Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Critique Process

I’ve been reading a very interesting book about the formal art critique: The Critique Handbook by Kendall Buster and Paula Crawford. Kendall Buster is a sculptor who works with airy forms – fabric stretched over wire frameworks, often in circular shapes. Paula Crawford is a painter of airy abstract landscapes and skyscapes.

Their book is an expensive paperback but it is densely written with lots of ideas and a heap of fascinating questions – in fact nearly the whole book is questions. It makes you think all around the art work you’re examining, from every literal and abstract angle.

The authors talk about a critique as going through several steps beginning with an assessment of form vs content.

Form is defined as the particular elements: the lines, shapes, values, colours and textures that the artist chose for a piece plus the design principles: how well those elements balance and harmonise, how much variety and tension is included; whether there are rhythms and repetitions is evident, how well the viewer is led around the piece to examine each part, how well the whole piece is balanced, and whether the proportions of the elements are in keeping with one another. It’s also very important to judge how well crafted the piece is and the material from which it is made. Buster and Crawford define form as “the means by which one gives substance to an idea”.

I’ve noticed that when I entered quilts into shows where you are sent a copy of the judges’ comments, the comments focus on certain aspects of form, particularly craftsmanship, colour and balance. I’ve often felt that the comments address only a very narrow slice of all that goes into an art quilt – with more focus on form than on content. I don’t know why that is – perhaps it’s a matter mainly of time, and also a continuation of judging methods from traditional quilt judging.

Such a critique obviously addresses only formal considerations, but not all art quilts are mainly formalist in nature. Clearly, the more abstract pieces, in the tradition of Nancy Crow’s or Jan Myers Newbury’s wonderful quilts, are principally formalist. In fact I once told Nancy how evocative of landscape I thought a certain piece was and she very quickly responded that it was not meant to be a landscape in any sense whatsoever! The formalists would maintain that the “aesthetic value” of the piece is based on how sound the formal qualities are. And that is how it should be judged. A work of art can be purely about its own formal qualities, representative of nothing but itself.

In order to decide if a work is purely formal, it would be necessary (and here we would turn to the controversial “artist statement” or the title of the piece) to look to the information the artist gives us re form vs content. If the piece is entitled Stripes #35, and there is no statement, or the statement says, in effect,"this piece is about stripes", then one’s evaluation of the piece would focus on those formal qualities alone. If the title is "Candy Striper's Dream" then we assume there is content - though who knows what candy stripers really dream about!! I would not want to guess!

Increasingly, in the quilt world, however, we are seeing work where content is more of the focus than form. I’m thinking particularly of work by people like Lori Lupe Pelish, Noriko Endo, Rachel Brumer.

Content is very interesting to me – because it usually comes in many layers and I like having to uncover them!

Content can be literal – in the sense of what is denoted by the shapes etc. Is it a picture of animals? People? Buildings? Flat blocks of colour? A still life or a landscape? A close up of some aspect of nature? Ribbons of colour, or flowers, or gravestones? Skeletons?

Our critique of the denoted content would assess how successfully these images are denoted?

Beneath the obvious denoted content, lies the connoted content. For example, my recent series of quilts are pictures of industrial buildings – that’s the content. But the way I have portrayed them is to communicate how I felt about seeing those buildings, and similar buildings of that type. There’s a certain sinister beauty to buildings like these, there’s a push pull – we want the steel, but do we want the pollution; we want the jobs and the income but do we want the destruction of the environment – not a living plant is evident anywhere. I hope by my contrasting the natural element of water with the unnatural shapes of the buildings I have conveyed some of that intent.

Sometimes it’s the title of a piece that gives a clue to the connotations the maker had in mind.

I’ve made a number of quilts that denote old buildings, or sections of old buildings, but at the same time I’ve used those images to express some ideas that are troubling to me.

So my quilt “Brighter at the Top”, is actually a picture of the golden end of the day catching the chimney tops, but also alludes to the contrast between the view from the top, and the actuality at the bottom.

The piece called “The Affluent Drainpipe” showing the fancy guttering on an old building but also alludes to some of the waste of resources seen in more affluent communities. Here in Georgia, we’re in a drought situation. While the relatively impecunious who live in Athens (one of the poorest counties in the nation) were able to reduce their water consumption by 20%, the very well off in certain areas of Atlanta were still running their sprinkler systems. And I was crouched in my cool basement making The Affluent Drainpipe.

Form and/or content! Things denoted and/or connoted!!

I’ll be continuing this discussion!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


PS. Somebody asked me if I do critiques; I do some in my workshops as I go round helping each person individually – that’s why I prefer a 5 day workshop: the 4th and 5th days can be devoted to individual help; I’ve also do critiques here in my studio, on a one on one basis and would definitely consider doing them via phone and emailed scanned images. Email me if you want more details, and fees and we can discuss.


Nina Marie said...

On one hand I find critiques helpful. It gives me a view from eyes other than mine. One the other hand, I've learned that these new eyes come with new biases. Whether we mean them to or not, our biases play into every critique. That's why this debate on form or content is interesting. I'll be interested to see if critique styles change over the years that I am creating my work.

Maggi said...

Some very thought-provoking comments. Thank you

suzanengler said...

I wanted you to know how much I enjoy your blog. It is like being back in grad school with other's who love art and the artistic process. I always loved/hated crits and always learned something. Keep up the great work, you are making a positive difference!

Unknown said...

This is exactly the type of conversation I've been longing to have for a long time. Not finding it, I've gone on to create quilts for the sake of creating... not asking why... just doing. Reading your post today makes me once again think about a deeper meaning to my work. Maybe there isn't one... maybe just for the time being I'm in construction mode... maybe years from now I'll look back on what I've been doing a realize I DO have a focus, a plot, a theme...

In any case, just know, I absolutely LOVE dialogue about art. Thank you for taking the time today to share your book find with us and express your thoughts on this matter. Cheers! Robin