I had not wanted to do a lecture, but instead work with some of you who have come to the National Graduate Seminar to express yourselves about your work. I met with four people, Ellen, Carol, Luke and Anne, who are all here, and they presented their work. We talked about it a little bit, and I asked if they could show their work to each other again. It's my belief that criticism or, rather, speaking about your work, really takes place when you're allowed to have dialogue. But as you know from being in MFA programs, the critique can be the scariest, most horrible experience of graduate school. I know; I was you, I experienced critiques as an MFA painting student, and I've always thought there was something very wrong with that. Constructive criticism belongs in the art process; also, writing about one's work is a process. It's not done in an afternoon, like for a grant; it goes along with your art process.
So, for the last ten years, Ive done very little teaching, because I'm mostly a writer of articles, books and catalogues when I do teach, I teach writing for artists. I tried to get that a little started here, but because of your format, we didn't get very far. You did have the opportunity to present your work a couple more times, and I wanted to know how that was. Carol, how did it go?
Carol Inez Charney: I found that it was kind of difficult. I found myself rehashing my statement, and then when I'd spent five minutes talking about my statement and what I thought the work was about, we still had twenty-five minutes to go. So I was really reaching, and really trying to think, what am I not looking at and what am I not willing to say about the work. It became much more difficult than I thought it would be. Then I wondered if I thought my work was only one thing. I felt like I wasn't seeing or moving the curtain back to see what was behind it.
Arlene Raven: You weren't letting yourself play, or blab on and on. That's what you really have to do, is make yourself talk beyond.
Charney: I pushed it for twenty-five minutes. I think it got to become babble towards the end.
Raven: Sometimes it's just when you don't have anything else to say that something nice comes out. How about you, Ellen?
Ellen Shershow: I think I started with a really similar experience to Carol's. I began talking about my artist's statement, and then, Carol writes very slowly. I wanted her to speed it up, because that meant I had to talk, see, I tend to talk a lot, and babble, and I found that having to slow down, pause a lot and think about what I was saying made me say all these things that I'd never connected to my work. I couldn't just babble randomly, I had to stop and think about what I was saying. I began to say all these things to Carol that I honestly had no idea were in my work. Once I said them, they just made so much sense that I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of them before. It was actually fantastic.
Raven: That is fantastic. So you have the notes from that. Ordinarily, I would have you do that five or six different times, until you were crazy about your work. Then, when you start to write, you're not writing from a blank page, and that's really part of the process. Since we couldn't go through that process, because I know you've been talked to a lot, I went home and played with your slides. I thought I would be able to acknowledge your work and what I've been thinking about it. I also wanted to give you some idea of what I as a critic think about, and how I come to deal with work. So I'm going to see if this works.
I think, for myself, the first thing I should say to you is that the criticism is always more about the critic. It's more about me, and even though much criticism is written in an impersonal voice, it really is very personal. Writers relate to work on a very intuitive basis and not in the realm of ideas. You are drawn to a certain kind of work and you think about why afterwards. That becomes your writing, sometimes. It shouldn't, though.
I have Carol's piece. Would you like to say something about your piece? I have quite a few of your works in here.
Charney: I'm not sure what you want me to say.
Raven: Just tell us, practically, what we're looking at.
Charney: Well, it's called Anatomy of a Memory, and it's about how a traumatic memory can come at any time. It catches you by surprise and then you're caught in the memory. When you return to the present from the memory, you are altered. A fragmentation of your self occurs, because of it.
Raven: I was very drawn to two things about your work in general and this piece, in particular. One is the repetition of the image, and the second is the fragmentation of the image, the way it is divided up differently in each image of the same person. I am comparing this work, and the work of the three others I met with, mostly with the work of Leslie Dill . It might occur to you, Why does a critic compare my work to that of a certain other person? And it's because I'm working on a book about Leslie Dill, so naturally she's on my mind. That would be true of anybody looking at your work: what they had for breakfast, the art magazine they read, the last show that impressed that person. That is going to be what comes to mind. I call it random research. When I'm working on a piece of writing, which is pretty consistently, I find that whatever I touch, whether it's Time magazine or a commercial on television, seems to relate in some way.
Here is a piece by Leslie. She does photo-based work, but I'm not showing that work. I think I would like to talk about these things conceptually and thematically, rather than stylistically. It is a person with a lot of different points of view and states of mind. How does she do that? She uses repetition, just as you do. She puts many heads on the person, to have us understand the kind of cinematic quality of thought and change. I noticed that in your brochure, you're talking about the dialogue between Plato and Socrates. It brought to my mind Heraclitus who says you can't step into the same river twice, because it has changed. Taken as a group, your work spoke to me very clearly about certain themes: themes of fragmentation, of human beings, and how to go from the inside to the outside, especially in terms of the body.
