In the five years since the graduate school gates closed behind me with a tinny clatter (I’d like to say resounding clang, but really, it was more like a tinny clatter), my experiences working as a faux finisher have yielded a great wealth of philosophical insight and, combined with selling some art, just enough money to allow me to work about eight months out of the year without becoming a hobo. It’s not a bad deal. I shouldn’t complain, but of course I do. When I mention faux finishing most people envision me wearing an apron with small brushes in the pockets, carefully, and in fully conditioned air, creating a marble pattern on a piece of concrete. Not so. Nor do I create ceiling murals of plump putti leaning over Italian banisters against a peaceful blue sky hovering above a spiral staircase (I still find it weird that Mantegna could be responsible both for the singularly awesome Dead Christ and the singularly awful Ceiling Oculus). No, what I do is glorified construction work.
Last week for instance, I found myself in front of an eight-foot tall, three-panel window (of which there were 18 total) brushing blue milk-paint (a sturdy, old-master-y kind of paint made from lime—not the kind used to flavor Mexican beers, but the kind used to dissolve dead hookers—and cottage cheese, the delicious curdled-milk treat), which requires three or four applications of slightly different blues, each layer requiring sanding before the subsequent application, with a final application which necessitates a vigorous once-over with steel wool, leaving your arms and face covered in a fine layer of blue lime and steel shavings and your nostrils crusty with black boogers.
This process yields the rough equivalent of a tastefully aged barn door, on a barn next to a cottage in the French countryside, if the barn were to have a Bentley parked in it with the sounds of Aryan children splashing around in a nearby lap pool echoing off its rough timbers. The other mainstay of fauxing consists of creating an approximation of Venetian plaster on top of good old Texas drywall. This is about as labor-intensive as hanging and floating the drywall in the first place. The “Venetian plaster” is made out of standard drywall mud from Home Depot mixed with paint tint and a few secret ingredients to make it smoother and shinier. The key of course is in the application. My partner Joe and I have dubbed this well-guarded application secret “punch, punch, drag.” This is the same application process used in every Mexican restaurant in Texas, but, as in all things, the devil is in the subtlety of the details. Some clients prefer their plaster to approximate the walls of Castle Dracula while others, perhaps having read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (or maybe not), seek a subtler version of decay. Ultimately, whether wood, plaster, concrete, or beam, the most essential aspect of my job is making new stuff look old.
It’s an amazingly stupid job when you think about it (and you don’t have to think very hard to realize how stupid it is). So why do it? Why not put on my pristine Adidas and my snazziest blazer-over-soft-worn t-shirt and fancy jeans with hair-sculpted-in-waxy-pomade ensemble and head to the annual CAA (College Art Association) conference, which offers “five to ten workshops on job hunting, portfolio and résumé preparation, and other career-related topics”? In fact, I notice right now that there is a job opening for a visiting, assistant professor of painting at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas (the eighth most populous city in Arkansas with a population of 57,544 in 2008).
Well, to begin with, there are about four tenure-track art teaching positions in the country and about four million newly-minted MFA grads with dreams of a 12-hour workweek, a $60,000 salary and unlimited time in the studio. Through no one’s fault but my own, I came to graduate school unaware of the hard fact that you have about as much chance of getting a full-time job (even one that is non-tenure) teaching art at a university with a masters degree from any school outside of California and the original thirteen colonies as a starving deer has of outrunning a panther at a dry waterhole. I bet there’s some sleek, greasy kid from Columbia who didn’t get snatched up for a solo exhibition after his thesis show, listening to Deerhoof and twittering about the heirloom tomatoes on his salad right now wondering if he can swallow enough pride to live in Arkansas. Statistical odds aside, I could never really get excited about teaching full-time anyway. Academia (or academe if you’re from academia) has always reminded me a little too much of church—a place and a ritual with a long list of standard practices, social expectations, intricate jargon and people with sour faces who will ostracize you for saying things they consider either blasphemous or un-cosmopolitan.
