Happiness Is… Research Note #4

I habitually plan ahead, but there are lots of things I only learn by doing (and failing). Likewise, experiences drive home the principles I  intend to remember but somehow forget.

Such was the case today, as I got to work on a new project sewing twill tape and transparent vinyl. I had a slow start, as I learned to reconcile the surprisingly stretchy twill tape with the not stretchy-at-all vinyl. It took a few hours for me to find a rhythm and start to make real progress.

So at dinner, I sang my sewing machine’s praises. It felt trusty, reliable, like a lithium ion drill driver—I finally felt like my burgeoning skills are appropriately utilizing some of the machine’s capacities, while the promise of more advanced projects lay ahead for the two of us.

It was ironic, then, when my sewing machine’s feed dogs stopped advancing. Then, the reverse lever offered none of its usual resistance. Something snapped, inside the machine first, and then inside me second. I panicked. I have a lot of production ahead of me during this residency, and most of it requires sewing. I don’t have time for the machine to sit in a repair shop!

But this is the reality, and I must conform to it. As Martin Seligman explains in Flourish, there are realities you can shape, and those you can’t. I can’t change the fact that my sewing machine needs repair. But I can work so that this setback doesn’t derail my residency.


Off Cuts, Part 2

Some more odds and ends to mull…

In my London art trip, I was intrigued by about two collection-based venues; both in Camden and both new to me. The current shows were interesting enough, but I am more intrigued by the spaces and the ambitious, cutting-edge contemporary art they will show.

David Roberts Art Foundation is “an independent, non-profit foundation” founded in 2007 and seems to aggressively collect and exhibit contemporary art, including the work of younger artists. I really loved the experimental, questioning nature outlined in the exhibition pamphlet:

a museum is a production site, a site that not only presents and describes an existing context, but generates new contexts, a site where artists, curators, critics and other stakeholders can produce, share, discuss, act and interact, where visitors are co-producers, and where the machinery of exhibitions produces prototypes, experiences, catalysts for thought….

I liked this too:

An artwork is a system that cannot be reduced only to an object or an index (certificat, instructions, etc.). It also includes the histories (material and conceptual), the trajectories (physical or virtual) and the narratives (past or to come) generated by the artwork: this is what this programme will research.


Study is not an attempt to capture or seize but a methodology of encounter and the insistence on the provisional as both form and content within the process of research.

Read more here (click on A House of Leaves. First Movement).

Gerhard Richter Fuji, 1996 Oil on alucobond. David Roberts Collection // Source:

Gerhard Richter, Fuji, 1996 Oil on alucobond. David Roberts Collection // Source:

Small but stunning Richter on view in A House of Leaves as of two weeks ago; it’s an ever-unfolding exhibition so who knows what’s on now?

While DRAF is housed in an industrial brick warehouse in an alley off of the high street, the Zabludowich Collection is sited in an imposing church in a residential street.

Founded in 1994, the Zabludowich Collection “exhibits in venues in the UK, USA and Finland” and “actively creates new opportunities for audiences to engage with emerging art.”

Matthew Darbyshire, Showhome, 2012 // Source:

Matthew Darbyshire, Showhome, 2012 // Source:

The current exhibition by Matthew Darbyshire featured sets made of printed vinyl CG streetscapes. I was most interested in the Showhome installation, involving mass manufactured chairs and high-end interior design decorations. It was familiar yet preposterous and sad. There’s something interesting in packaging showrooms’ theatricality in art exhibit’s pretentions of perfect, timeless viewing experiences. The exhibition as a whole expressed some of the suffocation of consumer culture, and I couldn’t help but feel some of that coldness and repression as I left the show.

This detail of The Tempest (~1862) by Peder Balke. It’s a seascape, maybe one of the most unlikely genres of painting I’d be attracted to. But the elegance, brushstrokes,  simplicity and evocativeness is what gets me.

Stephen Chambers’ gold leafed potato print, on view now at the Royal Academy of Arts in the Artist’s Laboratory.

Two faces, carved with simple marks. Maybe a man and a woman. Despite the elemental form, I still read the faces as deeply empathetic with each other, united in the way that lifelong couples are.

Potato prints are a basic form of printmaking, one that could be the first type of printmaking children experience. The idea of gold-leafing a potato print is so absurd it’s brilliant.

The show features a 70-part screenprint mural, nice stuff, interesting timeless narrative vignettes.

Richard Artschwager’s Tower II (1979)

A theoretical device for communication. Nice pairing with Demand and Opie. Plus a daringly bright aqua wall. Go Tate!

