The useful art of dealing with critique

A family member is studying design at present and is taking on the daunting task of being critiqued by her tutors and peers. It’s something we all go through if we are in the creative fields and while it may seem daunting, critique can be one of the most beneficial experiences for your practice.

I’ve had a lot of experience as both a designer and an artist; in school and out in the unforgiving ‘real world’. I can say with all sincerity that despite being quite a sensitive and anxious individual I have found a way to see critique as an entirely beneficial experience at least 90% of the time.

Design and art are a bit different in the way critique functions and how to approach it, as are the critiques received in school and those garnered out in the commercial world, but at their core, it’s the same.

At art/design school the sole function of critique is to help you improve your work.
Tutors and peers should be looking at your work, unpacking it, analysing it’s function and posing questions to you that challenge the choices you have made and push you to look further. It doesn’t matter how much they personally might like the work, how good they think it is, they aren’t there to praise you and give you warm fuzzies. They are there to challenge you for the benefit of your work. If they don’t do this you won’t progress and you may as well not be there.

In the design industry the function of critique is to make sure the design you are creating works for the client’s needs (even if the client is yourself!)
The critique you receive working in a design agency is likely to come from two different sources; from a creative director or other senior designer, or directly from the client. The experience of critique as a designer can be quite harsh, but what you need to remember is that the work is being done for the client, not for you. You are using your skills to create something that fulfils their requirements, whatever those may be. With that in mind you can see the critique as being whether the work you have created meets the required brief, not whether it is ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ design. Of course all designers would prefer to create beautiful design they can be proud of, but sometimes a brief will call for something that you personally find a bit ugly, and that is all part and parcel of the interesting challenges of being a commercial designer.

As an artist, critique allows you to understand how your work is perceived by others.
This is the trickiest one because it can be quite random and at times someone will come up with a critique that makes you think “How the hell did they see that??” The temptation is to pull out the old faithful “They just don’t understand it” but that’s not helpful to you as an artist. The more useful way to address critique of your art work is to try to analyse WHY they saw it that way – Is that interpretation ok with you? If you feel it’s a negative thing for the work, what are you going to change? Is there something that you’re missing that causes others to have this interpretation?
Of course you can always dismiss comments as not being very relevant, but they will all provide you with insight. It’s likely that the critique coming from people within the art world will be more useful to you than that from your family and friends, but take all of it as potentially valuable learning.

The most useful thing you can do is to separate yourself from the the work.
Even start referring to it as THE work rather than MY work. This will help you to make decisions and take critique for the benefit of the work rather than taking it upon yourself as an individual. Any critique you receive is not a critique of you as a person, it’s a critique of the work (unless in the unlikely event that the person giving it is a real dick who wants to hurt you, but in over 20 years I’ve never experienced this.)

Be accepting of the fact that not everyone will like the work you make and that this is a good thing.
There are going to be plenty of people who don’t like the art you produce or the design you come up with. So what. If everyone liked everything you create it’s going to have to be pretty bland and it’s certainly not going to break any new ground. This is far more important for art than design, as design is generally being created for someone else, still there are going to be plenty of people who hate any given design work.
With an art practice, I think it’s worth aiming to have some people who absolutely love your work, some who really hate it and at least get a nice big portion who think it’s interesting and of artistic value, even if it’s not their cup of tea. Well, that’s what I’m aiming for anyway.

Try to keep focus on the fact that critiques you receive are not personal, they are not attacks on you.
Unless someone is seriously aiming to be horrible (unlikely) the critiques are either
1) to enable you to improve the work
2) to help you make it fit it’s required use
3) to give you valuable information about the way others see the work
Or all three!

Image: “Friendly Critics” (1882) Charles Martin Hardie

“Why are creative women dismissed as ‘quirky’?” – Eva Wiseman

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/08/killer-word-quirky-eva-wiseman

That’s a very good question. My work has been called quirky on any number of occasions and every time I hear it I cringe internally and have to hold back from rolling my eyes. There is something very lazy and dismissive about the word which Eva Wiseman manages to articulate well in her article.

“When a creative man divides the critics he is called ‘surreal’ … while a woman is denigrated with the label ‘quirky’ – and that kicks the legs out from under us.”

I would feel a lot happier if my work was described as ‘surreal’. Surreal indicates that some thought has gone into it, that the artist is aiming for something, that if you look a bit harder there is going to be something interesting to see. ‘Quirky’ relegates the work to the realm of weird tics and 17 year old girls in stripey socks, with blue hair, who play the accordion.

“…in being named, you’re being rendered safe. She’s quirky, she’s harmless. Water is poured on your potential to shock.

Never has this been better articulated than with the term Manic Pixie Dreamgirl the supporting character of so many films, used to further the storyline of the male hero. She is the flighty muse whose quirkiness renders her charming but impotent. She’s not a woman (she doesn’t want a career, family, or anything scary) – she’s a girl.”

