It began with an assignment: start writing. Armed with copious notes from our gallery visits spread out before me and a laptop, I had roughly forty-five minutes to craft a 200-word response to any of the artwork we saw the day before. We were directed to keep it concise and with an appeal to a broad audience, like the capsules in The New Yorker.
Our instructor, Jessica Baran, suggested we consider the following as we approached art writing.
- Audience: There are a variety of platforms with distinct audiences that must be addressed in different ways.
- Agenda: You can address cultural impact, provide an artist overview, publicize the exhibition, review an established artist or premiere a new one.
- Venue: Is it an art museum or artist-run gallery? Is the space for profit or nonprofit? How does it impact the work exhibited?
- Exhibit: Is it a group show or solo? Art historical show or museum survey?
- Object: What is the artwork made of? What kind of process was used? Note the colors, composition, textures, title and date.
- Info: Review the artist statement, bio, exhibit catalog for any ancillary data that may inform your writing.
Jessica also noted that “good art writing is good writing.” The basic rules apply no matter what the subject. She encouraged us to be honest, know the basic facts, and avoid clichés. While it is tempting to effusively praise work you enjoy, doing so is dangerously subjective. Conversely, negative criticism is counterproductive without making a definitive point.
John Houck’s work, upon immediate viewing, tricks the eye. Is it a painting or a photograph? A giant cross-stitch pattern or line drawing? As a person obsessed with process, my first instinct was to figure out how it was done but I resisted that temptation. Instead, I forced myself to slowly approach from various angles and my restraint was rewarded as its vibrancy was gently revealed.
Set against the cool austerity of the Bill Brady gallery’s towering white walls and polished concrete floors, the untitled works in the forefront of the space cajole the viewer into close examination with a dizzying repetition of pattern, color, depth and implied texture. They appear bruised and crumpled as if rescued from the bottom of a trash bin then lovingly restored, the multi-layered pixellated grids and seemingly random shadowy creases belying their purposeful placement.
In the rear space, Houck presents several cyanotypes of cathedrals rendered in 3-D. By showing them from multiple angles, a unique viewpoint is offered. These gothic structures typically come alive when viewed from above, and in Houck’s treatment they are unpacked and deconstructed to their base elements.
It was a struggle to shut off my inner editor as I wrote but it’s not bad for flash-fiction art writing. I really enjoyed the process but it was definitely enhanced by the group critique that followed. It was great to hear so many different approaches to critically examining art and the feedback I received was invaluable. I learned a great deal and I look forward to applying it immediately!