Being an artist: Janine Antoni

screenshot 2019-01-06 11.10.22
Janine Antoni 1993-94 Lick And Lather 2 Chocolate And Soap
screenshot 2019-01-06 11.09.52
Cradle, 1999, detail, two tons of steel, 59 x 58 x 60-1/2”.

An artist we don’t think enough about or include in discussions about Caribbean art is Janine Antoni. Her brother Robert Antoni is better known in the world of Caribbean writing. Perhaps this is because despite Antoni’s Bahamian/Trinidadian background she rarely references the Caribbean and her work has been effortlessly absorbed into the mainstream of Euro-American art. Still, young Caribbean artists have much to learn from this ethereal veteran of the contemporary art world about how to build an artistic practice, how to sustain it, how to nurture it without compromising yourself, the intimacy of your work or your ideals. Like many artists all over the world, and particularly in the Caribbean, Antoni had to figure out on her won how to fit herself and her work into the ‘business’ of art. Excerpted below are relevant portions of a 2008 Reality Check interview with Jackie Battenfield in which Antoni discusses how she got her start after graduating from RISD, the importance of audience, how to work with galleries and other art professionals, and how to negotiate the commercial side of an art practice. 

Janine Antoni was born in Freeport, Bahamas. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship; the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Inc. Painting and Sculpture Grant; and the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award. She has exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad at venues including Luhring Augustine Gallery, The Wadsworth Athenaeum; The Irish Museum of Modern Art; The Reina Sofia; The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Museum of Modern Art; The Guggenheim Museum; and The Aldrich Museum. Her work was included in the 1993 Venice Biennial; the 1993 Whitney Biennial; the 1995 Johannesburg Biennial; the 1997 Istanbul Biennial; the 2000 Kwangju Biennial in Korea; SITE Santa Fe in 2002; and Prospect.1 A Biennial for New Orleans.

JACKIE: So, when you left school and came to New York, how did you get yourself started? Did you visit the non-profits?

JANINE: Well, I found out that the Drawing Center would see anybody in those days. You could bring your drawings in and put them on the floor and they would look at them. So, I knew that I had a guaranteed studio visit of sorts. At the time, I did not make drawings. It was not a part of my process. I took the first date the Drawing Center offered. It was six months away. I drew for the next six months, preparing for that visit, and then to my surprise, I got a show. After the show, they gave me a job. So, that was also my first job in New York. I did a year of practical training, because I am a foreigner, so it was perfect. From there, Olivia Georgia gave me a show at Snug Harbor (on Staten Island). Thereafter, I exhibited at Artist Space. So, in those days, that’s how you did it. You began with the non-profits and then the commercial galleries found you there.

JACKIE: Is that how you would recommend artists do it these days?

JANINE: I don’t think that’s the way it’s done these days. At least, in the case of the emerging artists that I am most in touch with, some are showing in galleries before they leave the school. You can probably still do it through the non-profits and they certainly fill a role. It was great for me to begin my career at the non-profits because I didn’t have to deal with the commercial world. I could concentrate on learning to install my work and watch how it was being received before having to deal with the commercial side of things.

JACKIE: What is the best piece of advice that you got early on in your career?

JANINE: The best piece of advice is something that my husband, Paul, said.

JACKIE: You two met at RISD?

JANINE: Yeah.

My main support came from my peers. We all moved to New York together, which I think was unique to our generation. I came here with Paul Ramirez Jonas, Spencer Finch, Beth Haggart, Ricky Albenda, and Andrea Zittel. It was quite an amazing group. And we all shared studios, living, got each other jobs and shows, and helped each other to make and install our work. So, I came with a readymade community. We had already developed a pretty rigorous dialogue in school. It was also important to meet other artists, because we had all been taught by the same teachers. All of us had a similar approach, even though our work was very different. Meeting other artists really broadened my education and made me realize there were all these other ways of making and thinking about art.

But, the advice that Paul gave me was: “You build your audience one viewer at a time.” And that is something that still rings in my mind.

JACKIE: So, you were talking about audience all the way back?

JANINE: I think I’m a little bit of a weirdo in that way. I’m really thinking about the viewer all the time, even though my work is so much about me.

