The artist’s studio has long been a beloved subject for art, one nearing art itself. What attracts us to it? What is the quale, the sensation generated in the visitor, the viewer? I think of Tom Waits’s searching: “What’s he building in there? / What the hell is he building In there? / He has subscriptions to those Magazines… He never / Waves when he goes by / He’s hiding something from / The rest of us …”
For an artist, the studio is a foxhole, a bunker. It’s a place where things take shape. Where machinations become real, where the ineffable finds form.
Ever the alchemist, the artist, like Kepler consulting planetary movements, hides in the “lab,” concocting new formulas, new plans, new materials, ideas. And then there’s the decor. Studios are usually a rag-tag mix of found furniture, antiques, outdated media and new technology, and piles and pots of books, tools, paints, trinkets. At work is a chaotic but fine design, one that betrays method and aesthetic in equal measure.
The studio is where drugs and booze are consumed, in company or in isolation. It’s a place where people get together, where gossip is disseminated during ad-hoc meetings at night’s end; it’s the artist’s version of the Carnegie Deli in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, where entertainers assemble after the shows let out to tell stories and form a future plan.
The studio can be a place of ecstasy and glorious abandon, and a place of disconnection, paranoia, utter defeat, unsatisfied desire, deep anxiety, resentment.
For others, still, the studio appears like a neglected lover, a vanity-fair project substituting for a dream-hewn “fallback plan.”
Photographer Joseph Hartman, who apprenticed with Ed Burtynsky after having received a degree in kinesiology, began his art career by exhibiting images of landscapes once occupied, and now unpeopled.
For his current exhibition at Stephen Bulger Gallery, Hartman trains his lens at a different type of peopled absence, the artist’s studio. And while these images differ in subject matter from his landscapes, they share in common being sites of cloaked industry.
Utilizing a deep focus achieved through long exposures and a small aperture, Hartman harnesses a spectrum of clear visual cues in each picture, much like Andreas Gursky’s large-scale panoramas, teeming with information almost democratically (an empty supermarket like a label-ridden landscape). However, unlike Gursky, who composites his images from several digital pictures and effectively stitches them together, Hartman sticks to traditional deep-focus techniques made popular by auteurs like Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and Alain Resnais, shooting his images using a 4 x 5-inch camera. It’s a waning art, at least in film, where the current need for “coverage” excludes the possibility of making the kind of bold, deliberate choices that this technique demands. Shot in an intimate setting, Hartman’s lens gives the depicted studios a character all their own.
The absent but featured artists, here, are, for the most part, “established.” As such, the studios stand as sites of production for professionals at the top of their game, ranging in scope from the homely (John Scott’s “playpen”-style arena) to the ostentatious (Kim Dorland’s “Canadian landscapes” pictured in process via Day-Glo sketching; one features a depiction of the artist himself, as he paints a landscape, a mise-en-scène à la Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, 1854-55). Even the impersonal (William Fisk’s International-style studio) is allowed cautious detail. These, all, promote highly-specialized outfits that feed the post-Fordist market’s hunger for positional (luxury) commodities, which in today’s climate of unbridled careerism and downright hucksterism becomes de rigueur for anyone trying to “make it” in the art racket.
There’s Kent Monkman’s ample, bare-walled studio, its large canvases of semi-rural scenes already peopled by his trademark “raping the cowboys” figures who await their flesh in various states of anticipation. One can envisage the assistants busily painting limbs, skies, and hills, hurrying them off to market to meet their high demand.
Images of artists’ studios are also, necessarily, depictions of privilege. They highlight the opportunity we’ve stolen to engage in an activity so seemingly superfluous. We can imagine these “pictured” artists immersed in their work, in a mind-frame akin to that which the French refer to as état second, a state of rapt abandon and concentration, oblivious or immune to the hate, as the result of having withstood long periods of punishing circumstances in this war of attrition we call contemporary art. These spaces proclaim their occupants’ denial of the “slave-to-the-grind” set, with all its trappings, values, mores, and punch-clock strictures.
In this regard, James Lahey’s studio jumps at the viewer like Bruce Willis propelling himself off a bridge on a revving Harley into a helicopter, mid-flight. Featuring examples of his diverse artistic output, Lahey’s studio also showcases his motorbike collection, a Ducati and two BMWs, and a table at its center where a handgun can be seen (possibly a Glock, a weapon favored as much by hoods as by members of the law). The gun casually rests on the table, as though it were an antique lighter. But its positioning seems deliberate, its placing nearly precious. Did the artist spend a good length of time making sure that it was in the right angle for greatest effect, as if we were looking at an Ikebana flower-arrangement instead of a semi-automatic pistol?
An empty gesture can look damn good. The staging, here, doesn’t diminish their appeal as works of art. Dave Hickey said about Liberace that the more fake he got, the more “real” he came across. These are not portraits of individuals, but their aura permeates their working quarters.
Necessarily distorted, Hartman’s artist-studio “portraits” reflect a warping of reality (the stratospheric highs and abysmal lows) and yet an equalizing of the professionals who occupy them. What we don’t see is the need, the want, and the dreaded “failure of success” (as Julia Phillips once put it) that plague us as a matter of course. Instead, with his democratic lens, Hartman at once amplifies the mystique, and levels out the feeling.