Luan Sherman: What Is an Artist?

Luan Sherman, “Gravitation”

At first, Luan Sherman wanted to be a fashion photographer. It sounded successful and stable — in a word, safe. But soon enough he discarded the safety net and jumped. Thank goodness he did. “People have a lot of misconceptions about fine arts,” he says. “I don’t even like to use that term because it feels old-fashioned.” Switching to his college’s painting department felt risky and right.

Most of what Sherman does involves more thought and action than painting, so that the label “painter” hardly describes him. Artist, that catch-all word that hardly means anything anymore — not since Duchamp, and definitely not since social media — is the only way to describe Luan Sherman. Still, the average person operating outside the art world typically has an antiquated idea of what an artist does. “Common knowledge about art tells people that artists are all starving, they smoke cigarettes, wear berets, and never make any money,” Sherman says. “Some people still joke that artists are never famous until after they’re dead. Like, have you heard of Jeff Koons?”

Well, no, most people haven’t. Sherman told me how last summer, he stopped at a truck stop in western New York where a woman was selling coffee to raise money for a community project. They began chatting and eventually Sherman mentioned he was returning from an arts residency. The woman got excited: she made glass engraved pictures of King Arthur and Excalibur, sometimes dioramas. Most anyone in the contemporary art world would have rolled their eyes or laughed her off — at least on the inside — scoffed and dismissed it as mere “craft” or otherwise “not art.” In last year’s HBO documentary Banksy Does New York, one fine art aficionado made this attitude clear: even street art is not Art.

But Sherman felt nothing but joy and excitement for the woman and her glass knights of the Round Table. “If you’re making something and it makes you happy, and you think of it as art, that’s fantastic,” Sherman says. “I never want to lose sight of how beautiful and special it is that people care to make things at all.”

Luan Sherman, “Snake”

During his residency at the Chautauqua Institute, Sherman executed a series called I’ll Make Your Art Dreams Come True. He invited anyone who had ideas for artwork to submit them, and he would help make their dreams a reality. One was drawings of different interpretations of a day’s events; another was a performance of a soccer match with no ball; another was a series of public signs with purposeful typos; finally, there was a musical performance.

“Here’s how [I’ll Make Your Art Dreams Come True] plays into this question of art or not,” Sherman says. “It’s all about intention. Each project was totally about the other person, ‘artist’ or not…. The difference between walking on the beach and walking on the beach to make art is strictly the intention. Some people don’t believe in that idea, but I do.”

The last piece of Sherman’s I saw was Percussion. He performed it during the painting department’s open studio: two floors of fine art, huge canvases streaked with paint and a handful of installations (an all-black room, a room of PVC pipes and the sound of dripping water, etc.). It was a maze of drawings and paintings and people talking excitedly in the white halls, plastic cups of ginger ale and fingers clutching elbows. Sherman’s studio had a bottleneck effect going on and there was overflow in the hallway, a crowd of his peers leaning over each other to watch. They were passing around a stack of papers with some rudimentary musical notation labeled “Percussion.”

Through the doorway, I could see Sherman, barefoot, kicking a rubber ball against a wall beyond my view. He wore black and a focused expression. The only sound was the hollow bounce of the ball on the wall, pulling us away from the cacophony of voices beyond us. Eventually he stopped, we clapped, and I made my way inside.

Percussion came out of this idea that you have to have a certain level of experience or proficiency before you can adopt a label like artist, musician, or athlete,” Sherman says. Whole subcultures are built on this: running, specialty coffee, jazz, writing, chess, wine. Take something accessible and commonplace and learn the fuck out of it, until it becomes more than a hobby or a job — it becomes a way of life. Sherman says he’s interested in “that threshold between just doing something and making that thing a part of your identity.” It’s become a hallmark of capitalist societies: you are what you do, or you are what you buy.

Percussion is about a clash of identities in varying proficiency: artist, which currently defines Sherman; athlete, which used to define him; and musician, which does not and has not defined him. “The task is practically impossible: play a sheet of formal percussion music by kicking a soccer ball against a canvas. It’s not an effective way to complete that task, but knowing that and trying anyway, that’s where it gets interesting.” A musician, shaking his head sadly as he looked at the sheet music, commented afterward, “I’ve got to teach him how to write notes.”

Along with this kind of proficiency and earned label comes the (perceived) right to be hostile or condescending toward industry noobs, just like the art world guy in the Banksy doc. It’s straight-up elitism of the kind my 13-year-old (faux-)punk self simultaneously sneered at and engaged in, the elitism I later rebelled against in an aesthetics class by scribbling in my textbook: What gives you the right to judge? But we could ask the same of sommeliers and marathon cyclists and a whole host of people. And if their answer is “practice,” or “proficiency,” or “expertise,” then I wonder if they, too, were made to feel somehow unworthy when they first started out.

“I think I may have more patience for ‘outsiders’ because most of the people I talk to about my work fall somewhere in that category,” Sherman says. “We shouldn’t alienate people who don’t know much about art, but it can be tedious at times to have to give an art history lecture before we can start talking about the work.”

The term artist now applies not necessarily to visual artists but to anyone who challenges established ways of seeing the world. Sherman recently completed a class project in which he posted images of amateur paintings to an Instagram account and had the class critique it entirely through the app, remaining silent in the gallery. Although Sherman’s intention was to explore the role of technology in viewer experience and the idea of “putting a lot of effort into something and then displaying it through intentionally detrimental purposes,” I can’t help but think of the sad reality of searching #art on Instagram. But then, who am I to judge?

Luan Sherman, “Respirateur” — a humidifier and dehumidifier side-by-side