JACKIE: But I am really intrigued with that, because I do find that when I lecture and ask artists, “Who is your audience? Who is your viewer?” they look at me blankly like they have never ever considered that concept. And yet, how can you know where to put your work or what opportunities to pursue if you don’t?

JANINE: Well, yes, you definitely need to know who your viewer is. That’s one issue. The other issue is to know who you want your viewer to be. And then, the thing that I always encourage in teaching is to fantasize about that viewer. For me, the creative process is about the perpetual shift from being in my own body as the maker to then trying to step into the body of the viewer. I think about how they walk, what they think first, and what they think second. But then, if you have a notion of the audience that you would like to reach, that affects all of your decisions. From where to show, to what you make, and so on. There is another way of looking at it. You put something out in the world, certain kinds of people respond to it, and you then have to understand why. For example, in the case of my work, why do women respond differently to it than men? This is crucial to the way I think about what I make. Why does a particular culture have a strong response to my work? Why do I get more shows in Spain than in Germany? And then, there is the issue of venue. There is a gallery audience, there is a museum audience, and there is a public audience. I recently showed in Luang Prabang, Laos where there are no galleries or museums in the city, so they have a limited exposure to contemporary art. In this case, you obviously have to give a context for the work or else it doesn’t make any sense at all to the viewer.

JACKIE: Isn’t it up to the curator to make the context for the work? I mean, how does the artist?

JANINE: Well, that’s a good question. That’s another way I think you define yourself as an artist. I would say that we make that context together. It’s about a kind of collaboration. The first thing I ask when a curator asks me to be in a show is, “Why? What about my work makes sense for the theme of your show?” I tell them whether I agree with that and then we work together to really talk about their idea versus my idea. They are not always the same and sometimes, that’s okay.

JACKIE: Because it reveals something new to you?

JANINE: At times, the differences between our ideas reveal something new to me. In the best-case scenario, it provides a new avenue into my work. The curator might have a broader idea, because they are putting a lot of work together. I want to be aware of my role within that broader notion. I’m happy to play my role within that. I provide certain things. In the gallery, there is a group of artists and hopefully each one has a unique voice, but together it is one perspective. It’s good to be aware of what you have to offer.

JACKIE: I like that.

JANINE: Again, it’s about the audience, because you only learn what you have to offer by how people respond to your work. Sometimes, you come to realize that you don’t want to offer what is being perceived, and then you have to rethink the whole project. It is a dialogue between you and this viewer and if you’re not paying attention to who that viewer is, then the dialogue doesn’t exist. For me, the dialogue’s really the exciting part. Are you communicating and how?

JACKIE: I find that some artists will say, “I don’t want to think about another viewer.” They worry that it will somehow dilute what they are making.

JANINE: When I first began to show, I loved the idea of site specificity as a concept, but I was not fully formed. Snug Harbor was a perfect example. I got there and I became so involved with the site that I lost my core. And so, I look at that work and wonder whether it was mine. Now, I feel like I can go, and find myself in a site. But that’s about knowing yourself as an artist, and that takes years to do.

There is certainly a conversation that you are having with yourself in the work. That’s important and I don’t think you want to lose that, but the conversation you have with yourself and the conversation you have with the viewer don’t necessarily have to be in conflict. If an artist is afraid that thinking about the viewer will dilute the work, then why show at all? You would just make work in your studio and have a great time with yourself. There would be no need to put it into the world.

JACKIE: Did you get any business skills or professional skills at RISD?

JANINE: No.

JACKIE: So, how did you learn to work with other professionals? How did you learn about the collaborative nature of being with a curator or how to work with your gallerist?

JANINE: I learned by making a lot of mistakes, I guess. I mean, I certainly had a lot of advice and people that I could call up and say, “What do I do now?” Older women artists, like Kiki Smith were really generous with their advice. I had my mother, who is a very good businesswoman. She taught me to be self-sufficient and to be aware. I think as artists, we hate that stuff. We just want to close an eye to it. She taught me that to know what’s going on is to be in power. That was a really good lesson. I have really taken that advice to the extreme. I mean, my gallery does a lot for me, but certainly at the beginning, I took the time to figure out what that whole art world was about in all of its details. I represented myself for three years. During that time, I had to do everything and I learned a great deal. Because I had done the gallery’s job, I knew exactly what I wanted when it came time to choose a gallery.

