Critique sessions are a little like corporate brainstorming!
Note from Philippa: People often ask for advice on what art they should buy. I never give this kind of advice. Instead, I tell beginner collectors to start looking at a lot of art and to develop their own eye so they can better decide what is right for them. One of the next steps is to participate in discussions with artists about their work. Artist critique sessions organized by The Studio Visit provide a great opportunity to do this! Not only can you learn more about the creative process, but talking about art helps you articulate what you like and don't like so you can make good collecting decisions down the road.
On a rainy and dreary night recently in Washington D.C., a group gathers at Pleasant Plains Workshop to engage in an tradition known as the artist’s critique, or “crit.” Outside, artists struggle to carry in original work, both finished and unfinished. They trickle toward the glow of the shop, whose whimsical window art seems to serve as a beacon guiding them in from the dark street. Inside, the friendly and cozy group shuffle chairs, munch doughnuts and chat.
The first artist, Deborah Carroll Anzinger, tacks up the latest in a series of prints she made at a recent residency. What follows is typically unwieldy. A brief attempt by the artist to explain her intentions is followed by a discussion that pulls back and forth with many disparate suggestions for how to develop the work, all coming from people with diverse perspective and tastes. There is an unpredictable alchemy to these events and the experience is always uniquely shaped by the audience and the artwork at hand.
This session at PPW, which is the work and retail space of Kristina Bilonick and resident artist Anthony Dihle, is the third in a series of organized artist critique sessions. The first session was held last summer at the Washington Project for the Arts as part of its Coup d’Espace program. The second was held at the Flashpoint Gallery. All three were organized by Isabel Manalo and The Studio Visit (TSV), a web journal and forum focused on artistic process.
Manalo says she would like to organize sessions on a more regular basis, possibly bi-monthly, in new forums such as the DC Arts Center. She says the critiques build on the TSV mission “by offering artists an event that is solely for them and their work in progress.” Another goal of the sessions is to help connect artists and build a stronger, more supportive artistic community.
And what do artists say about the experience? Lisa Rosenstein, who presented her work at the first session, recalls that she was a little nervous beforehand. She says, “It’s not always easy to stand up in front of your peers and share your art and your processes. It’s not always easy to share your art in public outside of the cocoon of the studio, period!”
As with most of the artists I talked to, Rosenstein says the audience response was not entirely what she expected, which led to new thoughts and approaches going forward with her work. The most important result of the critique for her was that it elevated her personal investment and dedication to her work.
Another artist, Lee Gainer, says, “It seemed like each critic had a different view, which I thought was great. And surprising because my familiarity with the work keeps me from seeing what they can see.” On whether it had an impact on her work, Gainer says, “It reinforced some things I was already thinking about and brought up things I didn’t see. I was looking at two paths with my new work and leaning towards one. The critique helped me make up my mind.”
Jackie Hoysted says the critique helped her to move on from focusing on technique and context to the overall cohesiveness of her body of work. She says she enjoys the critiques as a way to learn about other artists and she especially appreciates the democratic nature of the sessions. “It gives artists who might be otherwise unknown in the DC art community an opportunity to present their work.” As a result of her critique, Hoysted’s work gained the notice of Jodi Walsh of Gallery555 who was present at her critique. Walsh then offered her a solo show.
Most artists who have received any formal training at all have experienced critiques. In academic settings, the critique plays an important role in the development of an artist’s work. In her book, Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton devotes a chapter to describing a daylong critique by legendary teacher and artist Michael Asher. She writes, “Successful crits can become the basis of lifelong interpretive communities or artist subcultures.” However, one also gets the sense that critique practices such as the one at CalArts may create a culture shared only by those from an academic program with a distinctive orthodoxy (like that of CalArts).
What is tremendous about the TSV artist critique series is the potential to evolve the tradition of critiques beyond the philosophical confines of a single academic program or community. At the same time, the critiques offer a continuation of something difficult to maintain after artists graduate.
The sessions are based on an open call to all artists and they are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Just as many self-taught artists participate as those with fine arts degrees. The artists are all ages and come from myriad backgrounds. Manalo says the hope is that any artist faced with a new direction or body of work may take advantage of the critique.
With its changing venue, TSV critiques bring together audiences that are also diverse. Whereas an academic critique includes just faculty and students, these critiques are open to anyone, offering the chance for a real open dialogue about the work. For Manalo, exposing new audiences to the artistic process is an important part of the series. She says she would like the audience to take away an appreciation for the challenges and parameters each artist is faced with as well as the work ethic required to be a professional artist. She says she would like the attendees to be further inspired to participate in other such events, such as museum talks and art openings, and to “accept that artists are hard-working people that are integral to any vibrant community.”
A former software engineer, Hoysted does not believe the critique is terribly different from creative brainstorming that occurs in most industries. “At the time it seems that the conversation is going off track or around in circles, pointless, but along the way one or two little gems of sound advice will appear and hopefully set the basis for more informed choices on future works.”
It is certainly true that the notion of giving and receiving feedback is common to all professionals. But perhaps one unique thing for the artists is that, at the end of the day, their work is their own. They get to choose what to use, what to leave behind and which direction to take when they go back to the solitude of their respective studios.
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