With all this in mind I also have to examine why the work is being tarred with the epithet ‘quirky’. What am I doing that is causing this word to be used as a descriptor? Is there something I can do that would steer the work away from quirkiness? Is that what I want to do? Am I even able to affect that change or are the descriptive terms used by some viewers outside my ability to influence? I want to take this opportunity to pull the work apart and examine what parts of it lends itself to this description. In the end, does it matter?

  • Thank you to Sam Dollimore for the article link. 

A Beautiful Hesitation & Panel Discussion: Exhibiting Art

Last year I went to see Fiona Pardington’s ‘A Beautiful Hesitation’ show at the City Gallery in Wellington. I wrote then about how frustrated I was with the lighting and the layout of the show and was interested to see it in Auckland to find out whether any of those issues had changed. It seems like I wasn’t the only one to have problems with the lighting on the glass of the large, dark images, as Auckland Art Gallery has presented them in a darker room with much more subdued and less directional lighting. The difference in experience is phenomenal! The layout of the works also seemed more cohesive and natural with similar works and time-periods grouped together with some rather nice salon hangs where appropriate. Overall Auckland Art Gallery improved on the display of the works considerably, they also had the accompanying book which wasn’t yet available in Wellington.

Anita and I went along to the panel discussion with Natasha Conland, Christina Barton, Misal Adnan Yıldız and Allan Smith on the exhibiting of contemporary art (with quite a bit of emphasis on the current Necessary Distraction show). I enjoyed hearing their perspectives and experiences  creating exhibitions of contemporary painting. A few points that particularly interested me:

  • Christina brought up the questions around curators producing exhibition strategies that stand as artworks in their own right (she brought this up in relation to the Necessary Distraction show curated by Natasha that utilises unfinished walls and exposed construction). How does that impact on the work? What does the exhibition become?
  • In discussing what makes painting ‘contemporary’ Adnan talked about painting needing to have an understanding of installation practice. Painting can no longer assume the position of being self-contained within it’s frame, unaffected and not interacting with the space around it.
  • Anita and I noticed that each curator placed different values on art’s duty and seemed to curate accordingly.

Hive Oracle – April 2015

Hive Oracle – watch movie at Vimeo

Creating this performative video was a real departure from the mediums I’ve worked in so far. I have a list of words and ideas that I compiled after the April Seminar that I’ve been exploring in my research.

– The idea of a shadow world, strangeness in time and space, otherworldly, hypnotic. I want to continue to explore these ideas in my work.

– I need to examine duration in my work. What would realtime do? Authenticity versus affect.

– Tying into that is the use of cinematic orthodoxies and the tropes of theatre. Artifice. I’m curious as to how I can use these in a totally unselfconscious way to produce certain affect. It’s a bit of a fine line between cliched/naff and something that works the way i want it to, it can easily be pushed too far and fall over. The same with earnestness versus parody, it’s tricky but I’m interested in exploring it.

– Trace of Performance. This is important and has been coming up again and again with my work. I’m currently exploring how this can be used and will write a post about what I have discovered.

– Performing to camera. Is this a performance or is it a video work? What makes it one or the other? What happens if the performance is not to camera? There was also quite a bit of feedback from viewers around how they felt the direct eye-contact was challenging which I felt was a positive response to the work.

– I also need to examine the role of scent and sound in the work to create a full enveloping experience. I’ve used scent for some time now and would like to keep that as part of my practice.

Work in Progress January 2015

This is a record of the work I made in January 2015. Overall I think this is the least successful work, but I learned a lot of valuable stuff from actually making it. During the creation of the work I went through a repetitive production process that was bordering on ritualistic in it’s experience. The scent of the wax brought bees into the house and I had to go through a sort of ritual everyday around avoiding them, feeding them (because they got tired) and taking them back outside again at the end of the day. Creating the hexagon tiles involved a long process of heating, pouring, cooling, flattening, being very, very hot, getting burns and dodging excited bees.

After creating this work it became obvious to me that the interest in the piece was within the creative process, not the tiles on the floor. They felt flat and lacking in the energy of their own creation – someone described them as being like a ‘sketch’ rather than a sculpture. During my feedback meeting Anders suggested the inclusion of the tools of making, of somehow bringing the energy of the bees and the feeling of the creation process into the work. This was very valuable for me and has informed my thinking ever since.

Despite being somewhat disappointed in the finished piece, I’m very glad that I made it because I learned so much from what didn’t work and what I needed to think about to make it successful.

Hex (2015)
Beeswax, carbon, sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh

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Work from September 2014

I realised that I hadn’t posted progress photos of my work from September last year and January this year.

Looking back on this work is curious… it’s interesting and it seems like a step towards what I’m trying to create, but just and experiment with materials and ideas. I went from the very clinical, minimalist object work in July to using much more natural materials and attempting a more active work. I say ‘attempting’ because it was an attempt and an experiment rather than a success.