JACKIE: Was this between galleries?

JANINE: This was between Sandra Gering and Luhring Augustine.

JACKIE: So, you were self-managed.

JANINE: Yeah. And then, I just kept that system going. In fact, the gallery and I work in a parallel way. Everything that they have, I have.

JACKIE: What’s the advantage to that?

JANINE: I think the advantages are that you become part of all the decisions that dictate your career. Certainly, they know more than I know when it comes to what collections I should be in. When they say, “We think we should offer your work to this collector,” I ask “Why?” I want to know, “What work do they have? Have they ever put anything up to auction?” etc.

JACKIE: The goal is to make the effort to create any professional association as a partnership. You’re partners here, so it’s not handing over your career. It’s partnering. It’s two or more people collaborating on the decisions.

JANINE:  I think we go in both directions. I use what they do for me as an opportunity to learn about how the commercial world works, but they are privy to my thinking from the beginnings of a project. So, I don’t just hand them an object at the end. I make sure that they have followed my creative process from the beginning. By the time they get the object, they understand it on all levels.

JACKIE: And you choose to work with a gallery that wants that kind of relationship.

JANINE: Yes, we find each other. I feel like they have something to offer me. I assume that all the professionals that I work with, whether it is the curator or the collector, are interested in how I make my decisions, and want to know what the creative process is like for me. To me, the creative process is what gives an object its value. So, I assume that we all love that part.

JACKIE: It sounds like you allow them to have a degree of intimacy and that carries over to how they can talk about the work with the collector or the curator.

JANINE: But also an intimacy that gets them excited about the show when they put it in their gallery. I’m not only talking about my dealers. I’m talking about the people who work in the gallery. I’m talking about the people who guard the work. My assistants and the docents. I’m talking about everyone that comes into contact with the work. As many as I can let in, I do. At the core, my work is very intimate. This is what I seek in all that I do.

JACKIE: I remember something you said when I brought the AIM artists to your studio that I have quoted ever since: “Your galleries interests are not exactly your own.”

JANINE: Yeah. It’s more complicated than that. I’d like to think that at some level, whether I’m working with a curator or gallery, we put the art first. But you know, their job is different than my job. They have something that is motivating them and I have something that is motivating me. One has to be realistic. I have to protect the work and make sure that it’s seen in the right way. That protection goes beyond the way it’s made, to the way it’s shown and talked about. Curators and gallerists have skills that I don’t have, and I want them to do their job. And I try to give them whatever tools help them represent me in the best possible way. Once this relationship is established, there needs to be trust on both sides.

JACKIE: A gallerist will have commercial interests at heart. They have staff. They have those exorbitant rents to pay. They want to think long term for you, but they have to think long term for themselves. There can be slightly divergent issues. You would be amazed by how little artists understand that. I don’t know what they think they are getting in a gallerist, Mom, Dad, or some unconditional love, but that is not there and it’s inappropriate.

JANINE: It’s interesting, because I think each artist has different needs. Like I said, each artist fulfills a different role for their gallery. It’s even more refined than that. Each gallery has a vision and a way they think things should operate. It’s really about finding two visions that somewhat align. I really feel like my gallery understands what makes me tick and what I think is important. And I know that I am different from other artists that they represent.

JACKIE: But you have gone through the trouble of educating them in a gracious and generous way.

JANINE: Yeah. We worked with each other for a year or two before we made a commitment. That way we both could explore whether it was a good fit.

What are some of your other guiding thoughts?

JANINE: Follow your Love.

Know what you are good at.

Get help with what you are not good at.

Make decisions that allow you to make work for the rest of your life.

Create an art family.

Be generous.

Help each other.

Give back.

Fantasize about the viewer.

Know yourself.

Challenge yourself.

Don’t be too narrow at the beginning.

For instance, I could still be making chocolate sculptures, and that would be a disaster. You are defined by the thing that gets you noticed, and there is an incredible pull to repeat yourself. I think that the wider you make your base at the beginning, the more possibility you have for the rest of your life. Saying all of that, I think of On Kawara. You could make a fabulous contribution finding the nuances of a very narrow space. Wide view is my territory. Finding the same thing in very diverse forms.

