Friday, October 5, 2012

Judgement Calls: Juroring & Artist-In-Residency Reviews

Art Smörgåsbord: It's like a visual buffet

    A while back I was invited to participate as one of the judges in the Art Division for the Alaska State Fair, which was a great opportunity to not just volunteer but to also make a connection with some other folks in the community, plus check out some art that ran the full spectrum of skill and inspiration. Sometimes such venues will quite often be the single greatest exposure an exhibitor will ever get, especially comparing such traffic to public attendance at museums and galleries. To be sure, there are some seriously stuck-up artists who wouldn't ever dream of joining in the fun of carnival art, either on account of condescension or an ego that couldn't take the crushing blow of not getting a blue ribbon, or maybe risk being judged by someone below their aesthetic paygrade (I once had the distinct honor of getting an Honorable Mention in a division where there wasn't even anybody else submitted, bestowed by a used-car salesman no less). All in all these sorts of gigs are a great thing to get behind and be a part of, and a humbling reminder to not take art - yours included - so damn seriously. That extends to judging it as well - fortunately there were a couple sensible, centered folks who were magnanimous and facilitated the give & take when trying to reach consensus amongst a group that has opinionated and diverse experience.

    Special note of thanks to the people at Mad Matters in Palmer, who for almost three decades have shepherded this wonderful event.... more mullings after the jump.

     There were five principle divisions: A's (under eight years of age), B's (9-13 years old), C's (14-17), Open and Professional. Ribbons were awarded in each division for each respective category (medium) for 1st, 2nd, 3rd + Honorable Mention, and also individual Judge's Choice awards for any particular, personal favorites, and one for overall Best of Show. Categories included painting, pastel, watercolor, graphite, ink, marker, mixed media and digital, along with one specific to the annual theme for the fair ("You're Gonna Love It" for 2012). One surprising standard was to not count prints (ex. woodcuts, engraving etc.) as a legitimate entry, as all works "had to be original." Which came as a surprise to this printmaker, who was brought up to believe that one of the more awesome aspects of that particular medium is that every edition is in fact a unique, original work of art. This little speed-bump aside, there were some amusing interludes and a couple contentious points raised during the judging process, with lively discussion and divergence of opinion, yet overall a respectful consensus was reached with gracious concession in approximately five hours (including lunch). There certainly was an abundance of judges on hand: seven plus the two long-running Über-umpires who offered guidance and backstory on many a piece and procedure. I certainly learned a lot, and just like in classroom critiques, the overall benefit of multiple perspectives was more often than not advantageous and illuminating.

"Here... let me help"

     This dovetailed with another, earlier event that I had volunteered for while still living back in Maine: being one of the three jurors that selects the official Artist in Residency for Acadia National Park for the (then upcoming) 2012 season. Without divulging any personal specifics here about the artists who submitted, the task of culling the field of applicants was both a pleasure and a challenge. Like creating artwork, critiquing art can run the gauntlet of being equally frustrating and pointless and/or inspiring and humbling. This section was slightly different than a classroom critique or the above-mentioned fair judging, being an outright process of elimination: there are no grades of B, C or D, or honorable-mention ribbons either. Only in, or out,  and on to the next round. 

     Right off the bat there was a rather bizarre threshold to pass: the first of two stages involved not even seeing any artwork at all. Instead of images, one has to read through a fat binder containing everybody's Artist Statement and Project Proposal, which also included a resume of experience. To these ends there was an official, objective methodology of scoring points so as to attempt to quantify the subjective nature of judging art. Two primary categories each contained three subsets of factors to consider when weighing each application:

Statement of purpose: Relevance to the park(s) 0-2 points; Growth 0-2 points; Focus 0-1 points
Intended program: Relevance to audience 0-2; Logistical ease 0-1; Overall impression 0-2

     Of the sixty-seven entries in the visual arts category, there were thirty-seven painters, seventeen photographers, two sculpture, a couple drawers and one for dance. Also included in to the mix were four entrants that were musical, and regrettably I wasn't able to see any of the literary submissions either as those were all passed over to another committee of more appropriately qualified judges. It took several hours and several passes of flipping back and forth through the paperwork in the binder to weed out the weakest and separate the chaff. Than afterwards another protracted review to double-check notes and make minor adjustments in retrospect, especially given the overall field. Much like panning for gold, certain elements began to repeatedly surface and thematic patterns emerged even amongst a superficially diverse group of applicants. Key words and flowery phrases begin to glaze me over, like "personal genesis," "magical relationships," "ethereal," "inner portal to the soul" and the broken record "en plein air" (artsy-fartsy for "I did this outdoors"). 

