The Arthropologist

The search for perfection: Why artists can't let go

The search for perfection: Why artists can't let go

Nancy, Are We Done Yet?, March 2013, Hana Sakai and Domenico Luciano in Dominic Walsh's Uzume
Domenico Luciano and Hana Sakai in Dominic Walsh's Uzume Photo by © Gabriella Nissen
Nancy, Are We Done Yet, Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman, The me that you know is made up of wires, 2012, acrylic and marker Photo courtesy of the artist
Nancy, Are We Done Yet?, March 2013, The Firebird, Firebird - Marie-Agnes Gillot, Domenico Luciano
The Firebird with Domenico Luciano and Marie-Agnes Gillot Photo by © Gabriella Nissen
Houston Ballet, Simon Ball and Karina Gonzalez in Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration
Houston Ballet artists Simon Ball and Karina Gonzalez in Edwaard Liang's Murmuration Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Nancy, Are We Done Yet, Howard Herman, Fear eating machine
Howard Sherman, Fear eating machine, 2013, acrylic and marker Photo courtesy of the artist
Nancy, Are We Done Yet?, March 2013, Hana Sakai and Domenico Luciano in Dominic Walsh's Uzume
Nancy, Are We Done Yet, Howard Sherman
Nancy, Are We Done Yet?, March 2013, The Firebird, Firebird - Marie-Agnes Gillot, Domenico Luciano
Houston Ballet, Simon Ball and Karina Gonzalez in Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration
Nancy, Are We Done Yet, Howard Herman, Fear eating machine

"How do you know you are done?" is a familiar question for artists, and one that I heard recently asked to Howard Sherman during a  curator's walkthrough of Howard Sherman: Artist's Picks at Houston Arts Alliance's Alliance Gallery, through Thursday. The show includes works by Sherman, Michael Guidry, Geoff Hippenstiel, Marcelyn McNeil, Tudor Mitroi, Robert Ruello and Shane Tolbert. It's a terrific show and you should not miss it.

I have my own troubled relationship with being finished, which is why I'm so interested in how others conceive of the end. During my dance making years, I choreographed the life out of my pieces, often rendering them hopelessly overworked. I endlessly tweaked, chiseled and reshaped my choreography, driving my dancers and often times, myself, quite nutty. I cherished the fussing at the expense of the final piece.

 I have my own troubled relationship with being finished, which is why I'm so interested in how others conceive of the end. 

I got the message loud and clear when I received a pair of "choreographers goggles" as a gift from my dancers, with dark gels as lenses, so I couldn't actually see out of them. 

Phillip Lopate gracefully danced around the question during the Q & A portion of his reading at Brazos Bookstore with something akin to "it's done enough,"while admitting that being done has less to do with the piece being perfect. There's something about spending an hour searching for the right verb that leaves a discernible trace. We feel the effort. These days, I can tell if it's done if it's getting worse instead of better. As a writer, I'm another person: fast, flip and done by the deadline. I don't like overworked writing. I saw what it did to my dances. 

How do you know when a dance is cooked?

Each discipline has a different approach to being done. As it exists in time, it's always changeable.

Visiting with Edwaard Liang while in the creation period for Murmuration, his recent premiere at Houston Ballet, it was evident that he thrives on the making process. "I get sad when a piece is done," he told me.

Being done means that the artist is no longer needed, and the work can stand on its own. Yet a ballet like Murmuration is never done; it comes alive by virtue of its performers, who make tiny changes with each show, a flexibility built into Liang's extraordinary work. 

 Each discipline has a different approach to being done. As it exists in time, it's always changeable. 

Choreographer Dominic Walsh has his own matrix for the life cycle of his work. "The first run through informs me as to what feels unfinished or unresolved," he says. "I try to do that at least one week before tech rehearsal. When I feel that I'm actually looking forward to the opening, then I know it's finished."

He also deals with the done factor when he goes to remount pieces. "When I revisit a past a work, I feel it exists on its own geometric plane," says Walsh. "A specific language was used for that story, so when I re-enter that particular work I have to be careful to speak in the voice that it was created in, and not solve the situation in a language that I'm presently working in."

The paint is dry. Is it done?

I was so intrigued with Sherman's talk at the walkthrough that I suggested we meet again and get to the bottom of this "doneness" problem. For Sherman, there's no point discussing getting finished without understand how he started.

"I work on four or five large paintings at once," he says. "One painting will show potential and that will be the one I shepherd home."

 For Sherman, there's no point discussing getting finished without understand how he started. 

And don't mention the word "stability" as a goal around Sherman. I learned that the hard way. "I want it to look like a bomb just went off," he insists.

Listening to Sherman riff in exquisite detail on what makes his large painting Fear eating machine done, he does reveal of check list of what needs to be in a painting. "It's really a very formal process," he says. "I'm looking for a variety of textures, mark making, paint surfaces and tension between background and foreground."

At some point Sherman gets the message to leave the piece alone, and lives with it for a while. The process can take up to two months. Sherman builds enough time into the process to feel confident that his work is ready to leave the studio. 

Maybe slapping a title on it indicates being done. Or not. "Having a background as a daily comic strip cartoonist, titles (and words in general) are important to me," says Sherman. "Sometimes a title can guide the process. I tend to scribble down words and phrases a lot. I try very hard to avoid the typical artist use of "Untitled.'"

As the conversation continues, Sherman cleverly turns the tables on me, asking me about how I perceive the finished-ness of the rest of the pieces in the show. By the end of our discussion, the one thing I'm clear about is that I'm not done talking to Sherman. The more we delved into the question, the more it became apparent that it reveals the very values by which an artist operates.

I may be done with this piece, but nowhere near done with this question.