2.21.2009

welcome, and i love the oblique.





Welcome to this new location for my thoughts and writing. I've begun this blog to bridge my activities as one of the writers for A.C. Frabetti's online journal of art criticism Aeqai with some of my other approaches to visual culture. After discussing this blog component with my editor, he (A.C.) offered this quotation as a possible explanation for my writings here:



"A good critic is one who narrates the adventures of his mind among masterpieces." - Anatole France





So, by way of introduction, I am going to post the talking points from a lecture I gave on November 23, 2008 as part of a lecture series called "Making Sense of Contemporary Art." Gary Gaffney, a professor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and a local artist, invited me to speak from the perspective of the art critic. In my talk, I presented as many unanswered questions as I did solutions. I talked heavily from my own bias as both a writer and a visual artist in my own practice (as Matthew Collings, Jerry Saltz, and others have done before me while they 'tried to do both'). It was a pleasure to speak in the same session as Jean Feinberg, a seasoned curator and critic who has created exhibitions, catalogues, and catalogue essays that have left indelible impressions on me. At one time, she was the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Our perspectives contrasted one another vividly, and brought up an important point: what I think is not absolutely truth, nor do I purport it to be. Perhaps that is obvious, but I thought it important to make that clear at the front end of whatever may occur in this written space.







The range of possible meanings of an art object compels criticism into action so that the artwork may be liberated from the confines of the artist's intentions in making it.

My beliefs and ideas about criticism depend largely on my own experiences, reinforced through a personal practice of reading, research, and inquiry. I don’t and have no interest in vouching how it stands up to a canon or to some standards of “what criticism should be.” Criticism should stay as experimental, optional, an practical as art making itself.

While I work through these talking points, there will be images of work projected in the room. I will tell you about what the images are. Their function here is to show you a smattering of paintings, sculptures, installations, and films that I have had deeply profound experiences with, ones that defied initial or continue to defy critical analysis all together. I bring them up as a way to deflect any absolute conviction that may seem to leak out as I speak. The best work, it seems, renders the critical part of my consciousness temporarily or wholly mute. It is a kind of spirituality where art gives new relevance to ineffability. And so we proceed.


Criticism, as I use it, is the OPPOSITE of the text panels that are often presented in museums. Actually, in the American Folk Art Museum there are even docents that wear tags that say “art explainer.” I question what we can totally know about art; it is mutable. As concrete as most of it is, it is radiant with potential changes, deflecting easy interpretations or solid categorization. For me, criticism is often about knowing that I know less than I thought and appreciating the broad psychological terrain that I can access through an art object.



People generally look to restaurant, book, film, and art reviews, to determine whether they should spend the time or money to entertain or be entertained. The media recognize that although so many deny relying on what some stranger has to say, the reviewer has the power to secure patrons. … Because Morris spends too much time beating his chest and our heads with art theory … he, ArtWorks, and the rest of us are left to rely on City Beat’s red “Critic’s Pick” that graces the review. Morris’ review thus risks not only alienating loyal art patrons, but reducing the role of the reviewer to a mere editor’s stamp.
-Kathy Stockman on her Cincinnati Art Snob Blog

To be sure, my goal as a writer is not to offer a final judgment about the work that either condemns or approves of it. I am usually much more ambivalent. Instead, in my writing and in the way I experience art for myself, I aim to map my experience, being awareness of distinctions between one aspect and another aspect of what an artwork is doing to me. Sometimes it is pleasurable, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes studious in how it recalls vast references to history, society, philosophy, and other information. When I write, I try to offer a portrait of the work from my perspective.




Yes, of course, I am excited by the totally integrated work of art. But the truth is that there is something far more important to me than this unitary idea, than this emphasis on quality as the achievement of wholeness and consistency and perfection. What I really want from art is a variety of qualities, qualities that are as varied as the artists who create the works of art. And I suspect that when artists are shaping and deepening and clarifying the qualities that mean the most to them, then the quality in the sense of wholenss and oneness takes care of itself.
-Jed Perl in Antoine’s Alphabet


Criticism is less useful when restricted to the artist’s intended message. As a viewer, I am resistant to obviously didactic message that an artist hopes to communicate in an artwork. I can’t think of any work that is not rife with oblique possibilities and those are what I pay attention to.
More than anything else, I look to the object itself to inform me about its qualities and nature. Its scale, materiality, color, placement, space occupation, and how the elements (if there are more than one) of a work are composed into the experience that is offered. In other words, the form that an artwork takes provides its greatest meaning. Its superficial qualities are, in fact, its deepest possible meanings.