Here's another little sculpture by Leslie Dill, called Double, and a piece by Carol of the same person. Leslie was very interested in twins and, in fact, used to go to twin conferences. She would go there and photograph twins. To me, there's always a kind of divided self in the two. That's what I'm getting from this picture of a Holocaust survivor: a kind of division, a bilateral dissection of a person being divided from his or her self. Also, two identical figures are connected physically, just like yours are connected physically. I also remember a painting by Frida Kahlo that I particularly like, called The Two Fridas. She portrays herself twice, connected by the arteries of her heart. It's extremely corny, but very effective.
Here you make a focus on the mouth. Here's a drawing by Leslie, in which she has scrambled the body parts. I was thinking, Carol, about what kind of fragmentation it is. Is it a fragmentation of speech? Is it the silences, and the things we can and cannot say? Not only Holocaust survivors, but anyone, can relate to that.
Charney: In this particular piece, the reason it's there is that she lost her sense of smell for forty-seven years, because she was in Auschwitz. It didn't smell good in there. She had to work next to the crematorium. She didn't realize she had lost her sense of smell until almost a year went by. Her sense of smell didn't come back until she went back to Auschwitz, forty-seven years later, and walked where she had walked and hid in the same hole she had hidden in. That's kind of what that was for.
Raven: What does that mean to you, that she recovered the senses?
Charney: That she has a lot of courage, because she was able to face her own kind of worst nightmare.
Raven: Take a look at some of the parts here: vision, hearing the senses. It's connected to the senses. This is called A Poem Suit, by Leslie Dill. Carol, do you want to say a little bit about your newest series, because I'm certainly going to show some of those.
Charney: In this particular series, what I'm trying to work on is this double entendre about how people who received tattoos were marked to live a little longer, to help in the killing process. Those same people are now marked for life with these tattoos, and it's something they can't take off, even if they had them removed.
Raven: In this Poem Suit, you can see that there's a poem written on the sleeves. Leslie Dill uses over and over again in the last ten years the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It's not that she illustrates the poetry or tries to make a visual image of it, but she's drawn to the words. Dill was a literature major, with a Masters in English Literature. She just started to use this poetry and it kept being meaningful to her. The things that she's most drawn are these very, I would say, hot lines, with the compressed and steamy emotion that Dickinson is famous for. If you know anything about her, she always wore white, she was a recluse and she had her poetry books in hand-bound editions that she never published. They kind of look like today's hand-made artist's books. She was a sort of hothouse flower; she didn't expose herself much to the public. There's a kind of secretive aspect, and the excitement around the secret. I know, from having Holocaust survivors in my own family, that, at least in my family and community, it was not something you were supposed to look at or talk about. The fact that it's so graphic, it's right there, but you don't talk about it, sets up a kind of tension. I think that in your work that tension is a main point of focus for you: the tension between speaking and not speaking, between silence and giving voice. Here's a close-up of the Poem Suit. Take a look at the way she has used stitching to hold the sleeve to the suit. There are some connotations that I have, personally I don't know if it's Leslie Dill's intention I think about the skin of Jews, homosexuals, Arabs, etc., that was used to make lampshades and other various articles. It was stitched together in that way, and then stretched.
This bronze sculpture by Leslie Dill is called Hands. Look how long they are! It's as if your whole being can be expressed in your hands. I think that for the people you are photographing tell me if you agree or not there is so much that is expressed by that number on their hands, that it becomes who they are. It's the most important part, and the most important thing on the most important part, in some way.
So, I'm thinking of hands, and there could have been many different artists that I could have used to relate these things. But as I say, since I'm already interested in Leslie Dill, I'm using her. One thing I was going to ask you about, Carol, was the position of and focus on hands, in relationship to these arms. I wondered if you thought about that in doing the work.
Charney: I had worked on a hand series about four years ago, so hands have always been really important to me. But I wasn't that concentrated on the hands, unless I felt that they supported the composition in some way. It wasn't a primary focus.