JACKIE: But again, it is following your own advice. Knowing yourself. And for you that wouldn’t have been enough. It wouldn’t have been satisfying.

JANINE: And then I wrote down a few other things:

Don’t get too good at making something.

Work at the edge of your capability.

Take a position.

Make rules and them break them, slowly.

Question every gesture in the making

Surprise yourself.

Pay attention

Stay open.

For the full interview please go here.

The art we breathe

img_3036.jpg
Schoolchildren viewing Leasho Johnson’s installation at Devon House

 

IMG_3063
Schoolchildren stand in front of portrait of Col. Peter Beckford as they view Jasmin Girvan’s installation Laying the Table for the Ancestors

Culture–that overused and often abused word– is simply the panoply of distinctive features produced by the ‘livity’ of a people. Culture arises from the environments people live in, the resources at their disposal, the languages they speak, the way they prepare their food, the songs they sing, the clothes they wear, the things they read and watch, what they call art, how they do business, the games they play, the dance moves they make, how they build their physical and metaphorical homes. What they deem obscene and undesirable versus the obscene and undesirable things they tolerate everyday.

Culture cannot be mandated or legislated into existence. Nor can it be easily changed. Cultural change occurs at a glacial pace, primarily instigated by modification in environment, education and resources. The quickest way to transform cultures is by changing the living conditions of people but cultural adaptation is also influenced by exposure to new ways of seeing, doing and thinking.

Sometimes resources exist but are not fully utilized—or are used only by small segments of the population. How many Jamaicans visit the National Gallery of Jamaica for instance? Aside from the mandatory school trip how many people make a practice of visiting the Gallery regularly to view the exhibitions mounted there? Visual art is an aesthetic practice that has developed greatly beyond the basics of drawing, painting and sculpting what is visible to the eye yet too many of us don’t seem to realize this.

What does the mind see? How does it express it? How do we process history, location, time and identity to create new visual objects, sites and experiences? If you’re curious about such things this is the time to visit the National Gallery of Jamaica to see the 2017 Jamaica Biennial which opened on February 24 and will be up till May 28 this year. The National Gallery is an institution created as a repository for the visual musings of the nation, and should be patronized by all Jamaicans. Your taxes underwrite it.

IMG_3101
Laura Facey’s 30-foot long drum, Ceiba

The opening saw a record crowd filling the Gallery, the largest in memory, with families and children out in their numbers; one can only hope this trend continues. Leading up to the opening both the Gleaner and Observer carried bulletins about the Biennial and social media also did its bit to instigate the brimming support the Gallery received last Sunday. Perhaps nothing drummed up as much support for the Biennial as Laura Facey’s Ceiba, a 30-foot long cylindrical drum made from a fallen silk cotton tree (see photo above). Its installation at the Gallery, carried on the shoulders of 35 JDF soldiers, created a startling and colourful instagram moment that was widely featured across both traditional and social media.

The Biennial has spread outside the walls of the National Gallery itself, into Devon House and all the way to Montego Bay, where there is a spectacular display at National Gallery West by Martiniquan artist David Gumbs. The small but well-proportioned domed space of Gallery West has been transformed by five projection screens, one of them in the dome itself. Playing on the screens in psychedelic, patterned symmetry is self-generated, flower-inspired imagery, drenching the space in pure shape-shifting colour. The shape and size of the pulsating imagery depends on the length and strength of breath blown into a conch shell by visitors. The Dome projection is animated in realtime by the considerable street noise of Montego Bay. According to Gumbs, this work reflects on the need to breathe, the symmetric patterns referencing the lungs and the double sided aspect of things in life. Such as light and darkness. Or up and down. Balance.

