Friday, June 29, 2007

Don’t get me started

... or how I choose what to review
published in The Weekly Volcano, June 28, 2007

Every week I see and write about at least one art exhibit. I’ve been doing that since about 1995. (That’s for this fine rag; add many more years for other newspapers). Once in a while something happens that prevents me from seeing a show, and I have to figure out something else to write about. This is one of those weeks.

Among the more frequent questions I get from readers is, “How do you decide what shows to review?” So I’ll take this opportunity to talk about that.

Basically, I choose art exhibits the way you might chose what movie to see or what concert to attend — reasonable expectations based on previous experience. If a certain gallery has had a lot of good shows or if I’ve seen and enjoyed previous shows from particular artists, then I can reasonably expect that their next show will be worth seeing, and I’ll be more than willing to give it a shot. Conversely, if my previous experiences with said gallery or artist have been less than exciting, I tend to steer my path in other directions.

I do not want to subject myself to bad art — and that includes art that may be technically well done but which has been done over and over and over. That includes most landscape painting and most warmed-over Impressionism and Cubism. Nothing wrong with that kind of art, except everything. I’ve seen too much of it, and there are few if any contemporary artists who do Monet and van Gogh and Picasso as well as Monet and van Gogh and Picasso do Monet and van Gogh and Picasso.

And I’m not the kind of viewer who gets a kick out of dissing artists, even though I know a lot of readers just love biting criticism. Speaking privately with friends, I may be as vitriolic as Dr. Gregory House at his most sarcastic, but in print I try to be gentle and understanding. That doesn’t mean that I soft-pedal my criticism. It would not be fair to readers to give a false impression and send them off running to see a show that’s no good. But I try to seek out shows that are worth seeing, and when I do feel the need to be critical, I try to make it helpful criticism. I remember the good teachers I had in college and try to point out weaknesses the way they did with me when I was a student. I try to write with the artist in mind, assuming that he will read my review and telling him what I like or dislike about his work in the way a teacher might. And with the public in mind, hoping my reviews will encourage people to see more art and look at it more critically.

By the way, I do have the credentials. A review may be nothing more than opinion, but it’s informed opinion. I have a master’s degree in drawing and painting, I’ve taught art in high schools and colleges, and I’ve been writing reviews for more than a quarter century.

I also try to be reasonably objective, but I don’t try to hide my personal taste. I tend to like abstract art more than realistic art, although I can name a lot of realists whose work simply blows me away. I’m easily impressed by big, bold paintings and sculptures and contemptuous of timid little pictures. I studied art during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and the beginning of Pop Art, and the best art of those years still serves as my model of what good art should be — Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Fairfield Porter, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Frank Stella. Those were the good old days. Very few artists who have emerged since the early ’70s can hold a candle to them.

Wow! I’m just getting started and already I’m running out of room. Maybe someday I’ll take the next step and tell you what I really think about local museums and galleries. But probably not. I don’t want to get run out of town.

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