When it comes to rejection, there are two ways of dealing with it: one way is to continue looking for validation by changing yourself according to some desirable model; the other way requires digging deeper in search for oneself regardless of a supposed ideal. In her work, Arlene Rush draws from her personal experiences, offering the viewer her own approach to self-preservation in the face of rejection. How one can start believing in oneself and keep moving forward, regardless of non-recognition and misperception? In this interview, Arlene Rush talks to Artdependence Magazine about overcoming the negative.
When it comes to rejection, there are two ways of dealing with it: one way is to continue looking for validation by changing yourself according to some desirable model; the other way requires digging deeper in search for oneself regardless of a supposed ideal.
Whichever way the artist chooses, art still remains a very subjective matter: it can not be equally perceived or conceived by everyone, meaning there is no guaranteed overall acknowledgement to be had (not to mention the fact that the more familiar and traditional ideas in all spheres, including art, are likely to meet less opposition than radically new ones).
In her work, Arlene Rush draws from her personal experiences, offering the viewer her own approach to self-preservation in the face of rejection. How one can start believing in oneself and keep moving forward, regardless of non-recognition and misperception? In this interview, Arlene Rush talks to Artdependence Magazine about overcoming the negative.
Artdependence Magazine: How did your artistic career begin? What were your expectations when you took your first steps as an artist?
Arlene Rush: I’ve always made art. It was not a decision to be an artist. It is a mindset, a way of thinking and looking at the world that has always been there for me. As far as “deciding” to pursue an artistic “career” - that took place in 1984, but formally it began in 1986. A friend of mine encouraged me to start painting again in 1984 (I had taken a break in 1980 to earn money). Painting was more manageable and didn’t have the same kind of financial and spatial needs as sculpting. So, in 1984 I approached the white page and realized that I was fully alive! I decided then that I would work one more year, save some money, and pursue my art career full time.
I got my first studio in Chelsea in October, 1986. I was so happy I was able to set up my own sculpture studio. Prior to that, I was working out of 3 spaces and it was a lot of logging and not an ideal situation. I was already getting commissions to do some paintings, but I wanted to focus on my sculpting. My expectations were that I would be welcomed into the art world and be successful, and then I realized it wasn’t so simple. Being a woman/sculptor/welder made it even more difficult, and the market also crashed soon afterwards.
It was a real challenge. My male artist friend’s had a very different experience than I. So, I made a decision to change my name to A Rush so others would not know what gender I was, and to avoid all the stereotypes and discrimination. I thought this would open up more doors and I would be taken more seriously. After approximately one year I went back to using my full name and embracing who I was and the hurdles this presented.
Rejection, Reject, Re….., 2014-2106, Side view
Rejection, Reject, Re….., 2014-2106, Archival paper, museum board, adhesive, resin, acrylic, metal leaf, polyurethane and colored wax, various sizes: 15 x 11”, 17 x 11”, 20 x 15”, 23 ½ x15”, 22 x 17”, 27 x17”, 17 x 5 ½”, 17 x 9”, 22 x 9”, 22 x 14 ¾”, Overall size approx 13’ x 7’
Andre Emmerich, 1989, 2016, Archival paper, museum board, adhesive, resin, acrylic, metal leaf, polyurethane and colored wax, 12 x 15 x 2” d
Rebirth, 2016, Glass, shredded rejection letters, imitation gold leaf, metal, plastic and wood, 13” x 13” x 62 1/2”h, Side view
AD: In one of your works – “Evidence of Being” - you raise the question: how does one measure success? How would you answer this? How much does recognition mean to you?
AR: Recognition is important for me, as it is for most artists I know. We dedicate our lives to creating and bringing a dialogue into the world. I want to be acknowledged for what I do and have it make a difference. The process for me is not complete until it is communicated to other people and that is achieved by exhibiting, and being acknowledged for what I do.
Everyone measures success differently. Some see success as financial rewards, which is pretty conventional. The other extreme is focusing only on the act of doing art and getting the work out there, which is what interests me most.
To sustain myself and my studio practice is a huge commitment. It takes dedication, particularly here in NYC, a very expensive and competitive city to be an artist. I feel personally successful in my career at this point since (as I had titled in an early sculpture of mine) “Look I’m Still Standing”.
Look I'm Still Standing, 1989, Enamel on forged steel
AD: In your work you often refer to the issue of rejection (such as when an artist's work is rejected by an institution or an individual). What would you say are the negatives and the positives of having your work rejected?
AR: At times I have felt left out, invisible - and this can be very frustrating and discouraging. It is mostly disappointing, or rather - even more so disappointing, when your work fits in with a particular show, or a gallery’s program, and you are not accepted or even considered.
The positive aspect of rejection is the stamina it has built within me, and the empathy I have developed towards other artists. A quote on rejection from Louis-Ferdinand Celine I love to contemplate when negative thoughts arise from rejection is the following: “I think all great innovations are built on rejections”. That phrase becomes my mantra for the day.
AD: You have created several works on this subject of rejection. Could you tell us about one of them?
