Wednesday, January 31, 2007

highlights for children

From the new Times:
Several downtown Ithaca art spaces opened shows last week tied in to this year's Light in Winter Festival. (See the Jan. 10 issue of the IT for my review of the off-schedule, now closed "Joining Forces" at the State of the Art Gallery.)

At the CSMA, local members of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators are showing samples of their "Natural Illuminations." I'll admit I entered the gallery space with a bias - the idea that proper scientific illustration requires sacrificing quirkiness and individual style for a dry, finicky accuracy. While I can't say that I was completely wrong, the best work here holds its own with any of the gallery art downtown. My favorites were Frances Fawcett's carbon dust renderings of Erotylid larvae (each drawing a different species). Made by applying graphite powder to paper with a dry brush, the drawings are impeccably smooth. The tubular, symmetrical, multi-segmented creatures bristle with numerous alien-looking appendages. Three ink drawings of bones by Christi Sobel combine crisp outlines and a spare use of stippling. Mastodon Humerus and Mastodon Vertabrae are quite abstract; they could be re-imagined as topographical maps of a strange desert landscape. Three etchings by Louisa Sandvik - two showing forest scenes and the other a half section of a pear - have a romantic light and texture that is appealing if incongruous.

Related Links: Light in Winter, "Exhibit at Upstairs Gallery", In Field, Sleight of Mind Five, GNSI Finger Lakes (workshop), Christi Sobel, "Questioning The Great Divide", Fernando Llosa, Rothko's Rock, Brody Parker Burroughs.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Digital artist Stan Bowman takes exception to my negative assessment of his work, characterizing me as a killjoy. My offending reviews can be found here (also see pictures) and here. You can read the whole sordid exchange (possibly ongoing) on Lynne Taetzsch's art blog. I'll reproduce my response to Stan in full:


Thank you for your response. Believe it or not, I want very much to enjoy your work. (I am not against fun, although I don't think it makes sense as a criterion for all art.) I can sense the pleasure you must take in making it and I want to share in that. But I haven't been able to do so, at least not yet. While it can be difficult to rationalize my instinctive responses to art, I would say that this is because your pieces' sense of fun seems gratuitous and forced. The sensory overload leaves me little room for reflection, little room to do anything other than stare and be amazed (so to speak). I feel bullied into liking the work, something only reinforced by your comments here. But this may be what you want. In that case, yes, you can safely ignore what I have to say.

You write that " no artist is responsible for a viewers experience, enjoyment or entertainment". I would have said "solely responsible". Sure, the viewer is more than a passive receiver of information; they have to construct or re-construct the works significance. To my mind, the most interesting works of art are those that give the viewer a lot of freedom. But to say that that the artist has no responsibility to the viewer is absurd. To make a work of art is to attempt to communicate something, even if that something isn't fully definite. There are surely reasons for putting some things before an audience and not others. It might be more accurate to say that I'm not part of your targeted audience, the people you're working for.

My understanding is that the critic's job is to make some kind of value judgments, to say that some things are working better than others. I try to be self-critical as well as critical of the art. I try to be open-minded, looking beyond my own personal likes and dislikes to try and understand what a work of art is trying to do, where it is coming from. But in the end, I have to make some kind of judgment call, knowing full well that many will disagree. Stan, since you too have worked as a critic, I invite you to describe what art criticism means to you.

As for the issue of computers in art, let me say that as somebody born in 1979, my perspective is inevitably going to be very different from yours. Again, this may just mean that I'm not part of your ideal audience. But I believe my perspective is worth consideration. I grew up with computer games, digital special effects in movies, synthesized music, and so forth. As someone who makes paintings on paper and writes and publishes on a computer, I have some sensitivity to the differences between old and new media. Obviously, computers open up a lot of new and exciting possibilities. But it also makes me skeptical about the role of technological optimism in the arts. Too often, technology is used as a way of masking a lack of skill or a lack of ideas. The latter is what I see in your art, be it new or old-fashioned.

You write that your work's value and meaning is "in the organizations of line, volume, shape, color and texture". I agree, and I'm not opposed to formalism more broadly as an artistic strategy. In fact, as I've said, I think your work is more effective when it is more abstract. But when I see flowers and other easily recognizable forms, I can't help asking why they are there.


Monday, January 22, 2007


*On language and human color perception (via 3 Quarks Daily)

*The Johnson museum has a promising-looking list of spring exhibitions and some upcoming events. I'll be reviewing a pair of installations by Chinese expat artist Wenda Gu for the Times (look for it the first week of February). Natasha Pickowicz has a feature on Gu in the current edition; you can also find it here, along with an interview.

*I'll also be writing a round-up type review of local art shows associated with this year's Light in Winter. One of the shows, "Questioning The Great Divide: Me and Not-Me", has an interesting press-release/manifesto. We'll see if the art is any good, and if it lives up to the metaphysics.

