The New Age of Art Kidz
A Brooklyn backyard, a painter, a photographer, a graphic artist, a writer, a lot of cheap beer, and a heated discussion about young people and art. It may seem like the setting of any Friday night in the New York art scene, or any new sitcom about artistically inclined 20-somethings, but tonight’s conversation seems to linger beyond the ending credits or piles of beer cans. Sitting here in the waning summer heat, behind the Greenpoint home/studio of artist couple Jay Miriam (23) and Zev Rector (24), with photographer Grear Patterson (24) joining us from his studio in Harlem, I pose the question that parents, economists, college professors, and Indie directors alike keep asking: Just why are so many young people trying to become artists?
The thing that differentiates this group from the millions of other artists in this city, this borough, this neighborhood, is that all three of these artists are garnering recognition as rising twinkles in a sea full of stars. Grear Patterson, who was born in Connecticut and attended Duke University and the School of Visual Arts, has found a temporary home in the hip, young, New York artist group Stillhouse. He sets himself apart in the world of photography by shooting primarily film and shying away from photoshop.
With a similar connection to the physical act of creating art, Jay Miriam, a New York native who got her BFA at Carnegie Melon University, has excelled in the exclusive world of painting. With shows in Poland, the Netherlands, and New York, Jay’s work has been in a variety of exhibitions, including a group show called Hearsay at the contemporary Half Gallery last year with Jemima Kirk and Jeanette Hayes.
Zev Rector, Jay’s friend and colleague, has been collaborating with her on paintings since 2008, but works digitally as well. Zev was born in Putnam Valley, New York, and went on to study statistics at CMU, etching a new creative pathway that falls somewhere between art and science.
As most conversations on this topic go, the influence of technology and the upbringing of Generation Y is the first, and most concrete, answer to the dilemma of so many young people depending on the arts (visual, performance, or otherwise) as a viable career path. As Zev brings up early on, before the beer has set in and any real conclusions are made: “Art happens in the wake of decadence.”
Growing up in the early 90s, while the country was flourishing, art moved from a luxury to a standard. The Internet held the possibility of a new future of open-minded thinkers, making room for more arts programs in schools and pushing children to be creative. But as the time came to pick a career, there was suddenly no more money to support the wide-eyed optimism of a more creative world.
Still, striving (and starving) artists remain, in spite of the odds. In the wake of decadence, the Internet has opened up the artistic playing field with quick sharing platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest, and applications that expand the definition of artist, so suddenly, anyone with a blog can be a writer, with a smartphone a photographer, with a computer a graphic artist. But what about those who see art as a career as opposed to an Internet trend?
Here, these young artists become divided, disagreeing on how to approach the onslaught of technology with their own work, wondering if the accessibility of ways to create signals the end of the “real” artist.
Grear’s interaction with technology comes with a paranoid apprehension. You can see him struggle with his modernly unconventional ideas on the topic as he chain smokes cigarettes and speaks swiftly, with grand spastic gestures of his long tanned arms. He effectively owns four computers, one for each task. A computer for writing, one for storing his photography, one for going on the Internet and email, and his phone, which does everything. The computer for his photography has never gone online, thus eliminating the risk of his work being stolen.
This paranoia sounds out of character for a young person in the digital age, but it helps him stay organized and take on one task at a time. It is this concentration and connection with the physical act of shooting film that sets his photography apart from every person with an iPhone. Vacant scenes with subtle hints of human influence, soft light with an attention to color on the satisfying grainy texture of film, Grear’s photographs give an adolescent perspective that’s hard to come by. He finds beauty in the spaces often overlooked.
However, Grear’s fear of the digital does not keep him isolated. He has an iPhone, but rarely shares photographs, and he’s on the Internet, but opts out of social media. He’s highly aware of the way many people his age rely on technology and actively chooses to not be one of them: “I see my friends being sucked away by the Internet. They just collapse into their screen, stop talking. It freaks me out.”