AR: “Sorry To Inform You....” came out of making “Rebirth” and “Rejection, Reject, Re....”. In this piece, the over-size envelopes become an object that is obsolete, which contains the rejection letters. Each envelope is named after a gallery, institution, or foundation that doesn’t currently exist and the names of the ones that still exist are ones that I am still soliciting and haven’t received a response. I kept these letters and, after reading them again, I decided to make a piece about what they mean to me. I created “Rebirth”. This simple action of shredding and placing the shredded letters in an urn became cathartic and transformative.
I was contemplating all the sounds of the rejections and the repeated echoing of non-acceptance. The need to create this experience evolved into “Sorry To Inform You…”; the work has an immersive quality and the meaning spins out of it. I chose a black room with nothing but light and sound in it. Void of all color and object, the spotlight goes on, empty of any visuals, only voices are present. Each speaker emits a series of narrative sentences, typical of rejection letters - some real and some implied. The vocalizations of my voice are tweaked to sound like different people, including male voices. The repetition is the same yet different in its message. The bench is lit underneath with led lights to create a floating-like quality; dreamy, ghost like. The visuals have a beauty and at the same time the message is daunting.
Sorry To Inform You…… 2015-2016, Sound, light installation. Shown in a dark enclosed room with 4 speakers, each mounted in the corner by the ceiling, providing an experience of “surround sound”. The space will be arranged that the visitors will sit in the center of the room on a cube shaped bench with LED lights recessed at the base. Each individual speaker will emit a looped series of narrative sentences of typical rejection letters from, galleries, curators, grants, etc. These vocalizations will be synced with a spotlight that will simultaneously turn on directed to the corner where the sound will be coming from as each speaker sounds. The readings will consist of my voice electronically tweaked to sound like different people including male voices from the selections of rejection letters over the span of my 30-year career. (Approximately 30 – 60 narratives) i.e - We do not show woman artists, - We do not show sculpture, - We do not take unsolicited work, - Your work is similar to a male artist we represent, - We only represent emerging artist
AD: What advice would you give to people facing rejection?
AR: You cannot take it personally and I think that this applies to all rejection in life. Internalizing rejection can be detrimental to your mind, body and work. It also can give you the fuel to move forward if you use it wisely. Not everyone will like your work and we need to be true to our creative process.
AD: What do you think about the contemporary art scene? How fair it is towards young artists?
AR: I do not think highly of today’s art scene. It just saddens me to see where the market has gone ever since it is more about money and not about creativity. Dealers are playing it safe so the work is boring, glamorous, juvenile and soulless. It reminds me a lot of the stock market, creating a lot of hype… I understand it is hard business being a dealer, particularly now with the cost of real-estate, art fairs, the amount of staff that is needed to run one’s operation and the time demanded to be on social media…
The contemporary art scene is quite ageist and does not have the same appreciation for experienced artists that are mid-career and not blue chip. So, when it comes to young artists, I think it is the best period in history for them. There is so much opportunity to get the work out there, different avenues to sell and exhibit. There was a time when a dealer would barely give you an opportunity until you had put your years in. They wanted to see how you would develop and make sure the investment they were making was consistent and solid. It was like a bottle of fine red wine. As it aged you were in better standings.
One thing that I do feel is a big challenge for younger artists these days is the cost of having a studio. Real estate is so high and space so limited in desirable neighborhoods. Though, I think there are so many more residencies now that one can apply for, and I think that this is a good option to explore for a young artist that struggles with finding and maintaining studio space.
Stairway to….., 2015-2016, Rusty steel, shattered tempered glass, 48”sq x 11’h
Follow The Yellow Brick Road, 2016, Vinyl inkjet print, site specific, size varies
Chelsea Then, detail shot, 1996, Collage, photograph and acrylic,, 3 ¼ x 4 ¼”w
AD: Can you live without making art?
AR: Interesting question! I sometimes ask this myself. I wonder - if I lost my eyesight or my limbs, how would I make art?
I like to think of myself as more than just an artist making objects, and I also like to think that “creating” can be expressed in many actions. In the early 80’s I didn’t make art for a few years, and I realized (when I started again) there was a part of me that had been dead, and I can’t imagine that happening again.
AD: How important is your American identity within your artistic career?
AR: I do not see myself as a nationality, but I am sure it has an influence. I think people view and support the arts and artists differently in all cultures.
I had the opportunity to do a sponsorship in Barcelona early on in my career, in 1988. It was my first exposure as an artist abroad, and I saw a major difference in attitude, reception and perception. I also had gallery shows in Germany and Switzerland in the early 2000’s and people there saw art as a necessity, something that informs their history…something that is simply a cultural necessity. People would save money to buy art and there is a lot more financial support for artists, plus the cost to work and have a studio is so much less. I found that in Europe they were more open to subversive and difficult work. This is more aligned with my thinking and work.
AD: How do you see yourself in 20 years?
AR: Ashes to ashes. Ok, but seriously, as far as my artistic career, I would hope that historically and in many peoples lives I have made a difference and have opened up conversations to different views through the work I have created. As Emily Dickinson said: “I dwell in possibility”.
All images are copyright and cortesy of Arlene Rush.
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