Raven: Well, I noticed that it's not. Often the hand is out of focus and the arm is in focus. This is a hand by Leslie Dill, in which the hand becomes the vision. You can see, again, that the hand is way out of focus. It's the forearm, because that's where the tattoo rested. I think the kind of scarred and marked quality of these wooden hands I don't know if I mentioned that I was finishing up an essay, when I first met with you, on Leona McDonald, the collaborative art team, and they use photo elements in their work, also. They've done a series of works using branding irons, so I was looking into the history of branding. I found out that branding to show possession of one person by another was in effect in 3000 BC. It's a very old form of enslaving people, and it has its own amazing history. Especially in the western United States, cattle people rely exclusively on branding to establish ownership of their material, their cows. This is the primary means of establishing ownership in a business where ownership is everything. The cows are on the range and are free in some way, but each has to be identified by its owner. That, to me, was a very interesting thing about people and animals, and slavery and how you subjugate by using branding and a tattoo. I also noticed, these days, that people are more than ever before wearing clothing with name brands on it. It's not only that you have a Versace suit, but you also have to have a Tommy Hilfiger shirt. Most of what is worn, especially by poorer, working class people, has brand names on it. That's curious to me. Maybe that's today's tattoo. Those are the kinds of things I was thinking about in regard to your work.
Ann, you only gave me two slides! Yes, I have them right here. This is a sculpture by Leslie Dill that shows a person through clothing. For her, garments really stand for the body. The person has a number of heads but they're all disconnected. I was very moved by something that you said, when I met with you last week, about wanting to find out of what you're composed. Wanting to bring the parts together, in terms of researching work about your family, using their photographs, putting them into these cubes, juxtaposing and repeating them. To really want to know from the pieces what the whole is. The body in parts is a big theme today. Many artists are concerned with fragments of the body and how the fragments become the whole. I don't think there's really an answer to that question, but you're certainly asking it.
Ann Mansolino: I think it represents more an attempt to communicate and connect to other people, and the failure to do so. All the pieces remain fragmented...
Raven: You mean between people.
Mansolino: Yes. You have the actual piece of glass, and then there are the projections on the wall and the floor around it.
Raven: Well, it's also the failure to have your head on straight, I guess, of being in pieces. I think that fragmentation also happens between people.
Mansolino: Yeah. It's actually titled, Echoes From a Broken Conversation.
Raven: Leoni and McDonald have an installation in which they have a sandbox. In the sand are names written in Braille. If you touch them in order to read them, you destroy them. Thus, the failure to communicate. There are many reasons for it, not just the generic failure to communicate. There's what people don't want to see and hear. I think Leslie Dill's also working with some of those elements within a single body. Here, you're talking about the nose; I thought you were talking about the mouth, so I just went ahead with my analysis of the mouth. Do you want to tell us a little bit about this one, Ann?
Mansolino: It's called Preserved Histories, and those are faces that I re-photographed out of my grandfather's family photo albums. I realized, looking at them, that this is a part of my history, yet I don't know who most of these people are. At this point, nobody knows who many of them are and why the images have been saved. But they're somehow a part of me. It's addressing this paradoxical relationship between memories of my history and the surviving material objects that represent that. These things have been very carefully preserved, as if they're precious objects, but at the same time they're in a space you can never really enter. There's always some sort of barrier separating me from them.
Raven: They're certainly separated aren't they? They're all faced front.
Mansolino: At the same time that you can't reach them, they're still preserved as if they're valuable specimens.
Raven: I was trying to do something with this room. I was only a little successful. I brought some more chairs in, so it wouldn't be one person up here and the other people back there. This also reminds me of that failure to communicate. I have taught seniors at Parsons and asked them if they'd ever been to see the studio of another person in their year. It was amazing to me how little dialogue there was between peers. That is something that's so important in being an artist, is to be a part of a community, and to have a dialogue about your work on a consistent basis with other artists. It shouldn't just be the public, when you have a show, or a critic, who is only another person with their ideas, really. Marisol did some sculptures in the 60s that this is very reminiscent of. They were of her own face, in wood. On the same theme of failure to communicate, she did a lot of work on families. She did the Kennedys and a bride and groom. She did one that I find especially amazing. She had one of these faces, her face, holding a doll. The doll also had her face. The big sculpture was a baby, and the doll sculpture was a grown-up, and the baby is squeezing its mother. One squeezes oneself, too, I suppose.
Luke, can you tell us a little bit about your project, in general?
Luke Walden: It's about men and boys, about affection and how a lot of different dynamics are driven by that affection and desire, and the way it often gets re-routed.
Raven: These are two stills from your videotape? Some of the ones don't have any text with them. I was wondering what was the rhyme and reason for having text in some and not in others? Is it because of the narrative?
Walden: I think it's more a response to a more formal, technical problem of trying to express, in twenty slides, the content of a video, whose meaning is largely articulated through the soundtrack.
Raven: Oh, there's a soundtrack, and text.
Walden: No all that text is the soundtrack, in the slides. In the video, there's never more than one frame at a time. It's not like there are multiple frames visible on the screen. It was just my way of trying to layer the images and the soundtrack together so that you could get some sense from the slides what the video was about. It's really a solution to a communication problem, from medium to medium.