But Zev, who, Grear acknowledges, does not “give off the computer vibe,” actually does live on the other end of the spectrum. He enjoys the Internet as a mysterious realm where artistic exploration is endless. “I love being sucked into the computer,” he says. His paintings are clear representations of his fascination with the digital world. His characters, pulled from anime or early video games with graphically clunky, two dimensional, robotic elements are more representative of a commodity than a life.
As we work our way through the obligatory “things were better when we were kids” discussion, Jay serves as a relevant middle ground. Her instagram is deliberately curated but her paintings are tactile and large scale, with characters that are abstract but recognizable as human, or, at least, once human. She notes that she only paints dead people, though not on purpose. But the disfigured faces of women lounging, composed of colorful shapes and thick acrylic on linen and canvas, are not lifeless; more like ghosts resting between lives.
But it’s when Jay and Zev paint together, or “together, separately” as they say, that a strange humanity comes across. The dead or virtual people of their individual work meet as the couple paints different sides of the canvas, rarely talking about the product as they work. With similarly vibrant blond hair and light skin, Jay and Zev are often confused as twins, but their opposite personalities and styles compliment each other, introducing a new intimacy between the characters in their paintings.
It’s clear that Jay, Zev, and Grear all think about art well beyond the romantic notions, easy labels, and short-lived fads that define many young artists of this generation. What sets them apart from the young buzzing art scene of Tumblr and Twitter is their connection with the physical element of making something. But they aren’t afraid to admit that digital art is relevant and necessary.
“I think the idea of what an artist is is changing,” says Zev, discussing Instagram as an accessible platform for the masses. “Everyone can be an artist.”
So maybe everyone can be, but what about those who are artists? What sets them apart?
Jay tells me that recently she asked an artist friend what makes him an artist. He replied: “I have a studio.” And what would make him a better artist? “Having a bigger studio.” If it is the studio that gives an artist the right to call themselves such, most young artists would be half artists—lucky to get a room to themselves let alone one to make art in. The obvious answer to what makes an artist an artist is sustainability: you are an artist once you are paid to be one. But the 21st century artist is different than what we’ve seen from previous generations. The art kids today cannot afford to be the same kind of starving artists that might have existed in the 70s: squatting in houses, living in artist communities or on the road as Kerouac glorified. Even the artist/waiter stereotype is outdated, especially in a city like New York, where two part-time jobs rarely make a full-time income.
“We, and a lot of young artists, work a lot of odd jobs all the time,” says Jay, referring to herself and Zev, who often pick up work as graphic designers to make sure they have enough money for the month. It may not be what they want to do for a living, but at least it’s something slightly artistic. “Usually people don’t have a nine-to-five job but they work at many places. The hardest part is being able to find the time to make work between all the odd jobs.”
Zev, who would rather be “normal” than the artist type, likes having many jobs that don’t have to do with art. “I think that people in the arts sometimes see people with normal jobs, like data analysis or something, as being square. Artists look down on people who aren’t doing something necessarily artistic, but I think it’s good to know something about other fields. It’s a narrow version of what creativity is. Nowadays, things are so diverse and there are so many different ways of being creative.”
For Grear, having many jobs is not exactly a necessity, it’s more a way of life. Growing up in a family where the artistic lifestyle was a given, working part time gigs just came with the territory. “My parents never had day jobs,” he remembers, “they did what they wanted to.” And now, although Grear has been fortunate enough to support himself solely on his artwork, he has yet to renounce the life of a part time jack of all trades. “I’m not opposed to doing weird things for the experiences,” he says. “I worked at a doughnut shop for a week just because I wanted to see what it was like. I just got a flyer on the subway about being a security guard and thought that could be cool, to be the person who turns the lights off at the MET.” For Grear, being an artist not only ran in his family, but was a way to keep him out of trouble.
“I was making art but I didn’t know it yet. It was more of a distraction,” Grear admits about taking photographs as a kid. Even though he didn’t realize at the time, his childlike perception would inform his work as he grew older. “My pictures remind me of something soothing, something like home. It’s juvenile and I glorify that time.”
These odd jobs he chooses to take are like miniature vacations for him, something new to look at and put into his work. But he doesn’t feel bound to these part time positions: “I would never do a job I didn’t think I could quit.”
“Can’t you always quit?” asks Zev.
