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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

"Showing Up" offers a portrait of an artist as a human with basic needs

A true artist never stops. They just get interrupted.

Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up” takes place in the art world where students and accomplished artists in all disciplines constantly work on pieces they think will help legitimize their visions while making sure there’s enough cheese and wine for the onlookers who arrive at their showings. Reichardt knows this world well and doesn’t set out to ridicule these people, but many will laugh knowingly at Reichardt’s acute perception regarding their behaviors, tendencies and dedication they have toward their craft. While we don’t necessarily know what their art means to them, we know it’s what they have as a means of identification and a sense of self. They create art, show it and then create some more, because it’s all they can do. When it comes to mundane stuff of life, it often has to take a backseat when they feel inspired.

Michelle Williams plays Lizzy, who works at a small art college where instructors marvel at the “spontaneity of this rock” while Lizzy designs fliers for upcoming art shows. One of her colleagues, Jo (Hong Chau), also happens to be her landlord, but has no time or interest in providing Lizzy with running hot water, the most basic of necessities. Lizzy has been without it for a week and desperately needs a shower, but Jo has two showings to prepare for and casually expects Lizzy to understand and move on with her day. It’s this deal that artists make with each other: everyone puts their art first, the real world a distant second. When it comes to something like hot water, though, it’s hard to maintain patience when your landlord won’t listen to you.

Complications ensue when a pigeon comes into their lives. Jo’s cat catches and wounds it in the middle of the night. Jo finds it the next morning outside with a clipped wing. She puts a bandage around it and keeps it in a box, expecting Lizzy to drop what she’s doing and look after the bird while Jo works on her art. Lizzy also has an art show, for which she creates delicate figurines of women in dramatic poses. She needs time, as all artists do, to create and finalize her work and can’t drop everything to look after what might just be another art project formulating in Jo’s mind. Lizzy also has family to look after. Her dad (Judd HIrsch) has two weird roommates he invited to stay with him (Amanda Plummer and Matt Malloy) and her mentally unstable brother (John Magaro) also has artistic visions, but gainful employment continues to be a problem for him.

Reichardt has a knack for getting into these character’s worlds, both interior and exterior, that makes the viewer feel they’ve walked into a room for the first time and everyone in it has already figured out and learned the rules. It’s a microcosm of all artistic endeavors where the work becomes an extension of their personalities, or so they think. If an art dealer or collector calls a piece “brilliant,” does that mean the person who made it has nothing but brilliance to offer? Many artists would like to think so, but Reichardt lets the behavior speak for itself. Chau’s character might have a lot going for her with regards to her work (we never know, of course, since she’ll only divulge the compliments she received and nothing else), but she clearly has no empathy for Lizzy’s hot water situation and the bird seems like just an interesting idea that could evolve into something inspiring for another project.

Then, of course, there’s Lizzy. Williams and Reichardt have had a fascinating director-actor relationship over the years with Williams always giving the audience a sense of this person’s life and daily grind that has been going on for longer than she’d care to admit. Lizzie herself appears unremarkable and is rarely seen asking much of anyone, least of all to sacrifice any luxuries or conveniences so that she may create art. She just wants everything to get done on time so she can have a showing she’s proud of without her family making a scene or being harshly critical of her work. These porcelain figures she creates become the source of suspense throughout the film because we know damn well they could break easily and we’ve already seen a cat, a pigeon, a careless friend and a couple family members who could very well be the death of these pieces.

“Showing Up” is a film I imagine I’ll want to view again at some point just because the life of the artist almost always fascinates, especially given Reichardt’s straightforward approach. When we look at art, we look for what moves us. We never think of the seemingly mundane existence of the artist who created it. Art is meant to transcend and some would say, it is the voice of God. But that voice has errands to run and bills to pay, just like the rest of us and many artists like the ones depicted in this film would probably rather you not know that. For every Banksy out there, there are hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of Lizzys, too, just trying to make deadlines, trying to feed their cat and trying to get their landlord to put in a new water heater. These pesky things get in the way of an artist–whether a writer, painter, filmmaker, singer or sculptor–but they will rarely ever stop them.

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