Monday, September 09, 2019

Review of a critique of an art society exhibition

What happens when somebody reviews an art society exhibition as if it was a "proper art exhibition" i.e. using the same sort of criteria as might be used for any other sort of art exhibition in the area?

This post is generic in nature - in terms of conclusions - but does take one example to highlight the sort of issues that can arise.

Brea Gallery shows off what the Colored Pencil Society of America can do is a magazine review of the 27th Annual International Exhibition of the Colored Pencil Society of America at the City of Brea Art Gallery, 1 Civic Center, Brea, CA (July 31–September 13, 2019).

It's written by a chap who has written for the Orange County Weekly for the last 8 years as its art critic.

I supposed the best way of summarising his review is he's called it as he sees it.

That's not the way some of colored pencil artists see it who have responded by commenting on his review - worth a read!

They diverge between those that
  • welcome a contribution to the ongoing debate about the use of photographs by CP artists
  • one lady who is not averse to slinging insults around - not realising that Google picks up on comments as well as websites and that her name is now forever irretrievably associated with her comments!
  • some who criticise the reviewer for not understanding the medium of colored pencils. For example.....
Mr Barton, You should be ashamed of yourself, given the ignorant nonsense you’ve written here about this medium, these artists, and art in general, frankly. Did you interview a single artist, or even leaf through a copy of “Colored Pencil” magazine? Your level of ignorance is astounding.
I do remember another CPSA exhibition where the independent Juror did provide feedback afterwards about the show as a whole - and mentioned a lot of aspects highlighted in this review. It didn't go down well that time either. However it does say something about the extent to which coloured pencil artwork has moved on in the last decade or so if the same sort of comments are still being made by independent individuals who have studied the artwork.

Interestingly, some of those who commented got stuck on some of the earlier comments and appear to have completely missed the last paragraph.
For the future, the process of work such as this needs to be demystified. Art historians and critics, including myself, usually do little to shed light on how work is created, focusing mostly on the materials used or the feelings we have when looking at it. Focusing solely on the ideas is a primarily selfish, insular thing satisfying only the person writing about it, when opening up the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears behind the art should be our goal.
Images (in cropped format)
of some of the artworks
winning awards in the exhibition
You can see more photos of the prizewinners on Facebook and more of the pics in the rest of the exhibition on the Brea Gallery Instagram account

A Making A Mark perspective

I'm really not having a go at CPSA or its members in particular here. The issues for me are essentially generic - other than to highlight that it's interesting that some common criticisms from an independent perspective of this type of artwork are still the same as they were more than a decade ago.

My reason for commenting is more about the need for artists to understand that if and when you put your art "out there" - via an exhibition or a website - then

  • people will make their own assessment and think what they think 
  • sometimes they will say what they think - and 
  • sometimes they will maybe even WRITE what they think.

Here's my take on it.

  • Art Critics tend to review the art first and the technique second (why do they need to understand the media / the hours employed - and why do they need to have read a magazine about it?)
  • Art Collectors may admire technique - but most still tend to review the art first 
  • If you place an emphasis on technique at the expense of other factors which contribute to good quality fine art (eg principles and elements of good design) then you might find that your artwork is judged as lacking
  • Copying photos might get you a lot of admiration for your copying skills - but this sort of admiration tends to come from those who know very little about art apart from "what they like"
  • An excessive amount of realism might deter those who would like to exhibit artwork which uses a different approach.
  • It's worth noting that critics usually appreciate it you take the trouble as a society to explain to the uninitiated 
    • what is special about the art
    • what is special about individual exhibits - which have a good story behind them
    • BUT don't expect them to know what you know by osmosis!
The thing is you might not hear what you'd like to hear.

It's certainly the case that this particular art critic has voiced the views held by a number of people about coloured pencil artwork - i.e. 
  • too much focus on realism and a particular set of techniques and 
  • not enough emphasis on art per se and the scope of mark-making possible when using coloured pencils.  
It's one of the reasons I moved on from the coloured pencil art world which I kept finding to be rather too blinkered for my liking. (I have a preference for those who respect traditions - but also like to innovate and change and improve how things can be)
What happens when somebody writes a "critical review" (in the correct sense of the term) is that you might not hear things you expected to hear - especially if they are wholly independent of an art society.

They can be people who:
  • do not understand the media - but just comment on the quality of the art
    • Why do they need to know about and understand the media and the number of hours employed to produce the artwork - in order to comment on the ART not the techniques used?
  • are averse to artwork that looks as if it has been copied a photograph 
    • i.e. who does the originality belong to - the photographer or the artist?. 
    • Contrary to the assertion of commentator NOT every artist - or professional fine artist - does this
CPSA’s rules demand that the image must be the artist’s own pictures, but I’m not sure how closely those dictates are complied with or how the work is vetted; a quick Google search revealed at least one award-winning picture was based on a photo that was not taken by the artist. (from the review - and the issue he rightly comments on is conduct of the artist and quality assurance)
  • compare and contrast with other contemporary artwork seen in the area. Somewhat inevitable if you've got the local art critic.
  • agree and disagree with one another - just because one critic is flattering and another is critical does not make right and the other wrong - or vice versa.  But they do give pause for thought about why people think the way they do.
When I write reviews of art society exhibitions, I always think hard about 
  • the overall impression conveyed by the exhibition. One of the absolute dead give-aways is whether I can remember every wall 2-3 days later i.e. was it impressive in general as well as in relation to particular artworks.  If I delay a review it's often because I'm not sure and I want to try thinking about it again in a couple of days time.
  • which artworks I liked in particular and why - because it's important to provide positive feedback to those who I think excelled
  • what deficits in terms of artwork or organisation I perceived - typically written (as this critic does) in a non-personal way - so that these can be identified/addressed. This tackles the "can't see wood for trees" problem of exhibitions.
  • what improvements I'd like to see next year - if there's something that might have made it a much more enjoyable experience - as feedback for the society. (Most of which I have to say has been acted upon over time - so I assume my feedback has its supporters!).
However we should always be mindful of the fact that one person's opinion is just that - one person's opinion. Just as judges have opinions and artwork that is rejected by one judge can be awarded a prize by a judge of a different exhibition.  

How to get an independent assessment of the quality of your art

If you want to get a proper assessment of your art I'd highly recommend entering it into shows where nobody has a clue about coloured pencils (or your own media) or techniques - and see if it gets selected!

I now encourage botanical artists to do this. They have, in the past, been a little too insular - in exactly the same way as coloured pencil artists have been in the past. ("the others don't like / don't understand our artwork).

I'm very pleased to note in the last couple of years that a number of botanical artists are now getting their artwork shown more widely - outside exhibitions associated with their expertise. For example in the annual exhibitions of watercolour societies - which have previous been dismissed as 'not liking flower paintings done by women'. Some are also getting their artwork into national exhibitions which are about artwork of any media or subject - and some are even winning prizes in such exhibitions!

That's the true test of how good artwork produced at a national society level is.
Will it stand up to competition from other artwork produced by artists using different media and working in different genres and/or styles?

I commend the notion to coloured pencil artists who want to know whether their artwork stands up to competition from the artwork of other artists.

Be brave and get it out there and find out.....

27th Annual International Exhibition - Colored Pencil Society of America 

This annual gallery exhibition is exclusively for works done in 100% colored pencil. It offers over $15,000 in cash awards, including a prestigious Best of Show and CIPPY Award.
This exhibition attracts entries from international artists.

These are links to: