Every now and then a comment turns up that, should I reply, could produce a good commentary. One such comment came from “Tino” aka Joanne Greenbaum who was vexed over her treatment in two of my reviews for shows at the Blackston Gallery and at the Jane Hartsook Gallery. Fair enough. Here is her comment:
Above: The Vessel show at Blackston Gallery, New York.
“This is the same garth Clark who reviewed but did not see the show at jane hartsook gallery nor did he even see this show. These reviews are written from press releases. He obviously has an agenda that the commenters agree with. It is ridiculous to take him seriously when he has not seen both shows he speaks about. The artists should feel flattered that the work is so despised. It certainly gets an old guy garth clark sitting on his chair all worked up.”
Joanne, you got me. I am guilty as charged. But it is not a secret.
First, not every post on an exhibition is a review. We do use the press releases without taking a critical stance to announce a show’s presence. Most publications do this.
A lot of reviewing is done from images. For instance, in an art book review there is often tough criticism of the subject’s art. Does the reviewer have to actually see every illustrated work in the flesh? No, not if the writer has the knowledge to make a reasoned judgment.
Group shows are routinely chosen via images. High-priced art is sold to collectors via photography. Magazines routinely praise art they have never seen beyond the press package. So we have a double standard. Aesthetic judgment by photograph is perfectly fine if it results in a show, profit or praise. If I called you the Great New George E. Ohr, we would not be having this conversation.
I decided that I could write about the Blackston and Hartsook shows (the former’s installation view is above) without visiting. Let me explain what I did to produce the two posts and then people can decide if I was cavalier.
The decision to review a show in absentia is always made very carefully. The qualities, pro or con, have to be very obvious in the visuals or the writer has to have an intimate knowledge of the subject.
There are rules. I don’t make sweeping judgments about immersive installations for the (obvious) reason that one cannot immerse by proxy. If the objects cannot easily be read by images (and some can’t) I give that show a pass. But now we also have video walk-throughs, which takes some of the risk out of reviewing from afar.
In both shows on which you were included I was in conversation with several other people that had seen the show. These are critical voices I have known for some time and whose opinions I trust. We talk and they essentially critique my critique.
I have (because I am so old) probably handled more contemporary ceramics than anyone in the world except for my partner, Mark Del Vecchio. We ran a business selling images of ceramics (in the slide era) to schools. I have written and contributed to nearly 80 illustrated books and curated more than 600 ceramics exhibitions. Early in my career I did much of my own photography. I believe I know how to accurately present objects in a photograph.
When I decide to go ahead with such a review, I Google extensively, something I can do for hours. I look at the artists’ work in their primary mediums and view some previous shows at their galleries. Sometimes a ceramic that does not impress bursts into life when viewed in the wider context of that artist’s oeuvre. Then I search for other ceramics by artists that are not in the show for comparison, in case these are not up to their usual standard. The images are enlarged, studied and the CFile team weighs in with an opinion.
I usually end up with more than 100 images in each research file before I choose about 15 and begin writing. If I have doubt, I get on the phone. I will ask the gallery to send me many more images or to describe something more fully. In this case there was no doubt. This was not a close call.
The above is more due diligence than one gets from many reviewers who breeze into a gallery, glance at the work without seeing it, make a few notes and write a trivial descriptive review.
I did not write the review from the press releases. I took factual information from them, which we all do. This is why the release is sent to the press in the first place. When we take something from a release that is opinion we include the line “the gallery states that.” My opinions are my own and the release did not suggest that the shows were ceramic detritus, I did.
Our weekly is read by a sophisticated, art-savvy audience and their agreement with opinions is based on deep knowledge, not necessarily bias as you suggest. (Although all art criticism is biased to some degree.) I admit that some of the applause comes from knee jerk rejections against any ceramics coming to the fine arts, which I find unfortunate and disturbing. But all communities have a right wing fringe.
Joanne, the reason we publish the Little Clay Shop of Horror series (and there are more to come) has very little to do with you specifically. Because fine art is new to ceramics, the critical standards are not finely honed and ignorance of the medium in the art media is widespread and, at times, jaw-dropping (no, plaster is not ceramic). We at CFile will not allow poor work to become an acceptable standard. I am sure you feel the same way about painting.
Maybe you think I am just an old man, a craft-world hick with no knowledge of art? Fine, art is as much my field as the crafts. I am just about to finish major books on Lucio Fontana, Ai Weiwei and a 100th birthday volume for Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917. So dealing with your art is not a stretch, believe me.
Nor are my tastes calcified. I have been the most active champion in ceramic art for new work by non-specialists for decades. And I have taken a lot of flack for this stance. I have argued for Sterling Ruby and for others who work in clay, like the transgender performance artist, Cassils. This is work, with due respect, that is more radical than yours.
Further, you are not unknown to me. I have followed “new abstraction,” as Saatchi called it, for some time. Garth Weiser is a friend and lead me into that arena. To be honest, I really disliked your paintings until recently when the acres of white began to disappear, an opinion I share with Roberta Smith. This painting, from the article in HyperAllergic is a beauty, enormously powerful, architectonic and cogent. The progress has earned my respect.
Your ceramic work and most of the others in the show is often a newcomers cliché. It’s the Dribble Glaze, Petal, Pancake and Tendril School widely produced in children’s classes and in adult education. It is something a neophyte makes because clay takes on these forms so readily. Pushing it to become art is not easy.
I can show hundreds of similar examples made by newbies to clay from the fine arts over the last 15 years. They all hold out their offerings with arrogant pride as though they have reinvented the wheel. For those of us who know our field this unwarranted self-importance is galling.
The first time round I was seduced by your sensational use of color. But later, in my mind, I peeled away the polychrome layering, and was not satisfied with the naked forms. When I saw images of unpainted works by you my view was confirmed. Weak form.
I can see why they might delight some viewers in the short term. As Ken Johnson said about your paintings in the New York Times in 2001, they had immediate charm but lacked staying power. That cannot be said about your painting today, the growth has been significant.
So if it took your painting 15 years to come fully into its own, what makes you think ceramics will get there any faster? How long have you been working in the medium and how many hours per week?
Getting to the point where your ceramics reaches a level of eloquence that deserves center stage will take time and more respect and feeling for the medium. Also, because you can paint does not mean that there is an immediate transfer of one talent into another medium. Just because a work survives the kiln (and for some of the pieces on the shows that was indeed a miracle) does not entitle it to a spotlight. Be more selective. Some ceramic works of yours are really amateur hour.
In closing here is a work of yours that I think really sings; the form and the color enjoy an intimate rapture. These high points are why, as I have said before, you should stay with the medium.
Lastly, we ran an opinion test in Facebook and asked whether it was acceptable to review a show one had never seen. Most who had not seen the reviews backed you and said no. The majority of those who looked at the reviews backed us. We will continue to do occasional reviews from images, but (as always) only when we feel we are on firm ground.
It was good to get this off my ancient chest.
Good luck with your kiln romance.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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