I found a great deal of enjoyment working with wax, wood and resin. I also found that scent and some sort of sensual experience is an important part of the work I want to create.

Artist’s Statement:

 

“Examining the role of boundaries and thresholds in establishing areas of safety and discomfort.
Creating ritual ‘happenings’ that instigate a transformation and leave behind a residue or resolution.
I have started to push into areas I discovered in both semester one and two; working through viewers reactions to exclusionary subject matter.
When an event happens inside a performative space how does that affect the viewer? What if it breaks out of that space? What if the viewer has to step inside a delineated boundary? Can a threshold be captured inside a boundary and diffused or made ‘safe’?”

Holy Smoke: An Adoration of Our Star (2014)
(pine, copper, beeswax, glass, obsidian, charcoal, benzoin resin, kauri gum, frankincense, Abramelin resin, voice.) 

Fools Gold (2014)
(pine, beeswax, salt, pyrite, myrrh resin)

This work set me up to look at trace and residue of rituals or other performative happenings. It got me thinking about performance as a viable practice for me and it pushed me to acknowledge that my work was too ‘poised’ and therefore lacked the legitimacy of a real happening, even when one had occurred.  It also made me think about the positioning of elements within a space and how the viewer experienced them. Does performance occur in the space? How is it documented? What does it leave? Could the happening be about to occur rather than have finished? Could it be occurring during viewing? It also got me thinking about using the elements of esoteric ritual in a less obvious way; e.g. beeswax can say what it needs to say without being a candle.

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Holy Smoke: An Adoration of Our Star (2014)
(pine, copper, beeswax, glass, obsidian, charcoal, benzoin resin, kauri gum, frankincense, Abramelin resin, voice.) 

I constructed a natural pine platform/altar with an enclosing glass and copper box on top. Using the idea from John Dee’s Enochian system of using wax as an insulator I filled the base of the platform with beeswax and sat the feet on 4 beeswax disks to keep it from touching the ground. Charcoals were set on 4 pieces of obsidian and lit to burn 4 types of resinous gum. A ritual adoration for the sun was performed (necessity meant it had to be performed outside due to fire alarms which meant the ritual was not in the gallery space and also a lot of the smell was lost). The ritual was then enclosed in the box where the the smoke pooled and finally died leaving only melted wax, charred carbon and a lingering scent.

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The altar during the ritual adoration.

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A test of the work at home showing the smoke-filled case.

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Fools Gold (2014)
(pine, beeswax, salt, pyrite, myrrh resin)

This work was a broken ring of salt and basalt with a ‘popped’ box shooting resin crystals outside the confines of the circle. I used the same materials for this work as for the previous one, but although I really enjoy the objects  and the overall idea, I think this work mostly failed. It was a good test for me to experience what would happen if I made a work like this and let me see how much further it needed to be pushed.

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Pre-seminar Inspiration

Yolunda sent me some things to get me motivated before April seminar. All of the quotes in this article were great, but my two favourite are below:

“Creating a non-purposive, free space in which to play and have fun is essential. You can tell when you are looking at art that was a drag to make: it’s a drag to look at.” Carol Bove on keeping things clever yet playful.

I love this quote because I’ve seen it so many times, both in myself and in the work of others. If you had absolutely no joy in the creation and it was nothing but a boring and painful birth then that is how it is experienced by everyone. I get caught up in making sure my art ‘works’ or it’s read how I want it to be, or it’s going to be something that other people will ‘like’ instead of just making it, enjoying the process and seeing what happens.

“Stop making ‘art’ and start making your work. […] It’s so easy to make things that look like art, act like art, get sold like art, yet in the end aren’t really art, but are phantoms, mere commodities, or quantifiable digestible sound bites.” Stephanie Syjuco, on staying clear of Zombie Formalism and finding one’s own path (see Have Art Fairs Destroyed Art? Zombie Abstraction and Dumb Painting Ruled in Miami).

Another piece of advice I find so incredibly relevant. I struggle with the feeling of whether I’m making ‘art’ or not when that is actually totally irrelevant. If I’m researching and thinking and creating, then I’m making my work and that’s what is important. The truly amazing work comes from a place of honesty (is that cheesy?) and is unencumbered by the second guessing and worrying that goes into trying to make ‘art’.

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/top-12-artist-tips-for-a-successful-career-283277

The Expanded Field

krauss

Rosalind E. Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1978) (Krauss, R. “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths” (1985) The MIT Press; London, England) is a really useful essay that I have read three times and will probably read again. It examines the emergence of Postmodern sculptural practices and how they can be quantified when their expression is so varied.

