Notes from the Locker Room
By Lap Le
I was 89 pounds Freshmen year of high school. At the time (1999), the lowest weight class in collegiate wrestling was 103 pounds. Locker room chit chat, the most reliable source of information and gossip then, revealed that the average varsity wrestler in our district was cutting around 7 pounds to make weight every week. Which meant that if I happened to make varsity that year (I didn't), I would be facing a deficit of about 21 pounds in a given match -- on top of at least 2 years of experience and whatever hormonal advantage two years yielded during those formative teenage years. It was discouraging.
By Sophomore year I had made varsity and was averaging 112 pounds. Every week I'd cut down to make one-oh-three. In this system if you failed to make weight you either didn't wrestle or you would jump up a class. If the latter happened you wouldn't just be wrestling someone in the weight class above you, you would be wrestling someone who cut down to the weight class above you; who had the discipline, or the stomach, that you did not. It was not fun when that happened. Wrestling someone two tiers above you usually hurt and could be humiliating (I still cared about winning then.) So you make weight. Every time. For yourself, for the team that was structured to fit you in exactly where you needed to be, and because the system either punished you, pound for pound, for failing to live up to your and their expectations or it didn't even let you on the mat. It was a discouraging system.
Making weight became a game that had to be played alongside the Real Game. A game of Flesh versus Will versus Law. I see art the same way. And I see people who exist around art the same way.
Making weight is my sloppy analogy for the deeply personal and intensely difficult process artists go through that is something akin to 'figuring it out' -- figuring out what your work means to you. For both wrestling and art, this takes place in the phases before you get to do what you actually have trained for. It also insinuates that no matter who the artist is they can still find themselves in the locker room week after week. It doesn't matter how strong or quick you are (talent), or how hard you've worked (discipline), or even what team you're on (privilege), if you can't make weight: you aren't a part of the game.
As I've toured open studio after Open Studio, apartment gallery after storefront after pop-up show, I've often seen that young artists (this has nothing to do with age), while bold and energetic, are still in the locker room. That sounds lame and old school to say (as if it were a game at all, much less a competition), but the point is sincere. It begins with the work -- with the art. It also ends there. Everything else is filler -- everything else is the wrestling match. You have to make weight first, your weight, yours. Any delusion here will either get you benched or get you pummeled on the mat. Both options are discouraging. And I see so many discouraged artists in New York it kills me. As critics and art writers, amateur writers like myself especially, I find it to be our prime directive to cultivate systems -- plural -- where this doesn't happen. We should take up this role with humility and deference. As coach rather than arbiter, as friend rather than teacher. The hybrid artist-writer or the more venerated left-the-game-to-write types seem to make sense here. Someone who has been through it or is in it as well.
I've recently heard David Salle say that we should look at a work of art as if it were a person. How would we approach or describe him or her? How would we do the same to a piece of art? I think that is a great start and pertains not only to how we write about art, but how we see it as well. If anything, it begins to set the premise that the primary engine of art is -- and has always been -- life. Specifically, your life. Therefore your work should reflect that. And I don't mean the subject matter of your work should be about your life. I mean that your work must exist in coherence with your own logic, however fluid or crazy or strict that logic turns out to be. Figuring out that logic is hard. It takes a certain willingness to feign ignorance and at the same time emphasize an exaggerated care.
The role of critic extends to these dimensions. We have to care. To really fucking care. About the artist. Their work. What the work means to us. To our work and our worldview. To the effects of their work on that worldview and vice versa. And also to whatever tether that holds us against the centripetal forces that threaten to toss us (and them) to the wayside as everyone spins around the void of Art (to which we still believe is centered somewhere in New York).
I'm not talking about playing favorites here, that's completely beside the point. I'm talking about actually getting involved, giving a shit, and having a relationship. As a critic we bring one thing to the table: perspective. So we better be on point. We have to care. Specifically you have to care about the work. The critic: in how to see and talk about work. The artist: in how to see and make it. The work, both in writing and in art, is an extension of our worldview, of our imagination (and I mean this word in its most dramatic and encompassing way). Work literally is this embodied in form — which is the source of anything and everything real within us. It has to be this or it is nothing.
Recently, the art I've responded to have exhibited trace evidence of their origins, of the person and their logic. I can see something, if you'll excuse me for being corny, human that I can connect to -- an internal logic the work embodies and sets for itself. I'm talking about artists of every status, from Mike Kelley to Matthew Day Jackson to Ryan Lauderdale to Ginny Casey to Bunny Rogers. As a critic, we must learn to recognize this. As an artist, we must learn to accept this and reject every other impulse, every temptation to please anyone else but ourselves and those we honestly believe in and support. The internal logic of the work must stand up for itself. This takes an immeasurable level of self-awareness and amounts to the larger portion of difficulty on a real and day-to-day basis of being an artist.
The immediate structures around our work then take on importance. The people around us are critical. These small tribes we find ourselves falling in step with must be cultivated, acknowledged, and handled with abandon. Stay small. Make weight. Stay hungry. Dream big, sure, but stay quick.
I think I will adopt a new method that simply states that if I wouldn't go out for a drink with someone, then I have no business writing about their work. Let me be clear here: I am not saying there's no value in anything other than that, or that I won't find something fecund in the work of people I don't personally know. I am saying that for myself, I write about art because I care about the artist, believe in their work, and believe that I can let it affect me, that that in turn can lead me to giving something back, as fecund, to the artist. This isn't objective, far from it, so it demands a developed self-awareness from both parties.
This is doubly important as an auxiliary. It means that our job is to cultivate the structures around the work. This is hard. Staying small keeps us nimble. Keeps us in perspective and focused on what's in front of us. On one hand, it means actually caring about the artist. Being his or her friend (Yes, friend.) This isn't about you. On the other hand it is about developing a way of seeing art. This is about you. Every piece of art exists in coherence with an internal logic it sets for itself and within a larger logic everything else tries to set for it, including the artist. Despite whatever we project or transfer onto this, it is our task to be able to identify the internal logic of the work, before anything. This is what we talk and write about. Not the fluff and gossip that is prescribed by art world fame, standards, or academic posturing -- but what the work is. What the work asks for, tries to be, and exists as. Find the evidence in the work itself. Keep perspective. Fold it into and against the conversation with its internal logic. Identifying any cognitive dissonance there is half the game, the other half is whether that dissonance is fecund or benign. That takes work. It takes self-awareness and empathy. If we begin here, criticality takes on a different dynamic than what you'd read in today's rags (I'm not going to point any fingers. Though if I did, pointing it at myself is decidedly deserved.) Artists can use this information. So can everyone else. This is how real relationships work, the kind that people flourish from. It only requires that others to be true to themselves and holding them to that logic, not any other prescription than that -- judgment without this foundation is not entirely fair.
Making weight is a tragically flawed analogy (the best ones are) where I attempted to translate the prerequisite Will needed to make art, to keep the horse before the carriage. It comes off as some banal platitude to say that you have to know why you're doing it in the first place, but I hope this is taken in the spirit intended -- that the most difficult part lies between the Flesh and the Law. If you're doing this for any other reason than the work -- the lowercase-a art -- you're going to get pummeled, which is fine, but can be discouraging. Don't lose perspective. Stay small, quick. Stay hungry. Once you get on the mat it's easy, do what you've been training for: destroy everything.