Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Other Side of the Fence

           Recently, I was asked to be the sole juror for a local art club's annual members competition. I somewhat reluctantly accepted because I  have had a somewhat contentious history with thirty years of submitting work to juried shows, and I didn't want anyone to be having those same evil thoughts about me! I do have some experience. I've been on the jurying committee of a well known art organization for some time, and I've done a few smaller shows on my own. The good thing about this show was that I could judge from actual work. The awards were to be given out immediately following my jurying so it was a little bit stressful, as all of the artists were there, and I was expected to explain my selections and also to give out some critiques if asked. The work was all pretty good which made choosing the better pieces even more complicated.
        The art club had a form that they wanted me to fill out for the award winners that asked me to expand on things like the use of the elements and principles of art, technique, and expression. After emphasizing the elements and principles of art to high school students for over thirty years I can't tell you how many times I was pleasantly surprised when students would come up with their own solutions. I've come to realize that there are things that go into the creation of a successful work of art besides the standard "rules". I explained to the club members that to my way of thinking all art is essentially abstract and good underlying design structure is important no matter what your means of expression is. What makes a good design is somewhat debatable I guess but it seems to be something that's obvious even to "untrained" eyes. I have occasionally had something pointed out to me as a problem in my painting by a casual stranger, and son of a gun, most of the time they're right. (I really hate that!)
      One of the judging categories was "expression" and I have to say that I find that to be the least important element. In my undergraduate and graduate studies in painting expression was the God before which we all knelt. As I got older and began to re-train myself, I stopped worrying about whether or not I was expressing myself and just tried to make good paintings. I remember bringing some paintings to a gallery owner at the recommendation of one of my instructors. The owner asked me how I would describe my "style". I told her that I was working very hard not to have one. I guess she thought I was a little crazy but eventually she got the idea. More important than "expression" is harmony. Does the work hold together? We've all had those pieces where we love one little section of passage in a work at the expense of the other 70% of surface area. Each art work is a specific entity with it's own rules and logic. What worked in your last painting won't necessarily work in this one, you have to problem solve on a case by case basis. That's one of the things that I love about the process, it never gets boring. It can also make critiquing work somewhat problematic. I told the artists in the club that rather than me pointing out what I think might be "wrong" in their painting or drawing, it would be better if they asked me for advice on how to problem solve something that was troubling them. As I explained, what might be wrong in this work, could be right in the next.
     At the end of the evening we got into a discussion about submitting work digitally to competitions. The biggest problem with digital submissions is that you are using one art form, photography, to stand in for another art form, painting, drawing, sculpture, etc; All of the things that work well in photographs, value contrasts, flattening, perspective exaggerations, can be murder on an image of a painting. As someone who has been judging work digitally, I am often amazed  at the difference between the image and the real thing. One thing that will come through, even in a digital image, is a strong design (going back to my first point). I explained that if you're going to submit work to online competitions sometimes you have to go with the work that looks the best digitally, not necessarily what you see as the best in your studio. I use to pay photographers to photograph my work, but I was never completely satisfied with the results. They were seeing things from the photographers point of view. Once I learned to take my own photos I was able to limit the shortcomings from actual image to digital version as much as I could. The internet has opened up a whole new world for artists, but it's far from perfect. I often think of the Impressionists and their dealings with the official salon juries and wonder what they would have made of today's world of electronic jurying. Perhaps they would have revolted, maybe we should too.
"Behind the Scenes" oil on panel

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