Last April, I received an email about the Guggenheim Fellowship. I was at work in my campus office and asked my director to come look at the email, partially to make sure that I had read it correctly. The official public announcement came two days later when I was on an early morning flight to New York City for some scheduled work at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture.
When the flight landed at LaGuardia and I turned my phone back on, I had a flood of congratulations waiting for me. It was a beautiful and humbling moment and one I’ll always remember. Then I re-engaged with colleagues in the New York art world and they said things like, “You just won that? We got that years ago.”
Craig Drennen is an associate professor of art. His work has been reviewed in Artforum, Art in America and The New York Times. He served as dean of the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture.
Back when I lived in New York and installed art at the Guggenheim Museum, I got into the habit of applying to all of the art awards like everyone else. I didn’t learn about any of that in school, so I got my introduction to art world professional practices by listening to other artists on museum loading docks.
This time around, I had some momentum going for me, though, because I had just opened my first solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. That meant I had some excellent installation images of my newest work to use for the next round of applications. I had only won one national grant before, the Art Matters grant in 2014, and I wasn’t sure if my eccentric way of working was going to attract any more awards.
In a contemporary art world increasingly focused on fast production and quick consumption, I work on accumulative, long-form projects. For the past 10 years, I’ve made paintings, drawings, videos, sculptures and at least one print based on Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens.” It’s generally considered to be Shakespeare’s worst play and the only one of his plays not produced in his lifetime. It was probably not even finished when he died because he never claimed it as one of his works during his lifetime. I like this soft spot in the Western canon because it provides me a complicated prompt that I can respond to, and one that makes no pretense of being emotionally or culturally neutral.
I’m making — or at least trying to make — a separate and distinct body of work for each character listed in the play. Every character is a new stimulus and a new anxiety, and when the characters are displayed together, they collide in ways I usually don’t anticipate. So far, I’ve made pieces dedicated to 10 different characters while others act as guides to the whole project.
I began with a narrowed focus but have opened it up over a long period of time, which I think has made me a better artist than I would have been otherwise. The pieces I used for my Guggenheim application were all dedicated to the character of Bandit, and Bandit has turned out to be one of the most productive characters yet. I move through the list of characters intuitively, never knowing ahead of time which character will be next. Until suddenly I do.
Sometimes when I’m at an exhibition opening or giving a talk about my work, people will ask if it’s important that they know the whole backstory in order to appreciate the work. My answer is always no. The backstory is important for me as the artist, but I’m a firm believer in the artwork surviving on its own in the world without explanation. As a viewer of art, I’m drawn to works that are both seductive and initially inexplicable. It’s like meeting an interesting stranger who doesn’t say too much. It slows things down a bit and opens up mental space for a different type of engagement. The further along I’ve gotten with the project, though, the less explanation people seem to need.
Time and space to work are crucial components for any artist, and those are likely the greatest gifts that a Guggenheim Fellowship provides. This upcoming year will be a busy one for me. I have solo exhibitions in Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles and a group exhibition in Germany that I’m very excited about. I have friends and strangers now asking me for advice with their own grant applications and I’m never sure what to say because my own work and artistic path have been so atypical. The only advice I can give every artist already knows: Make the work that takes you to the furthest edge of your abilities, document it well and never give up.