For me Gumbs’ work symbolizes a shot in the arm of a city that has lost its balance: Montego Bay. Ravaged by the fallout from the vicious Lottery Scam that has embroiled too many citizens of Western Jamaica and Mobay in particular, what that part of the country needs is new life to be breathed into it. It needs a fresh pair of lungs, and Xing-Wang (which means ‘Blossoms’ in Chinese) by David Gumbs is that metaphoric, life-enabling apparatus. Go forth and breathe new life into your city Montegonians…

In Kingston the work of Jasmine Girvan casts a spell at Devon House with the intricately crafted historical horrors she has unleashed in that old building. For her outstanding contribution to the Jamaica Biennial 2017 she has rightfully won the Aaron Matalon Award for the second time. Girvan’s work gives you the unnerving feeling of walking into a spider’s web, leaving you uncomfortably aware of having been touched by something creepy while simultaneously feeling stunned by its sheer beauty. You have until May 28th to feast your eyes on this and other provocative work, and ponder the grotesque scaffolding Caribbean societies are built on.

Originally published in the Gleaner, March 1, 2017. Photos and video added.

The Marlon James Effect, The Current and _Space Jamaica

A run down of exciting new developments in Jamaica’s literary and art worlds.

marlonj
Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014

As a new year hurtles towards us, the worlds of writing and visual art in Jamaica are poised to come into their own once again what with stars like Marlon James and Ebony G. Patterson blazing their way to global attention in 2015. You might say a strong current is buoying Jamaica right now and those equipped to swim with it are bound to soar. Can aquatic creatures soar? are we mashing metaphors here? No doubt…but methinks the situation warrants it.

James’s Booker win with his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has set off a maelstrom of praise and adulation but also concern from some Caribbean literary critics who maintain the work is needlessly violent. How to represent the internecine violence we live with in a seemly manner is a moot subject that will fuel many a literary conference to come; in the meantime Marlon James has adroitly dismantled the thatch ceiling that seems to veil the work of Caribbean writers from international visibility.

keiebony - 1
Kei Miller on right, Ebony Patterson and Leasho Johnson on left

Kei Miller, James’s counterpart in the literary world, known more for his Forward Prize-winning poetry than his prose has just signed a six-figure deal with Knopf for a fictional work. Indeed his manuscript Augustown was the subject of a bidding war between publishing giants Penguin, Random House and Knopf, all offering six-figure deals. Miller’s agent chose Knopf, whose editor also works with Toni Morrison.

This is what I call the Marlon James effect. Doors have been flung open! as Kevin Jones remarked on Facebook. The success of Brief History has made publishers sit up and take notice of a culturally rich region they had somehow managed to overlook all these years.

marlonbooker

To give some perspective–not even the much lauded Booker winner Marlon James himself was offered six figures by his publisher, River Head–but that was before the stir that his ambitious novel subsequently created. The bidding on his next novel will likely hit seven figures. Move over 7-Star General LA Lewis!

It must be added that Kei Miller’s Augustown was an excellent manuscript, and any really good writing coming out of the Caribbean in the next year or two is likely to arouse the interest of all major publishers. “Roland need to send out something,” remarked Marlon James colloquially, referring to Roland Watson-Grant, a third Jamaican writer whose brilliant novels have yet to get the attention they deserve.

582304_309184419202450_938270534_n

_Space Jamaica and The Current

Meanwhile over in visual art the thatch ceiling is about to be blown away by a very ambitious project called _Space Jamaica, the brainchild of Sotheby-trained Rachael Barrett, who has recently returned to Jamaica with visions of starting an international museum of contemporary art in Kingston and other points in the region.

Located at premises owned by the Henzell family and run as a cultural space for many years _Space Jamaica will hold two shows a year, one in December timed to take advantage of traffic to Art Basel Miami and the other in June to coincide with Kingston on the Edge, a small but exciting series of activities curated by young Jamaican ‘creatives’ and led by Enola Williams. June 2016 will see _Space Jamaica launching its inaugural exhibition with a solo show of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, curated by Rachael Barrett. Titled I FEEL LIKE a CITIZEN, Barrett “will take a new approach to Basquiat’s oeuvre, examining his life, work and cultural legacy from the perspective of his Caribbean heritage.”