To really even know what it is you are seeing takes time. Don’t wholly trust your initial impressions of a work. Allow your impressions to compound over time, or even multiple visits to work. As Wayne Koestenbaum said of Warhol’s work at the Wexner last weekend, “Things will start to happen.”


Once an object is put out into the world, the artist’s involvement with its interpretation is not of primary importance to me. An artwork may note all kinds of periphery references or aspects of art history that the maker is unaware of, with no need for the artist to legitimize these additional meanings attached to the work.

This depends on what you want out of art. Surprisingly, Duchamp seemed to want to be in contact with the maker through the work they made. This is not of primary concern for me as a viewer, and almost totally unimportant as a critic and writer. The presence of the artist in the work is useful insofar as their biography does or does not obviously inform the object itself.
What is possible through a critical intent in looking at an artwork is that a dialectic is possible between object and viewer. The art object projects a range of potential meanings that the viewer responds to with sensitivity, analysis, reflection, and articulation. (The best works are animated and can uphold their end of the discussion.) What results are these trains of ideas that are spread out in the space between audience and art. What results is a reassurance of the connectedness of ideas and of the nearly endless possibilities that can result from simply looking.



Certainly, the roles of artist and critic are different, and it is one of my life works right now to operate ambidextrously as both a maker of visual objects and a writer of criticism, theory, and poetry. But criticism is more of an instinct than I thought it was, and I’ve come to see that it has been a part of my life when I was a student and as an artist for some time.

As a young artist especially, but this is true of anyone who is interested in visual art experiences, or any experiences at all, articulating your experiences back to yourself is a means of learning from them. I can see even early on in my sketchbooks how I came to implement lessons from master artists into my practice by way of exercising a critical dialogue about what I was seeing.

Trying to maneuver as both artist and critic simultaneously is rarely successful; however, I have learned that as well as approaching other people’s art critically, there are stages in my own creative process when I can step away from the work and carry a line of inquiry to what I am doing, discussing what I appear to be accomplishing in the work and formulating strategies to proceed based on my half-baked conclusions.Having said that, I believe it is important that the artist understands that we are hardly objective about our own work and are not ideal candidates to represent common taste or the implications of what we’ve made to the society we are presenting it to. Most often, artists really barely know what it is they’ve made, even the best of them. I have innate mistrust towards artists who presume to have designed clear communication in visual objects. Yeah, but what about all this extra information lying about?
When Laura James at City Beat wrote about my recent solo exhibition, she read this installation with potato starch and flour sifted onto the floor as a reference to cocaine at parties. And perhaps with good reason, because the title of the piece was even Glamorama, taken from a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, that, like most of his books looks into the bewildering decadence of the 1990s in America. Nonetheless, I approached that material as some of the ingredients of the powder used on wigs in pre-revolution France. Nearby, a video piece played where Glenn Close, in Dangerous Liaisons, smashed canisters of powder and perfume in her boudoir. Fragmentary installations with poetic potential strung between them, allowing powdered wigs, cocaine, baking accidents, Zen sand gardens and a number of other references to be called to mind in viewers. While this is as much due the abstraction in my work, I have had as ambivalent of experiences with all kinds of art. What are the motivations of the characters in this Girodet painting? Why did Bonnard need to paint women and cats instead of just being Fiona Rae way before she was born?


I don’t mean to take away the responsibility of the artist to his own work. But I believe that an artist’s attempt at understanding what he is doing is to improve and refine the intent with which he is working. As we come to question ourselves about what we make, our art becomes more specific. I also don’t mean to suggest that the artist is totally excluded from a discussion of his work. On the contrary, the artist is a storyteller, enabled to regale audiences with where the work came from and the conditions (mental, social, psychological) that surrounded it as it was realized. The artist is the keeper of the art object’s past: we know where our art comes from better than we know anything else about it.


Does art change because of criticism?
Do viewers’ impressions or understandings of art change because of criticism?
Should anything change because of criticism?
Some of the most astute writing about art is after the artist has died, where everything that they will realize is realized; we have as much evidence as we are going to have in understanding the person and place that the art came from. In the meantime, I continue to be watchful.



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