The category of ‘sculpture’ becomes infinitely malleable and comes down from (or absorbs) it’s classical place on the pedestal. Krauss argues that in order for the new to be more palatable and acceptable it needs to have a historical evolution. Where sculpture once had a fairly linear art historical narrative, as it pushes the boundaries into new areas then historical provenance is expanded to include genealogies of millennia incorporating the likes of stonehenge, the nazca lines and neolithic mounds – none of which were ever intended as sculpture!

Modernist practice initially pushed the boundaries by removing the pedestals and moving the place. Modernist sculpture became somewhat nomadic. A new boundary needed to be established; if it’s NOT architecture and it’s NOT landscape, then it must be sculpture.

The 1960s welcomed in the postmodernist approach and the boundaries of sculptural practice were pushed to their outer limits.

“Sculpture is no longer the privileged middle term between two things it isn’t. Sculpture is rather only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured possibilities.” P284

Krauss put forward the Expanded Field theory and quarternary field diagram.

I have identified some examples of works that fit into the new fields:

Marked Site: both landscape and not-landscape

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Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
mud, salt, basalt rocks, water, 460m x 4.6m, Great Salt Lake, Utah

 

Site Construction: both landscape and architecture

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Mary Miss, Perimeters, Pavilions, Decoys, 1978
Long Island, New York

Axiomatic structure: this uses existing structures and works with them or upon them. The structures can be architectural and not-architectural.

Untitled 1965, reconstructed 1971 by Robert Morris born 1931

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1965 (reconstructed 1971)
Mirror glass and wood, 914 x 914 x 914 mm, Tate Gallery, London

 

Thoughts about works by Tracey Tawhiao and Tiffany Singh at Te Uru

Justine and I visited Te Uru gallery last weekend to have a look at the current exhibitions. There were 2 that were of particular interest to me due to their intersection with, differences and similarities to my own work.

Tracey Tawhiao’s work is part of a group show called  IOIOIOIOIOIO that examines the hidden order unifying our Universe. She examines the language of sacred geometry,the names of the Māori Creator IO and the simple but unifying language of binary code. In her work she is exploring the same sort of esoteric language that I enjoy and is taking both a universal and local approach by combining both western mysticism (in the form of ideas such as the Metatron Cube and the Tree of Life) with her ancestral understanding through mātauranga Māori. I related to this work because of her interest in sacred geometry and western mysticism and I enjoyed the relationship between the languages of the different traditions that resulted in a very universal work.

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Tracey Tawhiao (Ngai te Rangi, Whakatohea, Tuwharetoa), IOEAU (God and I), 2014, acrylic paint on paper, Te Uru Gallery [there is a material not listed in the artist’s statement which is the acrylic disks overlaying the painted words]

Tiffany Singh was also exhibiting at Te Uru with an exhibition called “Life is But a Vapour” that concerns itself with the grieving process and art as a process to come to terms with grief, death and dying. Over a three month period members of the public were invited to visit Singh’s studio and create memorial string which were incorporated into the work. The work displayed at Te Uru was a combination of this piece and several other in collaboration with other artists. The wall itself was a jumble of objects and symbols, the memorial strings combined with many other items of cultural significance. It felt overwhelming and despite being a participatory artwork I felt it did not invite the viewer to participate. Many of the objects incorporated into the wall were already loaded with heavy religious and cultural meaning so instead of being an inclusive collaboration from many different people it seemed more like a clash of cultures with the viewer being left wondering whether the artist could actually speak for and to all of these peoples who sign their scared items. It felt like a rather cavalier display of symbolic items that the artist might not fully comprehend, rather than a genuine and thoughtful enquiry.

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Tiffany Singh, I Have Died Many Times But Your Breathe Makes Me Alive Again, Ongoing collaborative work, Te Uru Gallery 2015

Tiffany Singh had another piece in the gallery that was concerned with a similar idea but was very different in the way it approached the subject matter. “Earth Air Fire Water Ash” is a suspended glass ash receptacle holding charred remains and suspended above a shallow bowl. There is none of the blatant religious and cultural symbolism in this work, but the materials and their display make it very clear what the viewer can explore in the work. It has a quiet poignancy that speaks to me of grief and death far more than the cluttered wall. The work is open ended, the elemental nature of the materials is understandable to all, it invites the viewer to experience it and it doesn’t block the reading through complex, and potentially exclusionary, symbolism. This was very useful for me to observe because its something I have been grappling with in my own practice.

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Tiffany Singh, Earth Air Fire Water Ash, 2014, Glass and ash, collaboration with Isaac Katzoff Monmouth Glass studio, Te Uru Gallery

These two exhibitions gave me a clarity about my own practice that I had understood to some extent before, but now have SEEN in the work of others. I can now understand exactly why work like this can be exclusionary and ways to approach subjects to make the art interesting for a wider range of viewers; to make the work better. I am going to hold these images and my realisations about them in my mind when creating my own work so that I move one way and not the other.

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