Richard Artschwager, Tower II, 1979 (center), with a photo by Thomas Demand (left) and Julian Opie's You See An Office Building 4 (1996). Tate Liverpool.

Richard Artschwager, Tower II, 1979 (center), with a photo by Thomas Demand (left) and Julian Opie’s You See An Office Building 4 (1996). Tate Liverpool.

San Francisco or London?

Notting Hill.

Notting Hill.

Love this message.


Text: ESPO in Shoreditch.

Jason Evans‘ photo/installations.

By chance, I stumbled into The Grange Prize exhibition at Canada House.

It was a group exhibition featuring the work of four finalists for a major international, contemporary photo prize. I was most attracted to Jason Evans’ work; it was the most playful and mixed-media, using wall graphics, texts, objects, and loud colors. The combination unfolds in a way that I think asks the viewer to engage the experience in a more multi-sensory way.

Here are some of his casual, snapshot-like photos. I think they work better en masse.

Jason Evans. // Source:

Jason Evans. // Source:

Jason Evans. // Source:

Jason Evans. // Source:

Jason Evans. Installation view. // Source:

Jason Evans. Installation view. // Source:

Curiously, I couldn’t bring myself to cast a vote. The show seemed too small; there’s not enough work on view to get a sense of each artist’s scope and capacities. (The winner was announced; her work seems to demonstrate photographic skill the most apparently, but with the least compelling subject matter and use of materials for me personally.)


Via ArtInfo: 10 Pieces of Advice for Artists From Jerry Saltz’s Keynote Speech at Expo Chicago

Stay the course, fellow artists. Some words of wisdom from NY Mag art critic Jerry Saltz, via ArtInfo:

1. Go to an art school that doesn’t cost too much. Those who go to Yale and Columbia might get a nine-month career bump right after graduation, but you’ll all be back on the same level in a year, and you won’t be in as much debt.

2. Envy will eat you alive.

3. Stay up late with each other after all the professors go to sleep. Support one another.

4. You can’t think your way through an art problem. As John Cage said, “Work comes from work.”

5. Follow your obsessions. If you love the Cubs that much, maybe they need to be in your work.

6. Don’t take other people’s ideas of skill. Do brain surgery with an axe.

7. Don’t define success by money, but by time.

8. Do not let rejection define you.

9. Don’t worry about getting enough sleep. Worry about your work.

10. Be delusional. It’s okay to tell yourself you’re a genius sometimes.


This is your Brain on Art

In Jill Suttie’s review of Elaine Fox’s new book, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” on the Greater Good Science Center blog (July 30, 2012), she shares some fascinating insights for optimism and aesthetic experiences.

I often wonder, in the course of my Irrational Exuberance projects, whether objects attract or repel viewers, how, and why. How does presenting art about happiness and pleasure impact viewers? Suttie and Fox might lend a clue:

if optimists and pessimists are exposed to pleasurable stimuli, like a picture of a beautiful sunset or a box of chocolates, both will experience good feelings in the moment; but optimists can better sustain those feelings longer, because of asymmetric brain activity in which the left side is more active than the right.

Further, I’d suspected that optimism and pessimism might be related to the trust or skepticism that viewer enact when they focus their attention on challenging contemporary works that don’t look like art.

This difference in brain activity may help explain why optimists are more likely to take risks in approaching potentially rewarding experiences while pessimists, who have greater activity in the right side of the brain, tend to be more cautious.

Researchers have also found that people who are anxious or depressed—who also tend to be more pessimistic—have less connection between the prefrontal cortex of the brain (associated with cognitive activity) and the amygdala (associated with a feeling of fear). This means that pessimists are less able to control their fear response with thoughts, making them susceptible to emotional trauma from non-threatening situations and to difficulty recovering from setbacks in their lives.

What an insightful review and promising book. I’ve been feeling cautious and anxious—yes, pessimistic—lately, so this sounds like the perfect reading to add to the mix of references this summer.


Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

Courage is envisioning and articulating freedom that is yet to be actualized. Angela Davis talks about this—imagining change is the first step of making change. One year after his release following months of detainment without due process, Ai Weiwei wrote:

I often ask myself if I am afraid of being detained again. My inner voice says I am not. I love freedom, like anybody; maybe more than most people. But it is such a tragedy if you live your life in fear. That’s worse than actually losing your freedom.

…none of us have been dealt with through fair play, open trials and open discussion. China has not established the rule of law and if there is a power above the law there is no social justice. Everybody can be subjected to harm…

Stupidity can win for a moment, but it can never really succeed because the nature of humans is to seek freedom. They can delay that freedom but they can’t stop it.

