A New Novel Explores the Battles that Play Out in Every Artist’s Head While Deliciously Skewering the Art World

I’ve just finished reading Fake Like Me on a shabby Southwest flight instead of doing a week’s worth of overdue actual work. And now I’m fucking crying! Real tears. Snuffling away on my coach seat and my husband is sending me these weird little worried looks, but there’s nothing to worry about. I am happily succumbing to waves of ennui, indulging in the glorious imperfection of being an artist. It’s exhilarating! And all because I read a book that made me feel more alive, self-aware, and spiritually connected to other artists.

Barbara Bourland’s novel about a young female artist earnestly making paintings in NYC in the early ‘90s captures all of the magical pain of being an artist: the stupid crazy miracle of an art career, the romantic lies artists tell themselves, the fucked-up unfairness of the art market, the callow superiority of art-world gatekeepers, the brave but fragile ways artists hurl themselves into action, the mirage of others’ success.

I rushed to get to the ending, because I really needed to find out WTF was really going on and it was urgent. But as soon as I finished, while still crying, I wanted to go back to the beginning and savor it, to underline it and mark up all the art historical references and contemporary art gossip. Mostly I wanted to read it again more carefully to discover even more hidden gems that actually felt useful to me, wisdom that could save me years of therapy.

Fake Like Me overtly references the imposter syndrome that artists suffer from, but also affirms other truths about this lifestyle and psyche, many that successful artists won’t admit. We artists exist in our work. We are our truest, most magnetic, free, and perfect selves in our work. We need the work more than it needs us. Our art practice stitches our broken, narcissistic selves back together in its audacity to exist; it validates our absurd risk-taking that is in itself an art career.

Bourland’s unnamed protagonist starts out as an art school sophomore desperate for success; she embodies all the parts of ourselves, as artists, that we most despise—the insecurity, the willingness to believe fabrication and fantasy, the over-idealization of others’ power, coupled with a lack of belief in our own.

In the opening scene, she attends a NY art opening for Carey Logan, already an art world legend in her 20s. Logan (and her art collective, Pine City) embodies everything the narrator wants for herself: fame, connections, art world status, elusive glamour, and the ability to make good art that the entire world pays attention to. Our narrator has none of this, but she looks to Logan as an impossible dream, hoping that one day she, too, will earn a place in the art world.

“In person they seemed like these glamorous lightening bolts, something between human and divine, the embodiment of the moment Zeus turned into a swan or a cow or whatever fuckable divine being,” she says, of her first sighting of Pine City outside the gallery. Once inside, “spidery people poured out of the massive double doors. My first impression was the scent of fading chlorine mixed with Chanel No. 19 and du Maurier cigarettes, and my second was of secrets being exchanged, of whispers floating from lipsticked mouths to earlobes encrusted in diamond-bedecked safety pins.”

This pivotal experience, and a brief conversation with Logan, her hero, makes an indelible imprint upon the narrator, serving as inspiration for the rest of her career. As she continues to create giant abstract paintings with a Sisyphean work ethic and struggles to make rent and and an art career, we learn and grow with our narrator, especially as she learns to combine all of her most shameful and broken aspects into the heroic process of being an artist.

After a fire in her studio destroys several years worth of paintings poised for international acclaim, the protagonist makes a decision to keep their destruction secret and re-make the entire series on an impossible deadline. We experience her labor: the pain and the sweat, the self-doubt and the sick fever of ambition, and it’s not romanticized or downplayed. As you delve deeper into the story, the narrator shows us how every artist starts with nothing and feels like nothing, but builds a path to value through the slow, daily process of working in her studio. It’s mostly tortuous and full of self-doubt, but it’s also achingly magical, thrilling, and sexy at times.

As someone who was repeatedly criticized for over-romanticizing the act of painting (while in GRAD SCHOOL for PAINTING), I’m so in love with the way this book describes and interprets the act of painting and art making in general. It proclaims that it’s not shameful or weak to be in love with an art process, deliciously addicted to certain materials, and to simply feel rather than knowing. We don’t have to intellectualize the act of creation to make good art and the narrator’s commentary on painting is poetic yet clear, too.

“I work primarily in oil, which has enough variations in tone, hardness, depth, and clarity to rival most spoken languages,” the narrator explains. “It can be thick and weirdly inconsistent like an unpasteurized soft cheese; deliciously smooth and stable like a room-temperature buttercream frosting; or thin and weepy like a salad dressing. It can whip into a knot, pan into the ideal smear, beat into a creamy, airless gel. Stiff enough for peaks and valleys–yet smooths out cleaner and flatter than hot glass. Oil paint is needy: It must be paid attention to as it cures in the atmosphere, slowly, and it’s hard to cheat.”

