UNCERTAINTY AND LOSTNESS: PROLEGOMENA TO A THEORY OF THE MIDCAREER*
Barry Schwabsky talks Mid-career
I'll be reading and re-reading the above essay a few times. Mainly because I am a skimmer. I kid you not, in middle school I took the Evelyn Wood Speed-Reading class, as either a suggestion or a requirement from a guidance counselor. Great skill for research, but for contemplative reading, not so much.
Mid-career is a weird thing. One, it seems like something you'd be talking about in your penthouse after reading an unflattering review of your 25-year retrospective somewhere with an attached bookstore, and two, I write this from the precipice of my not-so-cozy position of accepting this is where I am, sans the museum bookstore scenario and the fictional review panning said show. But good people, do not confuse mid-career with middle age. Sometimes they line up, often they don't.
I emerged in Los Angeles—maybe, or maybe it was in Chicago in the 90's with my thesis show. I think there are unspoken standards for emerging. One might be that you have to live in NYC, but that would eliminate the rest of my essay and I'm on a roll.
I tend to use Los Angeles because there was a published review by a respected critic using the term debut. It wasn't my first show by a long shot and I wasn't fresh out of school, but it somehow merited a debut. Never mind it was 23 years after my first group show after receiving my BFA in a small college landlocked town or 13 years after my thesis exhibition in Chicago, but finally, right? Except that within 2 years I had moved across country to take care of stuff in Nashville and like many galleries pushing the corners of their white walls, my LA gallery closed. And thus, debut to what, you might ask? Was that it? Was my beginning ten, fifteen, or twenty years? Or was it a mere two years after my debut and at which point my personal life began running amok. I'll never know. I have archives, duplicates and triplicates of 35mm slides* proving I am a prolific artist. I have video masters on Betacam SP* and Hi-8*. I have hard drives (plural) dedicated to digital media and a folder called Historical, where I stash my CV recording every single career-related thing since the beginning of time, dutifully noted.
But what now?
I make art and I show art. Sometimes I write about it. For 30 years, this is what I've been doing. I didn't have an alternative career as a doctor or lawyer or marketing specialist. I didn't start out as a rock star and cash in on my reputation, all the while claiming I've been racking up long hours in the studio honing my craft in my spare time. Nope, it was my priority. Yes, I had numerous day-jobs which I took seriously enough to show up and do my best—jobs that allowed me a flexible work schedule, access to expensive equipment, or street cred, because for some reason teaching is considered a noble profession. Most of the time I made sure I wore decent clothes, had clean fingernails and was semi-cogent.
Being an artist is a delusional activity from both ends of the spectrum. You're either deluded into thinking you're making monumentally important works with 200+ likes confirming your delusion or you can be deluded into thinking having a show at the local university is all you need to succeed and that being an artist is strictly an intrinsic and altruistic activity. It's neither, but somewhere there's a happy medium. If you actually invested in your career, which requires some amount of risk-taking, you're bound to have a clear view of your portfolio, so to speak. And to keep the investment metaphor going, it's like the 401k that tanked during the mid-oughts. You have ride it out, maybe play a shell game if it makes you feel better, but at a certain point you're in too deep to withdraw. At this point you might be thinking, I just got started. What's going on here? If this is you, welcome, we are simpatico. We've logged thirty consecutive years in public and we feel a little uneasy. If this is not you, you probably stopped reading a few paras ago and you can take solace in whatever deluded state of career metamorphosis you are in. I no longer am writing this with you in mind.
When I think about mid-career, I think about my peer groups—the ones I started out with, or the groups I fell into, and it makes me happy to see their achievements. Instead of being jealous or chalking it up to a lucky break, I know they worked at it because I was there for part of the journey: attending shows, reading reviews, working in the studio across town or across the country, exchanging tips and introductions. I also think about the two cities where my art relationships were forged, and where ideas were circulated in public through various exhibition venues. I think about those of us who grapple with what shows and collections are important enough to include on a resume or whether having too many shows appear that we weren't exclusive enough. Realistically, I settled for something in the middle. I'm aware where I fit in. Sometimes my resume feels rock solid, other times I feel insecure. One of my reasons for including more, not less, is to acknowledge curators who extended invites to show. That's my way of saying thank-you, by listing a credit line on my public resume. Same with reviews. Editing is a necessary evil, but I try to balance it out. Even so, after a certain point the whole process of review breeds uncertainty. Exactly where is the line between progression and stability and who cares? I do, because it's my purpose.
My uncertainty now is amplified. It's not that I don't have a peer group here, it's just after landing somewhere in the middle, my middle— my middle without my beginning tagging along, there are no shared rites of passage to remember, and no collective experience keeping me grounded during moments of uncertainty. And for all I know, no one other than me is uncertain. But enough about my mid-career insecurities. Let's move to the quotes:
"And yet most artists do, for better or worse, live through what’s come to be known as their midcareer. It’s just that they don’t often do so with ease."
“One is no longer a promising young person and not yet a venerable old one,” Said continues. “Middle age is uncertainty and some lostness, physical failings and hypochondria, anxiety and nostalgia; or most people it is also the time that afford the first substantial look at death.”10
"Because the middle is not necessarily the conclusion, and you can never predict when or where or how or why an artist might undergo a startling renewal—just as we should admit that we can never predict in advance when he or she might hit a dead end. The name of this uncertainty is “mid career.”
And so forth and so on. So this is where I'm at and I'm going to ride it out. And here's the thing, I don't care about failure, What I care about is moving forward, even if it means being lost.
Here's to the middle.
* archaic formats native to both film and video.