There is a certain phenomenon that I have heard many artists talk about and about which I have been warned many times. It is known as the post-show depression. Not all artists experience it, of course, but it is always a lingering threat to us all. As the name implies, it occurs after the excitement and finality of an exhibition of your work. It is the period when all the intensity, focus and energy that you have invested for months, or perhaps even years, into developing a certain body of work, is over. And while the world is just being introduced to that work and responding (or not) with great (or little) fanfare, you return to an empty studio, ready to move on, but relentlessly stuck in a paralyzing limbo.
I experienced this myself after the opening of my first solo exhibition in 2010 (despite warnings from several of my wise mentors), and I was determined to avoid it this time after my 2011 show. The prevention strategy is no great mystery: do not stop working. Always have an untested idea ready to explore. Always have a plan for the next work, always be working on something — anything. In a great book I recently read by Martin Gayford about his experience sitting for a portrait by Lucien Freud, he writes of Freud’s response to the impending completion of his painting:
“…he suggests that it there’s any time left over today after the painting is finished, he might start doing a drawing for the next. This urge to carry straight on is highly characteristic. When one work ends, another begins, and if possible the minimum amount of time should be left in between. This is good practice, psychologically, for anyone whose work consists of a series of creative projects: it avoids the post-completion dip and the subsequent agonies of getting started again.” (Man With A Blue Scarf, page 215)
This “post-completion dip” threatens Freud after completing every single work. It’s reassuring to hear that even the great ones are vulnerable to this phenomenon. But the post-show depression is that dip a million times over. The momentum of preparing for an exhibition keeps you moving quickly through the singular post-completion dips, but in the post-show period, while your finished work is being critiqued and analyzed (or worse, ignored and overlooked), you’re so much more vulnerable to self-doubt and to looking for comfort in self-protective procrastination.
After my show opened in early December 2011, I was armed and ready with a new project (actually, it was a half-completed old project). I was so emboldened by my plans, so sure that I had fended off the dreaded depression, that I gave myself a little time off before getting started. Didn’t I deserve a break after so many months of obsessive painting? And it was Christmas in just a few weeks. Serious mistake. The post-show depression took hold of me again, and it has taken months for me to re-emerge with inspiration and ideas that truly make me feel like I’m moving forward again. So please, take my advice – never stop. Sanity lies only in the making of the work.