‘Showing Up’ Depicts a Refreshingly Realistic Artistic Life, Without Skepticism or Gloss

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A white woman with a bob works on a clay sculpture of a figure in her book-filled studio
Michelle Williams plays the sculptor Lizzie in ‘Showing Up.’ (Photo by Allyson Riggs; Courtesy of A24)

I regard most films about artists with trepidation. At its worst, the so-called “art world” — a complex and diverse conglomeration of working artists, art schools, galleries, nonprofit spaces, museums, curators, auction houses, critics, collectors and arts workers of all kinds — is ripe for satire. Please see (Untitled) for my favorite tongue-in-cheek depiction of gallery inner-workings, with a bonus plot about avant-garde music.

At its best, making or experiencing visual art can be transcendent. It can connect us to others. It can get at things that are too large or too hard to express through other means. It can be deeply, personally rewarding.

On the spectrum of worst to best, Kelly Reichardt’s new film Showing Up leans toward the latter, depicting, with a light touch, the very ordinary lives of those who make art.

Starring Michelle Williams (in her fourth Reichardt film) as the somewhat joyless ceramicist Lizzie, Showing Up centers on an insular artistic community circling Portland’s Oregon College of Arts and Crafts. The production, instruction and presentation of art fills almost every scene of the movie. Long shots of Lizzie glazing her dancing women or of her landlord and friend Jo (Hong Chau) wrestling a chunk of foam give the film a gentle pace, even though there’s a deadline on the horizon. Lizzie is just a few days away from the opening of a solo show, and she has work to finish.

White woman with bob holds sculpture in hands, a Black man in coveralls stands behind her over kiln
André Benjamin and Michelle Williams in a scene from ‘Showing Up.’ (Photo by Allyson Riggs; Courtesy of A24)

The question isn’t really if Lizzie will be ready in time, but whether she’ll experience any pleasure in its pursuit. Small everyday inconveniences pile up, adding to her downtrodden demeanor: a broken hot-water heater; a draining office job at her alma mater (where her mother is her boss); an injured pigeon she first ignores then sanctimoniously cares for; an unstable brother to worry after.


There’s a complicated, competitive friendship at the center of Showing Up. Jo, a full-time artist of some local renown, is breezily confident and connected to a wider circle of friends. Meanwhile, Lizzie eats her lunch alone on the OCAC campus, muttering things like “she really figured it out” in regards to Jo’s landlord status. Both are no longer students, not yet established, navigating the weird in-between space where so many artists spend most — if not all — of their careers.

In the absence of a wider world (Showing Up has no indication of even Portland’s tech sector), art becomes all-encompassing to the viewer, just as it is to Lizzie. And without that wider world, there’s no one around to question or lampoon the solitary, repetitive task of making art. Reichardt takes opportunities to poke slight fun at pretentious language, but she allows her artists to have real dignity — without offering any grandiose statements about the power or promise of their output.

A Black man and an Asian woman lean over to look closely at a small figurative sculpture, smiling
André Benjamin and Hong Chau in a scene from ‘Showing Up.’ (Photo by Allyson Riggs; Courtesy of A24)

Showing Up’s inward focus also yields a bit of a fantasy in an otherwise realistic plot. There are no existential dilemmas here. External economic pressures on artists and arts spaces never factor into the storyline. In the real world, OCAC — where the film’s many shots of weaving, painting, movement classes and liquid light shows were staged — closed in 2019, unable to sustain itself against the rising cost of running a small art college. (Sound familiar?)

Considered alongside other films about artists, Showing Up is a quiet outlier. It does not judge Lizzie’s work (made in real life by OCAC alum Cynthia Lahti) or Jo’s (made by Michelle Segre). Instead, it depicts the intricacies and difficulties of bringing these things to fruition. As with any other job, goals are set and projects undertaken. Some artists may lead glamorous, jet-setting lives, but the vast majority plug away under-recognized in whatever space they can call a studio. All that work is still, simply, work.

Perhaps the one thing artists have figured out better than most is to throw a small party at the end, complete with plenty of cheese and crackers.

‘Showing Up’ opens in Bay Area theaters on April 14.