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November Issue 2007

A View from Down Under
on Reviewing the Critics

by Judith McGrath

Spare a thought for the poor art critic. All we hear is moaning and wailing from artists and galleries about the dearth of art criticism. Yet, when someone dares to write an honest critique of an exhibition, be it praising or denigrating, those same complainants 'chuck a wobbly'. (Australian for 'throwing a tantrum') This leaves the critic stuck between a rock and a hard place, either condemned for being prejudicial or dismissed as lacking knowledge and/or understanding of the newest inspirational art.

With that in mind you'll understand why I classify myself a Reviewer rather then Critic. No, it's not to protect me from the slings and arrows of irate readers it's more the case of correctly defining what I do. As a 'reviewer' I need only record my reaction to, and interpretation of, the art on exhibition. If the work is good it should be explained why; if it's imperfect but shows promise 'corrective' criticism can be offered; if it's bad ignore it. (As they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity!) It's about helping the artist and the viewer, it's not about ego.

For example, I recently attended an exhibition of new sculptures by a respected ceramic artist in this town. It had been years since she'd presented her work at home as she'd been exhibiting and participating in workshops around the world. She creates androgynous figures with exaggerated proportions to suggest the uniqueness of humanity.

Recalling her first show many years back I could see the thread that linked these new efforts to her primary forms and how her style had evolved within her theme. It was also obvious that, like me, just about every other viewer in the gallery could pin a personal narrative to at least one figure. People were discussing the works with other attendees, whether they were acquainted or not. One woman approached me to relate what she read in one form and wondered if I felt the same. We were joined by a gentleman and each delighted in the other's reading of the work. The exhibition was a wonderful experience and I reviewed it accordingly.

The following weekend the Sunday newspaper's relatively new art critic wrote about the same show. He considered the figures deformed, the designs etched into the white slip on some forms too busy, the flattened busts derivative of Modigliani then compared the artist's efforts in clay to another more celebrated local practitioner, who works in bronze! It was blatantly obvious that all he saw were odd figures, not the universal truths they presented.

Most art 'critics' view an exhibition through eyes clouded by what they know. They see all that's gone before - in art history, in the artist's career, in the local scene ­ but not what's in front of their eyes. They feel it is their responsibility to place the artwork within a socio-political environment believing their academic credence allows them to fix the boundaries of the art scene. On the other hand, art 'reviewers' leave the backpack full of local prejudices or academic references at home. Instead of analyzing the work with reference to politics, history, culture, personalities or whatever, they look at the work to see what it is saying and relate to it in a personal manner. Yes, our response to fine art is enhanced by knowledge, however it should not be swayed by concepts that lay beyond the artwork, or the self.

As an art reviewer I try to see what the artist is saying, in relation to life and/or art. When attending an exhibition my overall response to the whole is noted prior to recording my interpretation of particular works. Sometimes I'll chat with, or listen to the comments by other visitors in the gallery to glean their reactions to the exhibition as visual art communicates on different levels to different viewers.

I recall one show by a respected artist in this town and how, after going through the exhibition jotting down my responses, I tuned into the comments of a brace of ladies perusing the paintings. I heard ooos and ahhs as they approached each exhibit, and how they were students of the artist some years back. As they viewed the work they chatted about the artist's good looks, his teaching methods and how much they enjoyed art school. They never once discussed the object in front of them in the present instead they reminisced about the past and considered where to have lunch in the immediate future.

There was another woman in the gallery, sitting on a settee quietly absorbed in one of the larger works. Her attention caused me to focus anew on the particular painting. The artist produces abstract works often inspired by the colours of the 'outback' landscape as seen from an aerial view. When I looked the second time I discovered a painted line I had not noticed previously. It was a continuous, single brush mark that seemed to meander through the whole composition, sometimes boldly ­ sometimes barely there, like a train of thought. When the woman rose from her reverie, we discussed this one brush stroke and each of us discovered a whole new meaning in the work. And yes, we both knew the artist but wasted no time chatting about him rather we talked about the work around us.

The first two ladies are like many art critics. They were not engaging with the art, they were discussing history and their personal encounters with the artist. They had formed their opinion of the exhibition prior to entering the gallery. On the other hand, the lone woman who immersed herself in the art, to concentrate on its concepts, composition, colour and tactile surface, to discover a personal response to the work, was actually 'reviewing' it.

We can't all be art critics but we should all learn to be honest art reviewers. Artists are interested in, and often want to know, if they are reaching their audience. They accept 'corrective' criticism that comes from their peers and/or feedback from the informed viewer, as there are times they cannot see their own shortcomings.

Let's all become art reviewers. We won't make much money but we'll find riches beyond compare.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia, 25 minutes east of Perth. She received a BA in Fine Art and History from the University of Western Australia. McGrath lectured in Art History and Visual Literacy at various colleges around the Perth area, and was an art reviewer for The Sunday Times and The Western Review both published in the Perth area. McGrath is currently a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. She also co-ordinates the web site Art Seen in Western Australia found at (www.artseeninwa.com).

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