Raven: Okay. I never got to see the video, but I guess everyone else here has. From the slides, I was very intrigued by the kind of communication and double entendre of some of that communication that I saw in print. Here, there are so many different kinds of interpretations, but there's a lack of explicitness in these frames. I paired it with a shot from the studio of Nancy Grossman, who is known for her covered sculpture heads. As fate would have it, I was with her this morning. There's a course, similar to this one, from the Savannah College of Art and Design, up in New York for two weeks. She and I met with the students this morning, and they asked her if she depicted men. Who are these people? Are they men, women, or generic human beings? She said they were self-portraits. I thought that was an interesting response, because the heads are generally interpreted as male. It got me to thinking about your wanting to delve into masculinity and what happens when women express masculinity, when men do, and what the difference is. I think that the similarity that I saw between your work and hers is that you almost never see a Nancy Grossman in the stage of development, because this is an incomplete sculpture. When they are covered, they can't speak. Even if the mouth is open, it's sewn. There's a real energy of expression, an urgent need to express, and it's not said. I thought that really expressed, in some way, a similar equivocation that you're talking about in these sports guys. I've always wondered about these sports teams, they're always grabbing each other's asses and everything. Really! They're always very affectionate, and they're very homophobic, some of them. It intrigues me, because there's a lot of permission, on one hand, and on the other, there's a very strong heterosexual bias.
This is Leslie Dill, A Dress. She is very interested in femininity and masculinity, and their stereotypical attributes. This seemed to me just as typical.
This one Leslie Dill calls Man Sloughing Off Excessive Emotion. I thought, Where do people's energy and emotions go, in this kind of setting? What was your experience with that?
Walden: I think, to take up the sloughing metaphor, these excesses get sloughed off into behaviors that are sanctioned by the group. They tend to revolve around gestures of camaraderie, solidarity, and aggression. I really should send you the tape, because I think you'll see a lot of expression of the emotion, also.
Raven: I don't mean to say that it's not expressive; I mean to say that there's a lot of emotional charge and exchange that I saw in the pictures. Here, the sloughing off part becomes communication.
Walden: One thing that I haven't said in talking about this with this group is that I think sports, in general, are a way for people, especially men, to share emotion, particularly intense emotion. When you're on the sports field, there's a limited range of moves that can happen, and a limited range of emotions that you can have about it. In the video, they're always talking about how great it is to get a de-block, which is an interception. When somebody does that, you know how they feel, because you've done it yourself, and it's not that different. It's a way to share something emotional between men, which is not always an option that is available. I think it's a lot like drugs, too: being high with somebody, you have this bond of knowing how they feel.
Raven: I did this on purpose, knowing that I was setting something up that maybe you didn't intend.
Walden: In the video, these actually transition back and forth between each other.
Raven: I juxtaposed these two slides, because they seem to be saying very opposite kinds of things. It left me, in comparing them, in a state of confusion. There isn't any real story line; there are all the people who are participating, how they feel, and what's going on in their lives. Each person's participation is separate and unique. This seemed very contradictory. This is another thing about critics, when they pair you with another person, contrast your work with others', taking you into one context or taking you out of it. It's just something in people's minds, it doesn't have a whole lot to do with anything. It can be very enriching to the work, or it can be illuminating, even to the artist who made it, because it's apart from your own intentions about what you're making. Somebody else has different eyes; that can offer a lot, and it can be completely wrong, too.
Raven: I met with these four people, and then I took their slides back, thought about their work, and came back with this. I compared them with two other artists, and I'm telling them what I was thinking.
Audience: (inaudible) In the beginning, you were talking about people being scared of going to critique, why people don't go see each other's work, etc. I am wondering what is demonstrated here?
Raven: I think maybe the other people who have had their worked talked about could answer that better. What was that for you?
Walden: I think there's always something interesting about showing your stuff to somebody for the first time, and having them respond to it with a whole different range of associations than anything you've had in the environment in which the stuff was created. Hearing what everyone here has had to say about my videos, there have been similarities, but it's also been very different from hearing what the people in my program have had to say, who've seen it and heard me talk about it a million times. What I get out of it is an awareness of the need to be open to a whole range of possible associations, and also the need to try to get a lot of different responses from a lot of different people.
Raven: I guess that's more my point, that in having a discussion with you, then going back, taking a look and trying to bring some context to it, hearing what happened in other situations. The more of those kind of dialogues you can have, the more information you have when you're going to talk and write about your work. I don't know if that answered your question. I don't know if I have that capacity, here.
Shershow: This is a slide of a photograph of a woodpecker that I taxidermied, inside out. It's called a plath mount, so it's mounted onto this piece of board that sort of references the sort of mount you would normally put deer heads on.