The American book cover of Fake Like Me and press photo of Barbara Bourland

 

Bourland’s prose is luscious and economical; she is a master at conjuring rich visuals with just a few words and her vocabulary mirrors the richness of the world without misleading art-world cliches. “I make enormous oil paintings because they are the pinnacle of labor,” the narrator explains, when put on the spot by someone who wants to embarrass her in front of an entire cocktail party, by asking if her work is political. “They are expensive, delicate, unwieldy. They take more work than anything else I could imagine–work and investment and time and space–and that work, that labor, takes me outside of myself. The paintings are not a criticism–or indictment–or commentary. They are objects that exist unto themselves, moving and beautiful, worthy of the space they take up in the world, political because they do not crouch in a corner, because their labor is obvious.”

Bourland employs dialogue that is both wry and raw, and it’s never predictable nor baroque. I like that most of the characters are assholes and acknowledge it, and that conceptual art jargon is only used when a pretentious curator or collector is speaking, while the other characters talk shit about them behind their backs.

For idealistic creative people, the art world can be so gross and demoralizing; there are few actual rules to follow. It’s so tempting to place your faith outside yourself and to feel imposter syndrome when you taste even a small amount of success, although we are supposed to feign confidence and inevitability so others take us seriously. In artist talks, press releases, and art reviews, we are constantly fed garbage about other artists’ preordained success without acknowledging the sacrifices and setbacks—emotional, economic, personal—they were willing to pay.

Artists, do yourself a favor and read this book. If you are an art student, make your parents buy it for you. I wish I could have read it at age 22. I didn’t even notice until the end that the narrator is nameless, that this allows us to insert ourselves into her meandering path, learning slowly through countless mistakes and rejections how to make honest work that is first and foremost pleasing to herself, even if her inspiration for making it has been a lie.

This novel made me view Sisyphus in a whole new way, and to envision an art career like pushing a giant boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again (to start over) as a good thing. The Sisyphean scenario is typically interpreted as torture or punishment, but what if pushing the boulder is the part we love the most? What if all that sweat and frustration and effort is the whole point, and placing the boulder at the top of the mountain is just the byproduct? What if successfully ending this toil actually equals death, because there’s nothing left to conquer and we would grow weak without it? In Fake Like Me, the prize is the quality of work the artist is able to finally accomplish, but also the artist’s dignity and growth, her acceptance of her own imperfect self, and realizing that her ravenous desire to create is a gift that keeps on giving. There is no end destination. The boulder will always roll back down. We push it back up because we have to, and we want to. The appearance of success is not the same as earning it, even when the art world proclaims our triumph.

In an art world where we’re all supposed to be cool and ironic and cynical, it feels good to love a book so fiercely and personally, the way our narrator loves her paintings. Fake Like Me is potent, readable, and full of surprises. The author planned it deftly to function like a metaphor for the art world itself, duplicitous and layered and hierarchical, full of death and drama. The plot feels like nimbly woven cloth, where shorter and longer segments are first disparate, but then resurface to transform each other. There are immediate rewards on every page but also a satisfying overall pace as the plot evolves, with clues that hadn’t seemed important suddenly taking on greater significance.

I wish I had written this book and I hate the author a little bit for this. I will never write anything anywhere close to as good as this and I’m so jealous, knowing that I have to keep slogging away at my own slow damn work. But I’m also happy for her and to realize, via the wisdom on the page, that wanting someone else’s career or wanting to do someone else’s work is a fool’s errand. It’s a mirage. It’s a waste of time. I can only do my work. I can only do the work I am capable of, and my only choices are to do it or not. So I’m just going to keep doing it. And I’m happy knowing that Bourland is going to write a lot more books and I will get to read them. I am envious in the best way possible, in a way that makes me want to be a better artist and writer.

 


 

Join Author Barbara Bourland with Cara Ober for a discussion of Fake Like Me at Greedy Reads on June 21 at 7 pm.

Fake Like Me is Barbara Bourland’s second novel, after I’ll Eat When I’m Dead. It was published in 2019 by Grand Central Publishing. To purchase at a local independent bookstore in your area, check out Indie Bound.

Read BmoreArt’s earlier discussion with Barbara – Drugs, Sex, Lies, and Moisturizer – about the ethics of the beauty industry and her first novel, I’ll Eat When I’m Dead.