Wednesday, February 11, 2009


“The very act of drawing an object, however badly, swiftly takes the drawer from a woolly sense of what the object looks like to a precise awareness of its component parts and particularities.” – Alain de Botton

Some people might think it ain’t a good crit unless someone leaves in tears, or see it as an excuse to cut down other people, but I personally don’t get off on (metaphorically) ripping apart other people’s artwork, especially when that kinda runs counter to the whole reason I’m the teacher. Besides, if it’s really that bad then there’s probably a good chance I might bear some of the responsibility. But on the other hand, I never take anything personally, as there are guaranteed to be examples made of some pieces that just failed to follow the simple instructions, or were done in such haste that it obviously shows, or have some really weak areas – so they in turn should also be trained to not take everything to heart (including compliments). Not to mention the predictable half-assed excuses and obvious bullshit that needs to be called out - that should be done roughly proportionate to the level of respect as it warrants, and as diplomatically and maturely as possible. If the work isn’t taken seriously then there isn’t much sense wasting time & energy with it either – there are other people in the class who deservedly expect attention and due credit for their efforts. As much as I loathe conflict I’m not terribly effective at psychotherapy either, and at the end of it all I just have to do my job, like anybody else, the best I can any given day.

One also has to pay attention not only to what you’re saying but how it is said, as even an offhand comment can assume tragic proportions for the sensitive artist types. So for a habitually caustic smartass like me, I really have to watch it, as there might be a few students who haven’t figured out about half the stuff that comes out of my mouth might be tongue-in-cheek. So much for the dry wit. The quickest way to get kicked out of class is to ignore the part in the syllabus about a “respectful and supportive atmosphere”, which I’ve fortunately only had to invoke just twice over the years as cause to do the dreaded “Instructor Initiated Withdrawl”.

On a related side-note, during this particular crit, my objective assessment of a piece that was not only unfinished but also on a sheet of xerox paper was called into question, well, obstinately challenged, in that “so what if it wasn’t done on the right paper it’s a great drawing”. Well, ok, yeah… that might be true, but as I pointed out, A) my class, I’m the damn teacher and B) we could argue about the elusive qualities of what constitutes a work of great art, but bottom line is follow the instructions, the same ones that somehow 99% of the rest of the class managed to clue themselves in on. This doesn’t mean I’m a stickler for rigid adherence to arbitrary, pointless or petty rules, or have anally retentive control issues like a lot of my own instructors seemed to have had in my own educational experience. If the assignment is to be typed and you turn it in hand-written in illegible cursive script, well, don’t know what to tell ya – sure, it’s beautiful, but do it again. Please. Thank you.

Honestly it was a legitimate question and something that should be addressed, but surprising coming from an individual who was incidentally a mother (so in theory should be used to the “because I said so” decree) and also a musician: imagine showing up for a gig with an orchestra with a banjo, and you are in the horn section, and instead of playing Wagner you launch instead into “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” – cool, amusing and creative, but not appreciated by the conductor, the rest of the band, and probably not by most of the paying audience. Appropriate time and place for everything etc. and it seems there’s always a reason every semester to put the proverbial foot down and reign in folks who don’t get it. Then I usually feel like a horrible, mean hypocrite, especially given my personal past lessons in dealing with Agents of the System Enforcing Conformity and Crushing Personal Expression. Oh well.

Meanwhile, being in a classroom setting affords us the opportunity to compare and contrast the pieces in question against the other examples up on the wall, some of which will have varying degrees of success over similar, if not the same, problems (there are, after all, only so many damn views you can get from the inside of a dorm room). Excellent chances to encourage swiping of specific cases – this has to be the only class where the teacher tells you to copy someone else’s work. But if there is a drawing where, for example, the shelves on a wall are all on the same plane and illustrate perfectly how the angles shift in accordance with principles of linear perspective, and another drawing doesn’t, it’s a case-in-point for seeing what worked, how, and why, and adopting the same approach into your own piece. This has the advantage of really helping others who may be struggling to connect the dots when it’s placed side-by-side with their work. The same principle is behind showing samples from previous classes and the range of different solutions reached by other beginning students when each new assignment is given out.

When all the works are up on the wall, the first piece is focused on, and a different student other than the creator of said piece is called upon to “weigh forth” with their objective analysis. They will get up out of their seats and stand in front of the class next to the piece in question, and run down a provided laundry-list of criteria relevant to this particular assignment, offering their own opinions and insights along the way, often with prompting by me. After a couple minutes, they’re off the hook, and I open the floor up to random input from other people, along with running commentary from my apparently inexhaustible fountain of wisdom. Then the creator of each piece finally gets a chance to chime in (“no, but that’s the way it really looked”), and then they in turn lead forth the charge onto the next work. So on and so forth until it comes full circle – at times during the semester I’ll forcibly extricate input from individuals so as to balance overall feedback; there will always be the unstoppable talkers who inevitably have something to say about everything (like, uh, me) and the perennial wallflowers who might be in a quiet panic at the mere thought of offending, or just simply don’t have anything to say.