Raven: Something that you said in your statement about Louis Arrigere struck me in terms of your work. Woman plus woman plus woman was not a general statement, but was a unique, one of a kind, each instance. Likewise, with these insides of birds: each of the reverse taxidermies, is a unique creature. I paired it; you can see it superficially looks like the same slide. It's what we used to do in graduate school how many chairs are there in the cathedral of St. Etienne for our comprehensive exams. People usually do learn by looking at slides. The first thing I noticed was that these superficially and coincidentally looked alike. This is called "A Gun Head," by Nancy Grossman. It's a lithograph that's been drawn over, so it's a unique image. The gun replaces the beak. Going back to Emily Dickinson, which has very little to do with Nancy Grossman, she wrote a poem that said, My life, a loaded gun. In speaking with Nancy about these works, she feels that speech is very dangerous, and that words can hurt like guns, in some ways. I'm looking at this beak of a dead animal, and seeing that there's a potential there, still, for aggression and for speech. But it's very individual. How does that strike you?
Shershow: It makes a lot of sense, actually. It's interesting, because I think that I put in the Louis Arrigere quote, knowing that it applied but not really knowing how. When I talked to Carol about my work, everything that came out was about my identity, being female and gay and about sex. They were things that had a lot more to do with that quote than I thought it did. I think it's interesting that you got there.
Raven: Even going beyond the quote to you, who you are and what you're expressing, seemed to be very in line. This is another piece by Leslie Dill that I'm comparing. They look so monumental when they're up on the screen like this. Having just moved from one place to another, I didn't have my slide projector, so I wasn't able to look at them like this until just now.
This is a Poem Dress; we see it closed, and here we see it open. By making the inside the outside is a very vulnerable declaration of individuality, that she expresses by having something that both opens and closes. You've expressed it by having something whose insides are outsides. It's kind of, to me, a metaphor for all artistic expression.
So that's what happened when I played with the slides. I'm supposed to have some time for answering questions: I'll do that now.
Audience: I was curious, watching you free associate and make interpretations of people's work, how often do you ever go back to the artist in the process of writing something?
Raven: Always. I never publish anything without showing it to the artist. And I don't review any more. I worked for The Village Voice for ten years, reviewing shows, and there's a rule that you can't show your work to the artist before publication. It has to do with conflict of interest. It's unethical. So I don't review at all any more. I do longer pieces, mostly for exhibition catalogues for museums, and a few articles for magazines. I have an ongoing dialogue with artists. I've been looking at Leslie Dill's work, for example, for fifteen years. I've written one small piece about her work, and I am now writing a book, but it's after a fifteen-year association of seeing her work. I develop long relationships with artists. When it comes to my interpretations, it's not that I feel that the artists necessarily have to approve what I say, because sometimes they don't. But I want to have that dialogue. With Leoni and McDonald, they were unhappy about personal information being in the article, and I tried to accommodate them, because it didn't matter to me. There are many ways of saying things. They didn't want to be quoted directly; they wanted to be paraphrased. That didn't matter to me. It's things like that. There might be some place where I really feel that an interpretation or a fact is essential, and I'll try to come to an agreement. Essentially, it's my work, and I have to have the last say.
Audience: Do you think you can generalize if there's one norm or another? I'm sure it's probably different with different writers.
Raven: It's completely different with other writers; I'm the only writer I know who does this. Usually, writers don't like to have a lot of dialogue with the artists they're writing about. I know a writer who won't talk to artists, at all. It doesn't make sense to me. It's not my idea of how it should be. I don't think art is made in isolation; it's made by a person in a community, in a world. I'm a part of that community. I've been around artists all of my adult life, and I see how going to people's studios influences one to the other end. It's not in a bad way: people spark off of each other. That's why regional art has a certain look to it. You can see, at certain times in history, if something comes from the Midwest, from Japan, New York, or Texas. There will be certain similarities in a group of people. In fact, that's the main way that people are put into a group or theme show. It's because they have those similarities.
Audience: I have a question. Following up on what Yoko was saying earlier, I'm curious about the possibilities or usefulness of a comparative approach. I absolutely agree that criticism is always about the critic, but also, in some sense, you can compare two things and find a connection between anything, if you really work toward that. I guess I'd just like to hear you say a little bit more about what you think you can get out of comparing works.
Raven: I think that you can see how you're related. That's very important with artists, to feel related rather than isolated. This demonstration is one little part of a process, not the end result. I had one meeting; I took the slides home that I got: Carol gave me around forty slides, while Anne gave me two. All those things are influential: what do I have in my slide collection? There is no scientific way to deal with art. This kind of comparison is just one thing that I brought. I wanted to bring them something. They had shared their work with me, and I wanted to make a response. The next thing that would perhaps happen is that I would visit studios. Maybe I would follow those studios for a couple years. Maybe I would meet someone else who I wanted Carol or Anne to meet. In fact, there's an artist I'm going to bring to meet Leslie Dill, because I think she should meet this person.