“I think we think that way because we’re artists, but a lot of people feel like they can’t leave their jobs,” says Grear, at which point we all agree that these part time jobs are temporary necessities, at least for now, and we like it that way. In the artist lifestyle, you may not have job security or know where your next paycheck is coming from, but there is a sense of freedom that propels you forward. “You’re broke sometimes,” Grear admits, “Well, most of the time. But it works out. You somehow pay your rent. And sometimes you feel rich!”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” agrees Jay, who feels that doing many things gives her better concentration when she does get the chance to sit down and paint. “What I like about painting is that it’s exciting, you can step away from everything that’s happening now and study what used to be.”
But where is the line of success drawn for this new type of artist, one who may want to work many jobs even if he doesn’t have to. They all agreed that success to them does not necessarily mean making a living doing their art–it’s the freedom to make what they want to make that’s important.
But like any 20-something, there is a fear and anxiety that comes with this freedom. “As a painter, it’s a really big risk because if you don’t somehow manage to expose yourself, what else is there to do?” Jay wonders. She also notes that success in painting is not a raise, nor a bonus: “That thing that puts you to the next level is unknown. You’re working really hard toward something without knowing what the outcome will be. It’s abstract.”
It is this unknowing that pushes young people, striving artists and otherwise, in a million directions, hoping someone or something will stick. It’s that disillusioned grind of post-grads, where every day is spent trying to gain experience, whether it’s working at a doughnut shop for the story or doing graphic design for the money. We test the waters of the future without having to commit to anything just yet.
“Maybe saying that you want to be an artist is just a good way of saying you don’t know what you want to be,” says Zev.
“That’s why everyone is becoming an artist,”Jay agrees, “ so you don’t have to choose!”
Being an artist is sufficiently general and vague, but perfectly romantic and unassuming. “It’s the best excuse for being a fuck-up,” Zev confirms. “Your mom can’t yell at you for doing stupid stuff if you say it’s art.”
Though Jay had always been attracted to art, she didn’t know she wanted to be a painter until she graduated high school and applied for a fine arts degree at CMU. Even in art school she was unsure of the title: “I remember at the end of the first year of college the professor came to our class and said: ‘You are all now artists!’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck? I’m 18, I barely finished puberty, and now I’m an artist?’ Maybe it’s just the way I grew up and romanticized the word, but I thought that calling yourself an artist only came after you really accomplished something. You don’t say you’re a sailor when you just walked onto a ship. But everyone calls themselves an artist.”
So when that inescapable What do you do? question is posed by strangers, all three rarely say they are artists. They say they “make pictures.” It may sound weird, they all admit, but it’s somehow more specific, and makes them feel less like bullshitters.
They asked me if I had a similar experience as a writer—if the title feels as fake as theirs. We all agreed that being a writer is different, it conjures images of log cabins and whiskey, loneliness and typewriters. To them, calling yourself a writer sounds cooler than calling yourself an artist, but to me, it’s the opposite. I tell them that in the novice writer world this title functions in the same capacity: you can do stupid shit and say it’s for your memoir.
But then again, being young has always been an excuse for rashness and uncertainty. By society’s standards, being young gives you a free pass to not know what the future holds, at least for a limited time. But being an artist secures that freedom indefinitely. An artist is allowed—even expected—to be reckless, not make rent, go to parties, and think outside the box, all for the sake of their craft. The best artists are those who are uninhibited and have a different perspective, perhaps those who think like children, unabashed and unashamed.
So are artists just kids who never have to grow up? Or are the youth of today, the ones who grew up in the “age of decadence,” just a more artistic generation?
Artist, writer, creative soul, whatever you want to call yourself in your twenties, the loaded label is an excuse to be young and have only yourself to look after. There are many reasons why more people are trying to be artists in this generation, but just because everyone is allowed to be an artist does not mean exceptional talent will be consequently overlooked. In fact, it might even shine brighter. And although Jay, Zev, and Grear might not have the salaries or studios to be given the conventional title of artist (if they even want that label anyway) the quality and thought behind their work proves otherwise. They have the rare freedom to be kids– and art kids–for as long as they want.