Off limits are phrases like “I like it” or “It’s good” because they’ll be promptly asked for a qualification as to “why?” Simplest to say what works or doesn’t work, and why: conveying that convincing illusion is the basic, bottom line here. Drawings that emphasize linear perspective also have the added bonus feature that any problems will stick out even more so when 90% of the other lines are locked down. This can be incredibly frustrating as a back-handed compliment, but one that does shore up confidence in the long run. Plus I’d rather see bold, clear and confident marks made even if the perspective is wrong than wishy-washy sketches made by hesitant angels. Besides, makes it easier to see from where we are all sitting – and that is part of those basic elements of presentation to consider.

“Criteria”: At the outset of this session I handout a page of useful terms and descriptive phrases + write particular key concepts down on the board so as to provide a template for discussion and a framework for the students to structure their comments (and thinking) around. Such as “Art can connote a sense of trained ability or mastery of a medium” and “Art can also simply refer to the developed and efficient use of a language to convey meaning with immediacy and or depth.”

We’re shooting for covering the four fundamental areas in our critique: Description, Analysis, Interpretation and Judgment or Evaluation. The basic, working definition is established; “A Juror (judge) will evaluate on specific criteria: they will analyze, classify, interpret, and give an objective description.”

These are some of the questions to ask or starting points or that we try and address:

• What about presentation: is it the right media (graphite), paper & size, clean, name on it?

• How has perspective/contrast/color/composition been used?

• How about visibility, line weight?

• What about stylistic considerations (straight line, organic)?

• Discuss possible compositional strengths/weaknesses (interesting angles, cropping/framing etc.)?

• What about specific types of perspective: atmospheric, one point/multiple point, overlapping, foreshortening?

• Convincing illusion, believable representation of a 3-dimennsional space?

• Personality, insight, details? Does it show skill, feeling, expressiveness, imagination, is it original?

• What do you first notice, why does it stand out? What else seems important?

• Input from artist, comments, best part, worst etc.

Also passing mention is made to terms such as: aesthetics, content, intent, form, shapes, balance, rhythm, movement, harmony, pattern, texture, tone, repetition, implied line, line weight, value range, symmetry, positive/negative space, proportion, contrast, emphasis, focal point, unity, variety, professionalism, titles, monetary value, rejection…

This used to be an “oral intensive” course, and so I (obviously) still tend to stress the talking part – but we have a bit of irreverent fun with this. One of the two handouts is a copy I swiped from the portfolio review panel I sat in on for the Fairbanks Art Association’s 2010 exhibit schedule last year. “Kaupelis’ “Guide for Critically Evaluation of Artwork” has a categorical list of descriptive words and phrases to use when trying to talk about a work of art. Some are legitimately useful, but there are more than a few which are either rather outright, uptight snobbery or hilariously artsy-fartsy. I’m being sarcastic when I lecture about the importance of at least sounding like an artist by the end of this class, along with looking like one – extending a pinky while holding the glass of wine etc. But while making them pick phrases that apply to the work in question sometimes gets a good laugh; giggles aside it plants a seed for future reviews, when waxing verbosity becomes the cachet of a righteous connoisseur. That and there is sometimes a practice run on grunting in chorus (which probably has raised a few eyebrows over the years from passer-by’s in the hallway outside our room).

Finally, one of the best things that I absolutely love to see are spontaneous little clustering’s that happen before class when the pieces first go up, during the break, or right after the critique the over. These impromptu discussions amongst themselves are a natural reaction and mean some real learning is going on, and so I try and stay the hell out of it – that’s a hands-off recognition that some people’s individual style of learning requires directly questioning another student as to how something was done. Facilitating inspiration is sometimes what it’s all about, letting it happen on it’s own without the strictures of formality might just be the answer for some.

And yes, the first critique runs on about as long as this damn post (years ago I finally gave up ever trying to do anything else with the allotted class time on critique day): after an hour and a half had passed and I found out we’d only gone through FIVE FREAKIN' PIECES, it was time for a break (down the hall to check out the new BFA exhibit in the department’s gallery), and then a restart with attention paid to methodically moving through the rest of the works - five minutes at the max for each piece. This actually focuses energy and attention, and tightens up reaction time and delivery, and becomes a refreshing change of pace. Also, there will be four more critiques over the course of the semester, and just when the class gets used to one method I’ll switch to another style of critiquing in an ever-expanding quest to torture, no wait, broaden their experiences when looking at, thinking and talking about works of art.

Oh, and as a setup for the next class, they are charged with rendering an egg (or white, spherical object) in their sketchbooks for homework. Cryptic overture that will serve as a measuring stick for their progress after an introductory exploration of value.

“One of the afflictions of art and of taste is the untruth you may tell yourself about the operations of your taste, or let's say, the results of your taste and the untruth you may tell to others. You're told that Raphael was a great painter and you can't see it yourself, but since you've been told it, you've read it everywhere and so forth, you look at a Raphael and you may look at a failed one and say, "well, it's got to be good because Raphael is so famous, the authorities say he's so good." That's one of the worst ways in which to begin or to continue looking at art.” - Clement Greenberg

No comments:

Post a Comment