Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Personal Big Show Scorecard

By Brian Piana

It's finally hot enough for Houstonians to complain about the heat, which means summer is in full swing in the Bayou City. This also means one of my favorite local summer art events –  The Big Show at Lawndale Art Center – is upon us. The Big Show is the largest juried exhibition in town, and it is open to anyone within a 100-mile radius of Houston who is willing to hand-deliver up to three works for jurying and pay a $30 entry fee. The guest jurors mostly come from out of state, most recently from New York, Portland, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.

I've submitted to The Big Show twice before, in 2007 and 2008. After a three year hiatus, I have decided to submit again in 2012. In preparing works to enter, I've been thinking a lot about my own personal history with what Glasstire last year deemed "the annual smorgasborg of Houston art". For no other reason than you might perhaps find it interesting, I present this history to you.

The first time I submitted work was in 2007, a month after I graduated from school with my MFA. I was pretty much on cloud nine following graduation because I had found out my proposal for an exhibition at Lawndale later that Fall had been accepted. I was going to have a solo show, and I was pretty stoked. Perhaps selfishly, I decided to try and double down by getting some work into The Big Show as a precursor to my subsequent exhibition. I took two of my most recent website abstraction inkjet prints to be framed (one shown below), and then I dropped them off and cut a check. I felt pretty good about my chances. I mean, Lawndale had just given me a show, right? I went home and hoped for a phone call.

(That's how you find out if you made the cut. A Sunday phone call means one or more of your pieces made it in. No phone call, and you have to go gather your rejected works sometime over the next two days.)

Barack's Twitter, Inkjet Print, 2007.

Alas, I didn't get a phone call, and I was devastated. Suddenly I was questioning my own merits for the forthcoming solo exhibition.  Would Lawndale think they made a mistake by giving a show to an artist who couldn't make it into The Big Show? I dreaded going to pick up the work. It felt like a walk of shame, and I couldn't shake the embarrassment of being a reject.

My reaction to not making the cut is laughable, of course, not to mention immature. (Rest assured I've grown a lot since then, and I also went on to have a fantastic experience working with Christine West, Dennis Nance, and the rest of the Lawndale crew on Lawndale Has Many Friends that fall. I have been a big fan and supporter of the space ever since.) 

The sting of rejection was softened, however, knowing that there were 371 other artists who also didn't receive a phone call and had to go back and pick up their stuff. It was then that I started to actually realize how big The Big Show really was. All told, 453 artists submitted 1143 works that year, and only 115 works from 86 artists made the cut. So only 18% of the artists that entered made it in, and only 10% of the total works brought up to Lawndale stayed for the exhibition. Clearly, the odds aren't in an individual artist's favor, and they've remained that way in the years since. Here are stats from the last five Big Shows, courtesy Dennis Nance, Lawndale's Exhibitions and Programming Director:

Year # Artists
# Pieces
# Artists
# Pieces
2011 404 972 73 121
2010 396 976 85 114
2009 409 995 65 95
2008 407 1014 60 95
2007 458 1143 86 115

While a 20% success rate could be a deterrent to some (and yet clearly hasn't), to others, like me, it becomes a challenge. I decided to give The Big Show another go in 2008, wanting a shot at redemption given the previous year's shutout. But this time, I came prepared. 

In the months leading up to that summer, I started thinking about taking my abstractions into the third dimension and dabbling in sculpture. With my artistic practice, I tend to work best under deadlines or with some carrot dangling out in front of me. The Big Show provided both. I tried to think about ways I could make my work stand out from the other 1,000 or so pieces that would also be submitted. I looked to the juror, which for 2008 was Aram Moshayedi, a curator from LA><ART, a nonprofit art space in Los Angeles. Soon after, I stumbled across this article about Damien Hirst's show at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in LA, and I made my piece about that. Just as my work from the previous year, the resulting sculpture was a nondescript collection of shapes and colors. Knowing the juror wouldn't bother reading the piece's tiny information sheet, I did something I had never done before: I integrated the title into the work itself. Right on the side, clear as day, was the article's headline:

Guns guard Damien Hirst's lamb at BCAM, Wood and Acrylic Latex Paint, 2008.

The Sunday after I submitted the finished piece (along with one more inkjet print for good measure), I got a phone call. The sculpture made it in.  So, a juror from a contemporary art space in Los Angeles included an abstract work titled after a contemporary art exhibition at a Los Angeles museum. Perhaps that's entirely coincidental, but I want to believe I played the system and won. It felt awesome.

Having finally made it into The Big Show, I decided to walk away on a good note and have abstained from entering in the years since. Going 1-and-1 in a massive crapshoot seems like a win, so why tempt fate? I still look forward to it every year, and I have continued to support it when possible, via  donations or making quirky little things for the Lawndale website.

And yet now, after this three-year hiatus, I've come to miss being a part of the process. The Big Show opening is always a huge party, and it was such thrill to be part of the chosen group. The odds are still long, but I've grown to realize there's no good reason for me not to submit work. Here are three good reasons, in fact, why I will:
  1. My $30 goes to support one of my favorite art institutions in Houston.
  2. The Big Show provides motivation and a deadline for me to develop some new work and even a low-risk opportunity to explore a whole new direction.
  3. My work will be seen – however glancingly – by a new set of eyes from a curator outside of Houston. (You never know...)

See? There's really no downside. So here's what I submitted this year:

RGB and Sometimes Y: Packing Object No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, Found Styrofoam Packing and Colored Duct Tape, 2012.

Quite different than that inkjet print from five years ago, yes? Here's a closeup:

RGB and Sometimes Y: Packing Object No. 1, Found Styrofoam Packing and Colored Duct Tape, 2012.

Unlike 2008, these pieces were not made with any kind of thought to the juror. As I type this I couldn't even tell you who he or she is. (It's Marco Antonini, Gallery Director for NURTUREart in Brooklyn, by the way.) Nor am I trying to game the system as I did last time. I dropped my pieces off on Wednesday, and in doing so I've already fulfilled my three reasons for entering, as listed above. The Big Show 2012 owes me nothing more. If a piece does indeed make it in, great -- start the party! But if I don't get a phone call this weekend, I will proudly go into Lawndale on Monday, head held high, and retrieve my works. I certainly won't be the only one.

Below are some pics of the collected submissions near the end of the first day. Lawndale will be accepting more until 5pm Thursday, so if you're in the area and can afford the price tag, there's still time to drop work off. To those who have already entered or will be doing so -- good luck!

Hey -- I recognize that colorful stuff up front!

Lots and lots of paintings, of course. 

And some sculpture work too. All this was collected in the first five hours!


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