*Buzz Spector's controversial book installation. I haven't seen the piece, but I've worked in a bookstore before and consider book stacking to a potential art-form. But perhaps I'm just decadent.

*GIANTmicrobes: While I normally refrain from posting anything here that reinforces our society's culture of consumerist hegemony, these are both cheeky and adorable. I've got myself a Dust Mite. One up for the culture industy.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

hot and cold

Things are pretty quiet around here culture-wise, given the lack of college students (and perhaps the long-awaited onset of winter weather). So perhaps I can be forgiven for my lack of posting. But I have been thinking about art-criticism in the abstract, raising some questions that ought to be of practical relevance to my own activity as a semi-serious art-critic and blogger. So I'd like to initiate a series of posts on the subject.

A while back, I had a brief exchange with Franklin of, who announced that he was quitting art-criticism, in large part because of its perceived incompatibility with being an artist. As he wrote, "They're contradictory exercises, professionally and temperamentally." In response to my request for clarification, he responded:
Petty hatreds and unjustifiable loves that are unbecoming in a critic are a necessary part of an artist's inclinations. I'll continue to criticize to the extent that it helps me think about art, but I am stepping out of the role of capital-C Critic, and the title's implications of fair-mindedness and responsibility. I relinquish efforts to make my writing strive for either. As a critic, that wouldn't be right. As an artist, it's fine.
This seems like a reasonable position and it appears to be widespread conventional wisdom. Yet I had some reservations, and so I responded:
I think they're unbecoming if you put them up front and in the center. Indeed, a Critic should strive to be open-minded and go beyond idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. But it also seems disingenuous to me to pretend that criticism is a wholly neutral, disinterested affair. The critic is a judge, but also somebody who takes genuine pleasure (or displeasure) in artworks, just like anybody else. So it seems like there should be a middle ground, a way of letting two voices speak.
I have little to add to this impromptu "theory" at the moment, but I would like to illustrate what I take to
be the difference between an enthusiastic review and a cool-headed, dispassionate one. For the former category, I'll submit for your attention this piece I wrote about Boston painter (and former teacher of mine) Gerry Bergstein. For the latter, here is a piece I wrote about recently deceased Ithaca painter John Hartell. Both are nominally "positive" reviews, with regards to most of the work, if not to certain curatorial decisions. Both contain level-headed analysis and interpretation. But I think something of my differing enthusiasms comes through in the writing.

As one of only a handful of local individuals writing criticism of the visual arts, I believe that it is my ethical responsibility to cover as wide a variety of subjects as I am competent to cover. (In my newspaper writing, not so much in my blogging.) And I believe that it is important to be fair and balanced in doing so. But to try and repress my "
petty hatreds and unjustifiable loves" entirely suggests to me an alienated approach to arts, one foreign not just to most artists, but to most amateur enthusiasts. Actually, I am willing to repress the hatreds; the loves however should be allowed to bubble to the surface once in a while. At least that's the idea.

I'd appreciate hearing others' thoughts on the matter, particularly those of other big C Critics.

See also a related post by local poet Joshua Corey, including (popup) comments by me and others.

Also posted at Art and Perception.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Another review:
This year's Light in Winter festival - starting on Friday the 26th and running all weekend - will feature a number of high profile performing artists, widespread in origin and fame, including the Pilobolus Dance Theatre and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. By comparison, the associated visual art shows look to be low-key affairs. Most will feature local artists. Even those with a wider scope - such as the Ink Shop's upcoming "Microprints" - will fill modest downtown venues.

"Joining Forces", at the State of the Art Gallery, is the first of these shows to come up (the others open on the 26th). Most of the work is by members, and most members have contributed. Following the theme of LiW, the show aims to join together the "forces" of art and science. This is both a curse and a blessing, as regular followers of the State's group shows might guess. Only a few of the members appear to have done unusual work specifically for the show. But the idea of the show does help bring out some interesting connections between artists. More helpful is work by new (to the gallery) artists with explicitly science-related projects. Unfortunately, much of the work in the show is harmed (to a greater or lesser degree) by strained efforts to match the theme.
More here.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

back to the garden

Looking Down

Nesting Instinct

From my latest review:
Taking a look around "Garden: Delights and Detritus" - a show of artist's books, drawings and mixed-media prints by Ithaca College professor Susan Weisend - one is immediately struck by their visual eclecticism. Weisend's work uses a wide spectrum of techniques and materials, typically combining several to create a single image. Similarly, she arranges, layers and re-uses different motifs and styles in a collage-like manner, giving her seemingly timeless natural subjects a distinctly contemporary feel.
More here.

I would appreciate any feedback on my artwriting.

Also posted at Art and Perception.

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