Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Art of Critiquing

I've been asked recently about critiquing work and thought I'd revisit and revise a blog I wrote on this topic several years ago (yes it's really been that long!  I was nobbut a chahld!!).

I had 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.  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.

Many quilts are more focussed on content than form, however. Content is very interesting when it's not too obvious.   I recently read the juror's statement from the current fiber show at the Fuller Museum in Brockton MA and photographed it because I thought the message was both intriguing and telling:

In the newsletter about the Fuller show (which, alas, I gave away!) Dion continued by saying that if he could see and understand all there was to understand about the art work from a quick glance at the photograph, then he felt it was not strong enough to be in the show. He wanted to be intrigued, he wanted to feel like the piece had more to offer than a snapshot could ever show.

If we're attempting to evaluate an art quilt where content is evident, or implied, our critique of the denoted content would assess how successfully these images are denoted but also just how much the viewer was engaged by this process.  For, 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.  

In evaluating a purely abstract quilt (sometimes called non-representational), therefore, one would rely largely on its formal qualities.  Possibly,  in abstract expressionist work, you would also consider the emotions created in you by the piece.  Of course, I think that is true of all art work - what is our gut reaction?  where does that fit into the judging process?  And I'm sure it does!! Despite what jurors say about being objective, and being able to assess all work whether they like that type of work or not.  We are human beings, it is impossible for us to think with only One part of our brains!! You might be able to do that with a computer or a robot, but not with a human!  In fact psychological studies have shown that we judge less harshly those things - or people - whose appearance we like. 

In judging a quilt that was not purely abstract, one would be looking both at its formal qualities and also how well the meaning was communicated.  And this should be subtle...and draw you in....and keep you, engage you in the process.  Not be "blindingly obvious" at first look, but also not be so obscure and muddled as to lead the juror only to confusion and frustration.   Not an easy task!

And now to critique that half finished piece on the design wall......maybe best done with a cuppa tea now I think about it...
and, if you have been, thanks for reading!   And Commenting!!!!   Elizabeth


Turtlemoonimpressions said...

Thanks for these words Elizabeth! I've been trying to learn about critiquing this year. I became involved with SAQartique and that has certainly been helpful. I find I'm learning quite a bit about looking at art and being able to see much more about how we arrange the various elements, although I find it much harder to see my own work objectively than someone elses. Like everything else, I think it takes practice, hearing other people criticize not just my work, but everyone else's is a great way to learn. Your workshop was so rich in critique and feedback on so many levels, I have to say thank you so much for that! It's a gift you have to be able to help others open their eyes to see what they need to see to grow as an artist.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thank you Janis!! It's ALWAYS difficult to critique one's own work - the best way is probably to try to objectify it by putting photographs onto the computer and pretending you just found the images on the web!

Susan Lane said...

Do you always start out with the intention of creating an image that will convey a specific meaning or feeling or mood? I seem to be creating by the seat of my pants and apply meaning after the fact. I suspect it would be better if I had a more clear cut idea ahead of time.