Audience: I have a question regarding presentation. I don't know if this is relevant to you, since you didn't see me give my presentation. I've never really given one in a formal context, and I kind of choked. In this format, I think it was okay, because I set myself up for a critique, which I didn't intend on doing. But in many ways it worked to my benefit. When you're giving a presentation and you have issues about your work that are unresolved, is it best to keep that to yourself? Or is there a way to open that up to a dialogue that you can control and have useful comments and feedback from?
Raven: You have to have established a safe environment. That means you don't go with people who you don't know. I mean, I took a look at the room. I came in here when someone else was presenting work, a few days ago, to get these slides. It was stark: the person was up here and you were all down there. I thought, this is not good. You have to control the situation. It has to be people that you trust, who are going to give you constructive criticism. When I teach workshops, I ask people to pay full attention. It's almost like the fourth grade: respect, full attention, not thinking about your own presentation, and feeling that you have to say something, not just a question. You have to think about how to really help the person to the next step. That is very daunting, and that means that everyone in the situation is on the line, not just the person presenting the work. I think that's very important, to hear from everybody in the group about their responses. It's my experience that artists present their work, and then nothing. From years of that, there's a lot of bitterness in the New York community, I know, among artists who don't get the feedback they need for their work. Critics are in a kind of constraint that artists don't even think about, such as the low price that is paid for art criticism that's published in magazines. Or the constraints that an editor might put on you artists don't know about that. But they're just not getting what they need.
If you want to do a presentation, you should select your community carefully. You have to provide the right format.
Audience: Along the lines of what Jen was saying, this is something that confuses me. How do you differentiate between presenting, say, here, among my peers in a safe environment, and presenting in a gallery context, to a professional who you have five minutes with and need to impress?
Raven: If you have five minutes, you're going to give the person your slides, have your statement, and that's it. That's not the kind of presentation you could have here. I think it's great to take chances, but you have to be prepared for feedback. In my own work, I've done some things that were very personal. I've been gratified that when you publish something that's very hard, it's sometimes cathartic. It's worked for me. But I'm not you, and one is very vulnerable with work, especially if it's recent. There are some nasty situations you can get into, as an artist. People are not kind, a lot of the time, or they're overwhelmed and overworked, and have too many people coming at them. So a dialogue can't happen.
Audience: Could you say something about your own views on the ancient argument about the relationship between creators and critics in the community? Do you somehow have to make art to be qualified to critique it? All that stuff.
Raven: You don't have to make art to be qualified to critique it, but I think that the whole critical community are not, first and foremost, are not doing what they want to do. They're failed poets and failed artists. Or, it's something they do once in a while, because they have a teaching job. That's not true of me, though. Criticism is my work. I'm an art historian, and my writing is my work. I find it to be very similar, in my process and my dialogue with people, to the artists that I deal with. Criticism, at its best, is an art. Writing should be as carefully construed as any other expression, really. There's an acrimonious relationship between artists and critics, and it doesn't have to do with those people. It doesn't have to do with the relationship between the artist and the critic, but with the larger context of sales, galleries, publications, and a larger economic system. That's what creates the antagonistic relationship, not the artists and critics themselves.
Audience: I just wanted to say that what I think is the ideal situation in a critique, I learned in graduate school. We make something, and then we put the things that we made in the center of a circle. We would examine these pieces. But what would happen is that, since we are so close to the things that we made, we would feel like we, also, were being examined by the people. I want to make sure that we are in a safe environment. When I am talking about my work or I'm in a critique, I tend to think that the people who are examining my work are much smarter than I am. I think I've learned that's the wrong attitude.
Raven: You discussed the power structure. What I want to emphasize is that what you have in graduate school, and later when you go out into the community, is the opportunity to talk to your peers. That's not provided for in a lot of schools and graduate programs. It goes one way between the teacher and the students. There should be much more dialogue among peers. It can be very strengthening. When I teach, I find that the people who are having that dialogue with each other are feeling much more empowered and strengthened. Not everybody is that benevolent. There are a lot of teachers in art schools who are not doing their own work, and they're older, jealous and bitter. Not everybody has wonderful intentions; sometimes it's right not to want to subject yourself to it. That's a fact.