(“Ai Weiwei: to live your life in fear is worse than losing your freedom,” Guardian, June 21, 2012):

Further, even as a known target of one of the world’s most secretive and repressive governments, Ai remains an optimist:

What I gained from the experience is a much stronger sense of responsibility, and an understanding of what the problems are and how one can understand what’s happening and remain a positive force. You have to see your own position from the other side. At the same time you have to maintain a passion for what you are doing. You have to have sensitivity and joy. If you don’t have that, you will be like a fish on the beach, drying up on the sand….


optimism and setbacks, tony tasset sculptures

Happiness experienced by an entrepreneur over time. Michael Yap. Source:!/michaelryap

Happiness experienced by an entrepreneur over time. Michael Yap. Source:!/michaelryap

As Martin Seligman points out, the difference between optimists and pessimists is not that optimists do not suffer from setbacks, but that they optimists weather setbacks better.


Tony Tasset, Mood Sculpture, 2011, Fiberglass and paint, 90" x 18" diameter, Photos: courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago // Source:

Tony Tasset, Mood Sculpture, 2011, Fiberglass and paint, 90" x 18" diameter, Photos: courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago // Source:


Tony Tasset, Why Can't We All Just Get Along?, 2009, lambda print, 47" x 47". Source:

Tony Tasset, Why Can't We All Just Get Along?, 2009, lambda print, 47" x 47". Source:


Fun Facts

Last weekend, I enjoyed the rare honor of speaking publicly about my work twice in the same day.

First, I delivered a guest artist’s talk to a graduate seminar in San Francisco via Skype (a first for me). Emphasizing the vicissitudes of my life in the arts, I shared a factoid I learned from Creative Capital’s Professional Development workshop. I hope I remembered it correctly:

One positive response for every 13 to 15 applications for grants, residencies and awards is a pretty good average.

(Artists: It’s Spring deadline season. How are your applications coming along? Listings here.)

Being an artist can be variously trivial, serendipitous, laborious, or intentional. So I might have over-explained my art for these students, but it seems a worthy risk if it counter-balances, at least a bit, the obfuscation and unspoken rules about engaging the art world as an emerging artist.

While I wanted to convey the principle, nothing free—paying dues and investing sweat equity—I came away marveling at my good fortune to have benefitted from so many supportive organizations, foundations, and individuals… such as people who dream big, put in work, show up, share, and ask good questions—like the seminar students. The end of the Q&A came too soon.

Then, I participated in a group artists’ talk alongside other artists in Voices of Home at Jenkins Johnson Gallery. Independent curator Kalia Brooks did a great job moderating the panel, which included wave-splashing painting teachers and self-effacing younger artists. The artists have varied practices, terrain enough for an engaging discussion.

The audience, which exceeded the gallery’s seating capacity, was really great; thanks to everyone who attended.

The talk was organized in recognition of Black History Month, so with a panel of all (but one) Black artists, the subject of race and representation in the art field came up for discussion.

For emerging artists in San Francisco, New York City might still be seen as an art world center, with the center-of-the-center being Chelsea. For a panel of largely Black artists, speaking to a largely African American audience in a commercial gallery in Chelsea, geography was a non-issue, but access, via the lens of identity, was still a concern.

Some of the artists rejected the idea that they ought contend with identity in the studio, but no one disavowed as much when it came to engaging the professional field and the public realm.

Have you fantasized about de-activating your Facebook account? Me, too. Paul Martin’s definition of addiction—desire without pleasure—has characterized my recent experiences.

The headline,

“The Anti-Social Network: By helping other people look happy, Facebook is making us sad,”

of Libby Copeland’s article on Slate last year provides a clue to the problem.

Here is some irony about positive sentiments: I tried to keep my status updates positive, but willfully-upbeat presentations may actually be annoying, and en masse, distressing. I don’t think this undermines the value of optimism and positive enthusiasm in general, but speaks to Facebook’s perniciousness as a substitute for interaction and companionship.

So I’m taking a Facebook hiatus. It’s been four days, though it seems longer than that. Congratulations to me, I know. <Hallelujah hands.> [Sarcastic, I know. But I ought to share my un-Photoshopped sentiments, too, apparently. You have to start somewhere, buddies.]

One more fun fact, by way of Ritter Sport chocolates:

What Germans call “Halbbitter” (literally, “Half bitter”) is the same as what Americans call “semi-sweet.”

The half-full, half-empty optimism/pessimism riddle just got a chocolate-y analogue.