     Eventually there is a cumulative effect after reading page after page of vague platitudes and superfluous statements that don't really say anything, aside from leading a critical reader to suspect that some artists just might be full of it, or at the least, themselves. "I would like to explore Acadia and nature" – well yes, you and 2.5 million other visitors. So now... what is it exactly that you are going to DO, and will it be any different than the majority of other artists seeking solace in the soporific? Is it the role of the artist and art institutions to perpetuate the aesthetic status quo of homogenized landscapes? Do you as an individual artist hope to effect any change, and how much does someone acting as a gatekeeper also have a part to play in advocating or censoring different perspectives on the same, timeless subject matter? Will it match the upholstery? When is lunch?

     Round two of the selection process was completed after results were tabulated and processed from each of the panel judges. Then we were given the actual artworks to consider, with the instructions to
"select the top twelve (12) based on the composition, use of color, and overall appeal. Rank the top twelve (12) with one being your first pick and twelve (12) your last."
     A crucial component to "overall appeal" is to see something original, unique, distinct from the standard fare, and to have that matched with a display of skill, a command of the medium. "Use of color" could potentially be a liability factor for drawers (ex: pen + ink or charcoal), but there was only one black & white submission in this batch.

     There's a balance between second-guessing yourself when evaluating artwork in these situations and a knee-jerk critique from the hip: one shouldn't agonize or be indifferent. Being a part of a panel takes much of the heat off, but the ethics and honesty you extend to others is the same one only hopes would be reciprocated in turn should you sit on the other side of the submission table. A few other questions would filter most of my mullings: what ideas and imagery is being offered that isn't already readily available at any gift shop gallery lining the streets of downtown? What should the role of the Federal government be in promoting the arts? As to matters of taste, if this was a visual buffet, was it at a chain restaurant, a local diner, or a home-cooked meal?

Sampler swatch of submissions

     One notable detail that really struck me was the near-total absence of any sign of the dominant animal species: human beings. Only one of the submitting artist incorporated themselves into their work, only one other artist depicted any actual people at all in their pieces, and just a couple of others showed some evidence of human activity (ex. boats, lighthouse, structure etc.). This is a curious selective self-edit of the greatest influential aspect of Acadia and virtually every other national park. It completely ignores the environmental and aesthetic impact from a force that is equal to the usual, prevailing themes of wind and water. This reflects the unhealthy imbalance of the American perspective on both "nature" and of a major division within the field of art - landscapes. Additionally the traditional role and relationship of the creator as an objective observer of nature in an artificial, pristine state is rewarded in the marketplace: nobody wants to sully their memories of vacationland with any visual reminders of overcrowding or pollution. No power-lines, beercans or dead roadside deer ever appear in the sanctified, pristine picture-perfect representation. 

     I also found that the majority of compositions had essentially no personal, individual style, that is to say the striving towards clinical professionalism is directly correlated to the degree any given representational work re-presents the subject matter. In other words, the more realistic a piece, the better it mirrors a distorted, detached reality based on the perfect image of Nature. There is an irony in how such rarefied perspectives are ultimately artificial constructs. We, particularly as Westerners, like our compartmentalization: neat and tidy boundaries that define our experiences. This is evidenced in our artwork, particularly in the tradition of landscapes. Art typically reflects the connection - or in this instance the lack thereof - with the land, with nature, and within ourselves. 

ON A WINDY DAY Bob "Grandpa" Roots - MOBA collection

     This always reminds me of an experience watching a presentation by one of the worlds most preeminent wildlife artists, Robert Bateman, and how during his show & tell there was only one painting ("Driftnet") that showed the graphic result of human indifference and greed. Now nobody would ever want a piece like that in their living room, they want the lions and tigers and bears. But I find that most wildlife art retains about as much of an animal's vitality as a dead, stuffed taxidermist's mount, and this leaches into landscapes as well.

     Everybody always gravitates to the eye candy, and studiously ignores the ugly reality, adopts aesthetic blinders so as to block out the intrusive truth of their surroundings. A case in point was when I was going to grad school in Savannah we had a linear perspective assignment based on using local architecture. The rest of the class focused on the stereotypical, gorgeous, grande-old Southern style prevalent in the historical districts. I on the other hand biked down the street from my rental (the scared Alaskan who in one of the two water-bottle cages on my mountain bike was my trusty can of bear spray) and sketched + took reference pictures of the local crack-houses: gutted shells, gothic eyesores, near-ruins juxtaposed against the surrounding wealth and privilege. 
     That choice informs not just an aesthetic (see this series of sketches) but also frames a philosophy. Fast-forward to the fair, and recognizing this underlying bias, and suspending it in lieu of an objective critical criteria that is tailored to the standards of the community. In other words, just like the artwork, gauge to what degree the vision matches up and meshes with the reality of the situation. Out of the hundreds of submissions there was only one piece with any deliberate agenda, but even that didn't excuse the comparatively poor execution and crude use of the media. Like in the classroom and the studio, content and intent doesn't carry any street cred when it goes up on the walls of a gallery. Unfortunately.

Photo by sublime:ation from Funny Graffiti

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