Nicholas Sistler: Welcoming Success

Terrence Flamm

Chicago-based artist Nicholas Sistler has a lot on his plate these days. Hotel Suite, his solo exhibition of 15 provocative black and white prints depicting interior rooms, just wrapped up a successful engagement at the Printworks gallery in Chicago, and he’s half of a two-artist exhibition called Spaces Within that runs through January 9th at the Rockford Art Museum. One of his prints is included in the On & Of Paper group exhibition at the Illinois State Museum Collection, and Sistler recently sold boxed sets of his Hotel Suite prints to the Block Museum at Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago. He has had previous exhibitions in Chicago, Santa Monica, and New York, starting with Shown Actual Size at the Cultural Center in 1993.

Sistler at Rockford Art Museum

During a recent interview over cups of tea at his studio in the Bucktown neighborhood, Sistler, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a B.F.A. in 1980, was happy to discuss his “abstract still lifes” and reveal some of the secrets of his success. He stressed the importance of an artist keeping his ego in check while working to establish a business partnership with galleries. An essential rule for an artist to remember: “It’s not just about you.”

“It always boggles my mind when artists don’t figure that part out,” Sistler said. Another key is knowing how and when to approach gallery curators. Simply walking in with a portfolio and expecting to present your art on the spot will often result in immediate rejection. Artists stalk off thinking the curator was being rude to them when actually it was their fault for not following the correct protocol.

“When I went to school they didn’t teach us that,” Sistler explained. “Talk to a professional artist to find out how to do it.” He recommends an artist visiting a gallery first to see if the space would be a good fit, as well as to learn what type of artists are usually featured there. A gallery that focuses on blue chip or deceased artists isn’t going to be a good match for a newcomer. Once an artist has found a suitable gallery, he should ask if the curator would be available to look at his portfolio, and try setting up an appointment. It also helps to have a referral.

Sistler at Printworks

“I think what I did at Printworks was perfect,” Sistler recalled.

A conversation earlier that day with Bob Hiebert, who along with Sidney Block, owns Printworks, confirmed that Sistler has a friendly as well as professional relationship with the gallery. Hiebert explained how Sistler’s technique of working on a small scale gives the viewer power over the piece, while the low perspective creates tension by contradicting that advantage. He readily agreed to let Sistler paint the walls where his collection would be displayed a dark gray. The somber background serves to complement the Hotel Suite prints, in which Sistler has incorporated startling photographic images of sexuality and dominance. The gallery has another area where some of Sistler’s paintings, which are done in bright colors, are on display.

“It helps to give people a context for my work,” explained Sistler, who feels much of his earlier paintings were more innocent and kid-friendly.

Print by Sistler

Sistler’s work has also been shown at museums, but he suggested new artists gain experience at galleries and smaller museums before trying their luck at a prestigious place like The Art Institute of Chicago.

“Learn to deal with the bureaucratic process,” he advised. “Develop a resume and a history of showing. Find out if [your work] is communicating to people.” Sistler added there are art museums in Evanston and Hinsdale, as well as at Loyola University and the Cultural Center.

“Colleges have taken on the role of the not-for-profits. The possibility is that someone will come along and discover the artist and invite him to be in a fair or exhibit.”

Sometimes, even one of Sistler’s peers will offer to take him to lunch in order to pick his brain on how to become a successful artist. On one occasion, Sistler discovered his talented friend seldom attended gallery openings. Sistler views these openings as a great means of networking with artists as well as curators.

“It’s all about building relationships. This is really key.” Sistler said he uses that same philosophy for his own shows as well. “Maintain the attitude that all of this is positive. ‘I’m just thankful that you’ve shown up and you’re looking at my work.’ You never know what will happen from an event. I try to do my best, and to be as welcoming as I can.”