fantastic.

    Bottom line, if you don’t sell your art, you don’t eat and you won’t have a place to make your art for long. If you don’t make art people will buy, it won’t sell. It’s ugly, but it’s the world. If you believe that art’s sole function is to upset, disturb, or annoy, I’m afraid you’ll have to go make your art in some city so big that you can get a paying crowd for virtually anything.

  2. entopticon

    Hey there Connie, you make some very insightful points. Recently I’ve been thinking that the BMC museum may be an important part of the solution. I think a number of economic and cultural factors are lining up so that the spirit of what happened there is particularly relevant again.

    I have met you a few times through D McConville. I was asked about being on the board a couple of years back, but some health problems got in the way and it was never followed up on. I will try to contact you soon to talk some more about what has been on my mind.

    Coincidentally, I’ve had cupcakes a couple of times lately. One batch was white cake with a buttered rum glaze with chocolate ganache frosting, and the other was pumpkin cake glazed with a brandy reduction and a spiced buttercream frosting. Both were yummy and every bit as sophisticated as any old tart ;)

    Seriously, in some ways I think that is what the Albers’s did with the craft and design emphasis that they brought with them from the bauhaus.

    I think you were dead on in your observation that what elevates art is for it to be interesting, thought provoking, and even challenging, rather than simply comfortable, decorative, and affirming.

  3. Brenda Coates

    As usual Bostic is right on target. When my friends who are knowledgeable of the contemporary art scene visit I am often hard pressed to find a good exhibition for them to view -that is a work(s)of art that will engage us in a lively discussion on the concept behind the piece, its philosophical issues, merit and substance. (After all the next best thing to viewing art is talking about it.) When sales reign does the art become mediocre and status quo since it must pander to the masses? Will it lose a sale if it provokes or raises questions of its audience? Is the artist being “true to thy own self?”
    Galleries and viewers deprive themselves of the truth art holds when art explores its culture and raises issues or praises what it finds. Maybe we lovers of art, like Connie, need to demand more of ourselves and artists rather than take that easy path of merely accepting or representing what is already known and agreed upon.

  4. AshevilleObserver

    A thoughtful piece by Ms. Bostic which raises many interesting questions. Mr. Godfrey’s “No comment” doesn’t illuminate the issue for this reader. Didn’t the Asheville Art Museum have an exhibition not long ago featuring senior college art teachers in Western North Carolina. Why wasn’t Mr. Godfrey included? Mr. Hogan refers to “an absolute lack of representation for art with a serious intellectual aspect” in Asheville. Should the Asheville Art Museum play a role in filling this gap? The Arts Council?Ms. Bostic refers to the Chamber of Commerce. Are local artists and galleries joining and making their particular needs heard in the Chamber? Is the situation for serious art and artists any different in any other cities of comparable size that Asheville might take some lessons from? Will Ms. Bostic’s article stimulate any conversation here at Mountain Express, which provides the best arts coverage of any local media?

  5. Artguy

    Connie, I agree with the article you produced for MountainX. I have walked into numerous galleries as of late (during the holidays) and must say I was “drowned” in a sea of smarmy pop art and hype. I dont mean that all the art was bad but must admit there was more bad than good. If we all liked the same thing, life would be a bore and apparently this stuff sells.I’m only sorry that Kevin Hogan was quoted in your article. I had the misfortune years ago to witness him make a horrible scene at an art show and he and his cronies tore a painting off the wall and urinated on it. Hogan states,”Eventually if people come here because of all the art hype and see that its all hype and no substance, they will stop coming”. Honestly it reads as if Mr Hogan is speaking of himself and his works of late. So what is the answer here? I guess it comes down to the gallery owner. If smarmy pop art sells then it would be to their advantage to peddle those wares. In todays economy I would imagine that folks arent exactly budgetting for art purchases on a regular basis.

  6. kimali nelsong

    This is a discussion much needed in a-ville.
    I have successfully (meaning I have worked for noone else in 18 years) made a living selling my creations up and down the east coast, in galleries and at shows.
    I do not show my work here anymore as galleries needed to or wanted to make more and more of a profit.
    I owned and managed a place in Boone for years so I do know about the business end of things, and I have found many of the gallery owners and managers to be out of touch with the passion for art. I believe there is a way to walk in passion and still make money.
    Solution : Cut out the middleman.Aville needs an artist owned coop that allows/ requires artists to be present. I make 2 to 3 x more when I am present.

    Please keep up the conversation. If I was not already deeply involved in 2 nonprofit projects…..

    Peace and Blessings to All,

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