Audience: At my school, there was a studio where we'd spend ten to twelve hours critiquing a person's work. The critics would have to come to ask us to view our work, because without our work, they couldn't do theirs. It was really encouraging for me. I learned that even though we were trying to make a safe environment, we were so serious about finding out other people's work that it would sometimes endanger that. If I really like somebody's piece, I want to interpret it the way I want to. When things happen like this in a critique situation, you have to come back again and try to be truly objective. No one can have a right answer.
Raven: There is no right answer, and there's no wrong answer, either. I think that's something we learned from Postmodernist theory, if I can mention it. There's a multiplicity of views, and not necessarily a right and a wrong, at two ends of the spectrum.
Audience: I think that we live in a time where there's an illusion that people are afraid to speak out about things, which is a big problem in this culture. I'm curious in hearing you speak about whether you think this is something that's affecting art criticism or discussions between artists and critics? Are people less willing, now, to be critical about other people's work?
Raven: I don't think that people are less willing to be critical, but I think you're talking about something that is happening, which is a lack of open experimentation with issues. The NEA wars have put a cap on certain issues of, for example, multiculturalism and feminism. I also think that those people who have more radical views are not getting shown. That has to do, though, that the alternative venues that rose up in the 70s and 80s, because of a lack of funding, are not operating any more. What came first, the chicken or the egg? I don't know. It is a very repressed time, though.
Audience: There's one thing I've found very frustrating about criticism that I've encountered in graduate school and just out there in general. A lot of my work stems from very personal issues, but one of the criticisms that I often get is that it's so self-enclosed that nobody else will care. At the other side of that, when you try to incorporate bigger things, people say, You can't speak for these people; they're not you. So you're kind of in this bind, where no one should care if it's you, but if you try to represent something else, then you're accused of not having the privilege to talk for this other group of people. How do you deal with that?
Raven: I think that work exists on a lot of different levels. There's the very personal, and, yes, you're a part of a number of groups. You're Italian-American, female, of a certain age group, United States: you're part of probably ten or twenty groups. The work ranges from the very personal things about yourself to the very general things about people. I think all work does that. There isn't much issues-oriented work that pointed to the personal. I try to work with artists about writing about their work, artist's statements, etc., and expressing personal things by talking about the work and not themselves. It's just as personal, but it's about the work. I think that takes the heat off of you to tell your true story.
Audience: Those were the awkward things I was dealing with earlier. I just started spewing out all this stuff. It was okay when there were just four of us in there, but if it were a larger group, that isn't a lot of stuff that I want to talk about. I said a lot less of that when I presented to this group.
Raven: That's one of the things, is to learn how to express the fullness of that without actually having to talk about yourself. There are ways to do it. It's not possible to learn it right now, but there are ways. I try to do that in my writing, too. I don't want to discuss people's personal story, as much as I want to discuss the personal nature of their work.
Audience: In terms of being a critic and a historian, what is the relation of biography, psychology and cultural context to art and the art-making process, and talking about it?
Raven: They all come in, but it has to go from the physical object, in my mind. It has to be related to what I see. Everything that I talk about can't just be a thing out here; it has to have some reality in the physical object. That's how I gauge it. For myself, when I'm doing something that's personal to me, where I'm coming from, I try to make it personal. I say, I see, instead of making pronouncements. All of those things come in. everyone has psychology, geography, and aesthetics. But it has to be about the work, and it often isn't, today. We're very far from the work. If you go back and look at the criticism of the 40s and 50s, you'll see a lot more attention to the surface and the pigment in paintings, or the volume in sculpture. There's a lot of removal today. In fact, I don't think there's a lot of looking, in some cases.
Raven: Well, I try to do that. I think it's up to each person. Theory is very useful, but it is not something simply to talk about. A lot of the art criticism today is totally unreadable. I have two Ph.D.'s, and I can't read it. I don't want to. Personally, I'm very much for plain writing. It's not going to be journalistic; it's not going to be Time magazine, because it's a little more complicated than that. But I think that talking in jargon, unless it's really applicable to the work, is not useful. Some of the ideas have been revolutionary for art criticism.
Audience: I had a question about artist's statements and writing them. I feel like a lot of the work I respond to, I respond to because I don't need an explanation for it. It's just an inherent thing that gets me. A lot of times when I'm writing an artist's statement, I feel like I'm deconstructing it to the point where someone might lose something from the experience.
Raven: First of all, the artist's statement, or writing about work, is not because it can't stand on its own. It has to stand on its own, and you can still write about it. Writing an artist's statement has to be a process, just like creating the art-work is a process. It's not something you sit down one day and do. It has to go through the process. I teach workshops on this, and I take people through a process. I can't do that, right here and now. It's a process of having dialogues, thinking about things, doing some research, thinking about things again, coming back to the work itself, etc. It doesn't take anything away from the work. There's no way you can take anything away from the work; there it is. But if you really want to add, it has to be authentic. You have to go through the creative process; in the same way that you wouldn't slap an artwork together, you shouldn't slap the writing together. Maybe that happens once in a while, but basically it's the daily struggle. Writing becomes a part of that.
