ProWax Journal 2: Essential Questions

Essential Questions for ProWax Artists: Critique


“Being critical of art is a way of showing art respect.” – Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, in 15 Wise Quotes Every Artist Should Take to Heart

“I didn’t have a mentor. I learned more from my tormentors.”Pamela Blum, NY artist, at the 6th International Encaustic Conference Saturday morning panel

With these concepts in mind, I initiated a discussion about the critique process with fellow ProWax artists. An excerpt of that conversation is here. -Maritza Ruiz-Kim, Editor-in-Chief

Q: How do you solicit & respond to feedback about your work?

Maritza Ruiz-Kim: Let me start off with a story about my first very negative critique. In art school, a fellow student who was a year or two ahead of me took issue with my work habits, the piece I put before the class, and even my personality. There was no “it’s not personal” there; she hated my work, her perception that I was careless and sloppy, and she took me and my work down piece by piece. Honestly, it was infuriating. I didn’t have the words or presence of mind to respond with any substance. I went home, cried, called friends, vented. Even so, I learned several things. And my work was better for it.

Lessons learned:

  • Breathe
  • Be aware that even feedback from a tormentor can be valuable (thanks for putting it so succinctly, Pamela Blum)
  • Negative feedback from a trusted friend can also be difficult to listen to; be strong
  • Listen for what’s applicable: while my “tormentor” was wrong about the time I had invested in that particular piece, I had been sloppy with previous work in the class (she assumed I had ignored her earlier feedback)– I decided to own that much
  • Go to my friends with my whining, don’t whine in critique
  • Don’t let the difficulty of receiving negative feedback keep me from finding the nugget I need to further my practice
  • Get good at identifying the feedback that gets in the way of my intentions
  • It’s best to disprove peoples’ personal attacks by being persistent in my work

Joanne Mattera: There are different kinds of crits. For instance, if I’m leading a group crit, I’m looking at participants’ work and thinking how they might connect dots–to an artist who shares their sensibility (and might that be the germ of a curatorial effort), to a book or exhibition they might find interesting, to a gallery that shows the kind of work that relates to what they do. It’s about helping them talk about their work and then get it out into the world in a broader way, and asking the kinds of questions that will get them to think about those issues.

On the other hand, I would expect a one-on-one crit–between mentor and mentee, or between two artists of equal experience, or between artist and dealer or curator, to delve more deeply into the work with conceptual and compositional issues–even material issues– with what if, why, would you, can you, should you, and so forth. I’ve had trusted colleagues say everything to me from, “You’ve barely scratched the surface. Get in there!” to “It’s perfect. Don’t touch it” to the kinds of excruciatingly difficult questions that pierce the heart but push you forward: Why are you still working on the series? I think it’s too pretty. Does it have to be square? Does this have to be done in encaustic? What would happen if you made it bigger/smaller/turned it sideways? And of course there’s the long pause and then the curt, “It just doesn’t do anything for me.”

The responsibility of the recipient is to think about all of it, then take what’s useful and disregard the rest.

Cheryl McClure: Joanne’s summary of a crit is really good. It covers a lot of ground. I haven’t been to art school so I have never come upon a crit like the one you went through, Maritza, although I have heard of them.

I consider crits to be very useful……BUT, the big BUT: it can be devastating to the recipient if not handled by a sensitive, caring person. Many will have their own views of this but my first thought is always to find out what the artist intended with the work, and then to consider whether the work succeeds.

Jane Guthridge: I don’t have a regular critique group. When looking for input I go to a number of artists who I respect and share my same sensibilities. Most of these people live in other places so I send them images and discuss either online – or better with a phone call. I am fortunate that the owner of the gallery that represents my work in Denver is also an artist. We share the same sensibilities, he has a great eye, and I respect his opinion. I often bring new work to him to get his input. He helps me by not only discussing the content, but with ideas for technical challenges involved in creating the work or displaying it.

Maritza Ruiz-Kim: I like that too Cheryl: asking about the artist’s intention in the work, and knowing what kind of feedback the artist wants. Does the artist really want to know what I think? It’s not a question I can always ask outright, but I try to get a sense about that. If there is trust in the working relationship, I feel more comfortable speaking honestly. I lead with what is working for me and I ask questions: “What is it you had in mind with this part?”, “I’m not sure that ___ is consistent with what you’re telling me,” etc. When we have a good back and forth and understanding of each other’s work, I find the depth to the inquiry into someone’s work to be really exciting.

While I try to be very sensitive in giving feedback, I try to be tough in receiving feedback. I try to learn from it and see what it is about my work that I might want to address- or if instead I’m fine with my work falling flat with a particular individual. (Who can match that one person who made me cry in art school? I’ve never had any feedback that has come close to that experience.) There are many ways to make work, and not everyone will like my work.

Cheryl McClure: I have only taught one workshop. It was for a week in Dallas a few years ago. I was really worried about the critique, because there are all levels of work in a workshop, but they often demand a critique at the end. I was really happy that there was a lecture at [the 7th International Encaustic Conference in] Provincetown that year with Toby Sisson. I will have to go look up my notes but they are in the studio somewhere. (Notes from the Encaustic Conference are linked below.)

Maritza Ruiz-Kim: Yeah that would be hard for me too, Cheryl!

Joanne Mattera: Everything depends on the level of the artists. For students, I always ask, “What is your intent here?” That allows us entry to the work by how well the artist has been able to achieve what s/he is after, and how well the students viewing the work respond to the artist’s intent. This has been a good way to work with less experienced artists as well. But with my peers, usually I have a sense of their oeuvre, and they mine, so the conversation can focus on other issues–how the work relates to previous work, what’s new in the work, what’s troubling or intriguing about it, the space it occupies now and where it appears to be headed.

Jane Guthridge: I like your question “What is your intent here?”, Joanne, because I think it helps to lead to a discussion rather than a judgment.

Jennie Frederick: I graduated from art school, and for over 25 years I’ve had experience teaching: art school, community college, 40 schools in Kansas City, private workshops… . I LOVE critiques, especially group critiques. I often had 75 students per semester. I usually opened with a reminder of their background, their influences, their goals, struggles, successes, etc. The information garnered from this always led into a wonderful dialogue about the work. There are always formal issues, conceptual issues, technical issues, and even presentation issues. I remember grueling critiques during my tenure at art school. But I always find ways now to suggest historical exemplars and contemporary relevancies. There are ways to nudge students toward personal growth without stifling them.

As a resource for questions around teaching content within an encaustic workshop or classroom, please see Toward Standards & Practices in Teaching Encaustic.  From the introduction: “The Teachingsession Toward Standards and Practices in Teaching Encaustic was held at the 7th International Encaustic Conference in Provincetown, Massachusetts on June 2, 2013. Dozens of conferees participated in the session’s three dialogue groups, sharing their thoughts on SAFETY, MATERIALS & TECHNIQUES and CONTENT. Over a 45-minute period, the group facilitators – Sara Mast, Cherie Mittenthal and Toby Sisson – guided the exchange of ideas while note takers recorded the comments posed by the participants.”

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