When I first started out in this faux venture with Joe, I told myself I was doing it for the money. We were pretty lucky in the beginning. We started out with a really big job right off the bat that took about six months, paid my bills for a year, and bought my girlfriend and me a three-week trip to Europe. I returned from the Old World, my head swimming with images from the Ludwig Museum in Cologne (an amazing place where I saw a huge Balthus exhibition that confirmed to me just how weird his work is), a little cash nest egg, and dreams of job after job like the one we had just finished. It didn’t quite work out that way but it hasn’t been a complete disaster either. Eventually I settled into a pattern in which I make a big chunk of money on a job, go jobless for four or five glorious months during which I spend 12 hours a day in my studio in boxer shorts (the boxers are a simple convenience because I often pee in my backyard, neighbors be damned) and flip-flops with a cold beer in my hand, trying to convince my basset hound Oliver that Fredric Jameson’s joyless, bloodless Political Unconscious is overrated.
Unsurprisingly this has become a source of great irritation for my girlfriend, who, having to work like a normal person, does her best to pretend not to hate me when she leaves for work and I settle back down to another two hours of sleep. I watch my checking account slowly dwindle, occasionally supplemented by a check from an unnamed online art journal. And then, usually right before genuine panic sets in, when I begin giving serious thought to filling out job applications at video stores (it’s telling that this is a more acceptable option than descending into that innermost circle of hell which is Houston Community College teaching), Joe and I land another whale and sail blissfully on for a few more months. I’ve come to suspect (after recurring bouts of serious insomnia and the odd panic attack) that a regular paycheck, even if it’s a tiny one from a community college, a bookstore, or a restaurant, is a lot less stressful than counting on harpooning the next big fish for the rest of your life.
I can’t really say I do it for the money anymore because I’m certainly not getting rich. And lately I’ve been feeling a little disappointed in my life. I suppose I’ve come to desire more: more comfort, more stability, more praise. Then, the other day when I found myself drenched in sweat atop a wobbly ladder painting that window frame on a multi-million dollar home with milk-paint, an epiphany hit me like the stench from the job site toilet (the contents of which arrive on a taco truck everyday around 11 o’clock when everyone on the site – including the elegant interior designer – rushes toward the siren song of the truck’s carnival horn, earning the toilet its nickname “torta-potty”). The startling revelation was that I am living exactly the kind of life I planned on when I decided to go to art school.
Unlike a lot of my undergraduate peers with haircuts more asymmetrical than mine, I had no understanding of the artworld or its various political and economic realities. I was learning a lot about art but almost nothing about the artworld, about how to survive in it. I never had the delusion that I would become a “famous artist” (my mother, bless her heart, has yet to let that dream die). Ok, that’s a lie. For a few minutes between undergrad and graduate school I did have the delusion of becoming a “famous artist.” The truth is that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing beyond figuring out ways to keep the driving ambition to make art alive. The rough goal was to live somewhere, not starve, be able to buy relatively decent clothing so as to look presentable enough to get laid and to make art.
Joe recently said we’re “grinders.” I suppose a grinder is an artist who has realized that none of the more philosophical questions surrounding art make much difference if you haven’t found a way to keep making the stuff. The most common question among grinders is; “are you working?” The question of what exactly you’re doing in the studio, or how your exhibition profile looks, are all secondary to that most basic question of artistic survival—“are you working?” Most artists in most cities (yes, even New York and LA) are grinders. Most don’t belong to whatever miniscule percentage of hipster trust fund babies you may find lounging around Williamsburg (it’s not a cliché, it’s true, they’re there) with seemingly endless time to stack shit in corners and explore the remaining untapped potentialities of Op Art, all the while critiquing consumer culture while wearing horrible, expensive clothes (if wearing silly clothes could reliably turn a hipster into Percy Shelley or Oscar Wilde I might be convinced to rethink my stand against skinny jeans and cardigans, but it doesn’t, so opposed I remain). Most artists live a life with no guarantees and, in the increasingly insular world of elite MFA programs and the douchebag galleries that feed the self-consuming monster of the contemporary artworld, fewer and fewer get any real shots at the brass ring. It may be a cliché but most artists (bad and good) make art because they need to, because it satisfies a desire nothing else does.
So tomorrow I head back to the job site to paint the shelves of a wine room. It’s mahogany wood and we’re going to put a light black stain on it and seal it with a satin lacquer finish. The client saw something similar in the wine room of a Pappas Steakhouse and decided he just had to have it. It should take about three days and if I buy cheap beer and stay off Amazon Books it should come close to taking care of my month’s expenses. But for right now, I’m writing about art and when I finish typing this sentence I’m going to go to my studio, open a Corona, squeeze some lime (the kind used to flavor Mexican beer) into a frosty glass and start working.
Michael Bise is an artist living in Houston.