There are actually some very good popular books about how to make writing part of your daily life. Julia Cameron wrote one called The Artist's Way. They can be useful. She recommends writing three pages in the morning. This can be about your work. Many people tell me that when they start writing about their work, they develop a dialogue with themselves, and it makes their work go further. They're reflecting on it in that way. It becomes very useful for their process.
So, it's all part of a process. It's not just something that comes in afterwards.
Audience: I feel like when I got to graduate school, I had this idea that an artist's statement should be something that didn't necessarily stand on its own, but could add to the work. So you'd have the work over here, and the statement over there, that could be about something else. In grad school, I've been fed this idea that the statement is supposed to describe the work, which seems silly, because the work is right there. Why do we have to describe it?
Raven: Well, there's describing it and then there's describing it. You can describe it in such a way that it adds. You can point out something that you know a person looking for the first time might not see. But I liked your artist's statement; I loved your story, and the way you revised it. It's very postmodern of you. It was good! Unlike journalism, writing an artist's statement or writing about your work can come from any point of view. You don't have to go who, what, where, when. There's no formula.
Audience: I've gotten an enormous amount of shit from faculty at my school about beginning that statement by saying, When I was eight.... They all say, You can't begin the statement that way. You have to write a new one. You sound like a moron.
Raven: I disagree. And I know a lot of people at the Art Institute, so you can quote me. Tell my friends! No, I think it's a great way to start. It's refreshing. Most times, artist's statements are in such a format, because one is coerced, that you don't want to read them. They don't say anything. It just becomes one more unnecessary thing on the wall.
Anyone else? Questions, comments? Then good luck to you all!
Analysis by Ellen Shershow
It was already evening as three other API fellows and I gathered in a classroom to present our work to Arlene Raven. Ravens plan was simple she asked each of us to present our work. During these presentations, we discussed our work, in terms of both content and technique.
When each of us was finished, Raven gave us a sentence or two comment and then moved on. What I found helpful about Raven's comments is that she seemed to delve into what was particular to each of us in terms of our art making, and then asked us to question that. At the end of our presentations, we were asked to spend the next few days doing an exercise for an artists statement: we were to spend one hour with one of the three others present. During this exercise each person spent half an hour talking about their work, while the other took notes.
In terms of writing an artists statement, this exercise was extremely helpful. The act of speaking my thoughts aloud, combined with the hindrance of slowing down for another persons penmanship, allowed me to organize my thoughts in a way I haven't done before. Consequently, a great deal of ideas that I had not formerly connected with my work poured forth. It was in this capacity that I feel Raven was the most helpful.
A few days later, the four of us found ourselves sitting on stage with Raven as she presented to the rest of the fellows. Raven presented our work in comparison with two other artists, Leslie Dill and Nancy Grossman. Raven used this format to utilize a very specific critical model. The critical model proposed that everything a critic sees and writes about is judged in the context of whatever they have just seen or experienced. Therefore, any critical appraisal of a certain artists work becomes more about the critic than about the artist being discussed.
Having just completed my MFA, I at first found this format tiresome and unhelpful: graduate school is one of those rare instances where we are allowed to spend hours pondering our work. We drag countless fellow artists and theorists into the studio to discuss our work. However, consider how one is taught to write about artwork. First and foremost, we are taught to compare and contrast. We are taught to view everything from historical events to fictional stories in terms of how they relate to other historical events and fictional stories. Throughout grammar school and high school, we are asked to formulate critical papers in this manner.
This critical model seems highly problematic. In Ravens own words, everything becomes predicated on the critics last experience. Doesn't the work itself then, suffer a loss of its own genesis? And when, or more specifically how, does one look at something from its beginning? While it makes sense to view art in the context of a given experience, how do we discover where that thing came from? And what does it say about us as a culture, if we are, in fact, unable to view anything without then comparing it to another thing?
On the other hand, having just spent two years involved with what might be termed a narcissistic studio experience, I appreciated seeing Raven draw seemingly easy parallels between five presumably disparate artists. Surely one cannot underestimate the importance of looking at work in the context of a larger community. In addition, Raven must be onto something when she says that everything a critic sees and writes about is judged in the context of whatever they have just seen or experienced, as I just spent much of this analysis discussing her presentation in terms of my recent graduate school experience.
The primary question Ravens presentation seems to raise is this: How do we as a culture critique art? This is not a question I can easily answer, but it is one that warrants a great deal of discussion.