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Up and Comers

Graduate from art school, and you're completely on your own. Nobody gives you a studio, tools or materials--and nobody buys your work.

By VICTOR M. CASSIDY

Graduate from college with a degree in engineering, and you can expect to find a paying job. Your employer will provide a place for you to do your work, equipment to use and training to improve your skills.

Graduate from art school, and you're completely on your own. There's no career path to follow--you make it up as you go along. Nobody gives you a studio, tools or materials--and nobody buys your work. You have high costs, little income and zero support from an indifferent world.

Small wonder then that so few stick it out. Ten years after graduation, more than half of all artists give up completely, even as the schools crowd the market with more. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago will award 450 Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees this year and 300 graduate degrees. Every local college has an art department that's busy training painters, sculptors and printmakers.

Those who beat the odds have a fresh vision, superior art-making skills and tremendous drive. A major career benchmark for any up-and-comer is the first solo show in a commercial gallery. It means that the artist is strong enough to fill a gallery with work--and that a dealer thinks it can be sold.

This month Jason Peot has a one-man exhibition, Sublucent, at Flatfile Galleries in River West, and Beth Reitmeyer's solo show, With Love, opens at Zg Gallery in River North. Both artists are in their early 30s, stable, self-directed and self-disciplined. Otherwise, they could hardly be more different.

Peot constructs sculptures, mostly wall pieces, from aluminum, wood, white light and shadow. Light and shadow are two sides of the same coin, he says. He uses both to create forms on the wall that may be bright, dark or layered. Abstract and lyrical, his work suggests architecture, outer space and even plant life.

Nothing happens by accident with Peot. The artist spent a week installing his show at Flatfile, where it fills the large lower gallery and the small, adjoining project space. Twelve wall pieces, many of which incorporate small photographs of Peot's past light sculptures, hang in the large gallery. Installed in a corner of the gallery, Confluence #3 is constructed from wood, aluminum and thin wooden dowels painted white. Peot lights it such that the shadows it creates become more important than the physical sculpture itself.

The project space contains a room-sized light sculpture that Peot planned and constructed for the space. This site-specific installation, which spills into the main gallery through a hole that the artist cut in the wall, cannot be relocated, he says. It will land "in the dumpster" when the show comes down.

Beth Reitmeyer not only banishes gloom in her work, she obliterates it with riotous, visual exuberance. This artist celebrates Valentine's Day and "over-the-top love" in smallish, panel-like paintings with bright red, pink and purple designs of hearts and other cheerful things. These works are the main, commercial part of her show.

In her With Love installation, the artist drapes the walls of Zg Gallery's back room with salmon-colored embossed fabric, hot pink fake fur, dark purple satin and a screen made of linked hearts fashioned from red pipe cleaners (who cares that the colors clash?). From side to side across this room, she strings postcard-sized pieces of cardboard, decorating each with bright, glittery heart designs, perky pink and purple patterns and much more. The cards hang on binder clips, and visitors may take one home with them, but must replace it with a written tribute to someone they love.

Reitmeyer, who got her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1998, developed her art and built a track record of shows by working for a year, building a savings account and then taking time off to paint, sometimes aided by a college or university residency. Wary of commercial galleries at first, she exhibited in numerous non-profit and public spaces, selling almost nothing and earning $3,000 from her work in her best year. "I encountered a lot of rejection," she says, "but never gave up because I actually enjoy making art."

Peot got his MFA in 1997 and showed in public and university spaces while he supported himself as a college teacher. "Financially my best year was in 2004," he says, "when I earned $2,000 from a commission." Selling was "never a priority," he adds, but "steady income from teaching gave me the luxury to be impractical." o

Published: February 01, 2006
Issue: Winter 2006