In early December Barrett held a preview of what’s in store for the museum with an ambitious programme of activities, some of which fell through, due to funding and other delays. The highlight was a lunch for diplomats and others held at the Old Railway Station in downtown Kingston. The station is in disuse since the trains stopped running more than a decade ago.

trainstationlaura
Artist Laura Facey at _Space Jamaica lunch, Railway Station, Kingston

This was followed by the welcome announcement on December 16 by mega-collector Francesca von Habsburg, founder of ThyssenBornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) that TBA21 would be giving  _Space Jamaica a significant US dollar contribution to be matched, she hoped, by local contributions.

francesca
Francesca von Habsburg announcing collaboration with _Space Jamaica at Red Bones, Kingston, Dec. 16, 2015

In addition TBA21’s ground-breaking (or perhaps ocean-breaking would be a better term) The Current International Research Programme will hold its first ever ‘Convening’ (an inter-disciplinary conference) at _Space Jamaica from March 16-20, 2016. The Current which was launched at COP 21 in Paris instead of Art Basel Miami reflects von Habsburg and her partner Markus Reymann’s shift from pure art (for want of a better expression) to art that engages with environmental problems. According to Reymann the Foundation is interested in knowledge production, not just art production.

Thus The Current, “a three-year exploratory fellowship program taking place in the Pacific, will offer artists, curators, scientists, marine biologists, anthropologists, and other cultural producers a platform to generate interdisciplinary thought and knowledge.”

The curator leading the inaugural voyage is Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, who curated the US entry to the Venice Biennale this year; she was also part of the curatorial team of Documenta 11. It will be exciting to see what she comes up with for the Current Convening in March.

As von Habsburg says:

In spite of the unprecedented wealth of scientific information available, global environmental woes are still largely underestimated and poorly communicated. Art can be a powerful weapon if used well, by challenging us to reconsider the way we think, feel, and live instead of just conforming to the rules of the growing art market. After all, the next 10 years are going to be the most important in the next 10,000.

At the dinner in Kingston celebrating the successful unfurling of The Current von Habsburg announced TBA21’s support of _Space Jamaica and explained why she was shifting her attention “to the environment, to climate change, to preserving our oceans”:

They are my priority for a very special reason–mainly because of Jamaica–because i came here as a baby. I learnt to swim here, i learnt to snorkel here, i learnt to dive here. I taught my children–my beautiful daughter Eleonore who just came in today–i taught her to swim here and to snorkel here and to dive here. So I’ve been on these reefs for over 55 years and I’ve seen a colossal difference and I’ve seen what has been happening to the oceans, not just the oceans here, but to oceans all around the world. So for me Portland is a big accent on my attention, and as a result of that I created a foundation called the Alligator Head Foundation, which will be registered shortly, because it takes a while to get things registered in Jamaica as you know. The Foundation is to follow a very important establishment of a fish sanctuary which will be called the East Portland Fish Sanctuary. It is two hectares in size and it’ll be the biggest fish sanctuary in Jamaica. I’m meeting with the Minister tomorrow and I hope to be able to establish the sanctuary by the end of the year, if not the very beginning of next year. And these two things come together, I’ve started to talk about it to many artists and musicians that i know and there’s a whole movement of the creative industries that are backing me up on this programme so much to say about that in the future. But when I got together with Rachel this week to talk about her project _Space that she has here in Kingston–she’s been working with a great architect I’ve known for many years called David Adjaye but in particular this design was done by Vidal Dowding, an architect who I have a lot of time for and a lot of admiration–and I thought this idea of taking over a previous cultural space and reactivating it is something that’s really caught my attention. And the contemporary art scene in Jamaica could do with this incredible boost and I think probably the best way to address it is to actually do that in an independent space. I think the National Gallery of Jamaica is of course very much focused on moving into the contemporary art scene and I understand that, but I thought it was time for Rachael to get some real support so, today I’m announcing a gift to the _Space of US$150,000.

vidalspace
Architect Vidal Dowding explains concept of his plans for _Space Jamaica. Joseph Matalon, l; Rachael Barrett, c; Vidal Dowding, r.

These are exciting developments for the local art scene which has been far too insular for far too long. May local donors match Francesca von Habsburg’s generous injection of resources into local art and science in the way the University of the West Indies has collaborated with TBA21 on founding the Alligator Head Marine Laboratory, seconding Dr. Dane Buddo to oversea (a Freudian slip which i shall leave alone) it. May young Jamaicans finally get a chance to experience the best in art and science without having to leave these shores and may it galvanize the country into leaping forward this coming new year.