Saturday, March 24, 2012

Reviews Are Great Even When They Aren't Good

Back in July 2011 I wrote an article titled "Where Are the Writers" addressing the lack of critical reviews for artists working with textile materials. With this in mind I was very pleased last week when a friend sent me a link to a review of the Fiber: Focus 2011-2012 exhibition.

Fiber: Focus 2011-2012 is sponsored by the Textile Alliance of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the show this year was held at the Canton Museum of Art in Canton, Ohio while renovations are being made at the Cleveland venue. This group has been responsible for many excellent exhibitions and their primary aim is to promote fiber art through education and the purchasing of art for the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I immediately followed the link and read a review of the show by Dorothy Shinn, art and architecture critic for the Akron Beacon Journal.

Shinn is very clear that she was not impressed with the exhibition and establishes that starting with the headline: "Works in fiber show skillful. not powerful." She then states the idea that work is only serious art if its' inspiration is "current events" and goes on to list what she would sees as appropriate topics: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the election of our first African-American president; flooding, droughts, major storms and massive environmental damage; the wall street scandals and the subsequent economic disaster. Just reading her list made me feel bad.

Of course all of these topics are fine.....if that is what inspires you or interest you, but serenity and celestial rhythms, playfulness and pious ideas etc. are just as valid. Maybe we are all sick to death of the endless stream of negative headlines. I found Shinn's position on what can be the foundation for art depressing and strange. More important than my personal response to this list is the fact that artists are completely free to pursue the making of art any way we please. Thankfully this has been true for some time.

Go to any "open" medium art exhibition and tell me what you see. I contend that you will see work which was inspired by a very broad spectrum of concerns from "current events" to color and design relationships.

The second issue concerns Shinn's comparison of Fiber: Focus 2011-2012 to Fiberworks 1977. I did not recognize that title and, after contacting a friend who is a longtime resident of Ohio, I learned that Fiberworks 1977 was a very high profile international invitational. The work in the current show is a juried exhibition and draws on artists from an 8 state area around Ohio. This area has many wonderful artists but there is a vast difference in the potential of these two types of shows. It is an unfair comparison in scope, financial support and ultimate potential.

The international invitational had the entire world of textile artists to choose from whereas the 8 state juried exhibition had artists who were eligible due to their location and then only those who choose to enter could be considered to actually have work in the show. While the latter format can produce an excellent show, the chances that it will meet the same level of accomplishment as an international invitational is doubtful. This in no way cast aspersions on Fiber: Focus 2011-2012. It is simply a matter of numbers.

I'm glad that the Akron Beacon Journal is still publishing and still reserves space to cover arts events. I am glad that Dorothy Shinn selected this show to review. I do however wish she had talked more about the work that was actually in the current show and not so much about what she personally would have preferred to see and about a show that isn't available to be viewed.

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  1. Interesting you wrote about this review by Dorothy Shinn. Earlier this week there was much discussion on email lists regarding another Shinn review, of a Nancy Crow show in 2009.

    You're right to be thankful for local newspapers that still do art reviews, and even more for those who include fiber within the definition of art. So many newspapers have totally abandoned criticism (too expensive).

  2. Thank you Alice and Kathleen.

    After this review came to my attention I did see some discussion about Shinn's review of Nancy Crow. That review was completely off base.

    While I know Nancy did not appreciate this kind of biased coverage, I have to go back to the least someone paid some sort of attention to textile work and took the time to write.

    Much appreciation to you both for caring.

  3. I completely forgot this show was on...and I would have been able to go. I too am glad that there was ink given to the discussion of this show.....but I am blown away by her criticism of the subject matter. As you stated, Terry, exhibitions of artist's works drawn from a particular area are likely NOT to have current events or political themes...unless, of course, the show intended to form the exhibition around such a theme which was laid out in the calls-for-entry.

    However, one hopes that Shinn's review inspired people to visit to draw their own conclusions.... Ohio has a long history of encouraging and sponsoring fiber art one can only hope that reviews by critics who don't seem to "get it" still work to make the visitor question, ask, view and form their own opinions.

  4. Thank you Lisa for your thoughtful comment.

    It is very true that while less than supportive articles aren't what we want, they do generate awareness and hopefully put the show on the radar to be seen and enjoyed.

  5. New to the art quilting and fiber world my work is not up to standards for inclusion in international or national shows. My work may never be... but as I am learning the call to entry for shows and exhibits does dictate the subject matter of what is submitted.
    So a show should be judged/reviewed based on the submission guidelines.
    I have no clue who the reviewer is... but when I read reviews of any kind it should be on the subject at hand. Seems like the reviewer had a personal agenda rant. While that can be interesting for the writer how relevant is that for the artists, show organizers or for the general public who in general just want to know what is going on...
    Interesting topic though. Should artists make what a critic thinks they should or what their muse tells them to...

  6. Thank you sewinggeek! You make a good point in regards to whether or not a show is a "theme" show. I went back and read the prospectus for Focus: Fiber 2012 and it did not state any specific theme or topic for the show. Here is a link:

    This show was a call to artists to show their best work regardless of their point of departure for the work.

    As to making what you like or making work for a specific show my feelings are that it can be instructive and a personal challenge to fulfill the guidelines for a theme show and therefore rewarding. However, if that is all you ever do you will never find your personal voice.

    I appreciate your taking time to share your thought.

  7. This is such an intriguing subject. I remember reading discussions similar to your blog post when I was researching my book, only they were written in the 1960s and early 1970s, proof that this has been a concern for a long time. I have written several letters over the years to Steven Litt about his reviews in the Cleveland Plain Dealer of fiber exhibitions. Great discussion, as always, Terry.

  8. Thank you Gayle. I would love to hear more about the tone of the reviews in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Sounds like an excellent article might be possible. xo, T

  9. I wonder what Shinn might have thought about the themes of the show if she hadn't been told what they were. I know I often think less of the art (sometimes quite a lot less) after I've had my impressions and reactions compromised by an artist's statement. Which is not to say that I think her list of subject matter is more legitimate than the subjects that called to the artists -- indeed inward states are often more challenging to realize as material expressions -- I just can't help but wonder whether this fashion for explaining and oversharing is truly useful.

  10. Great point Melanie! Another friend wrote me a note and made this same point. She mention the statements at several shows she had recently visited and found those statements detrimental to the work and the overall professional tone of the exhibits.

    I enjoy well written statements that in some way add to the overall appreciation of the work but I prefer to read them after I have studied and experienced the work on it's own.

    I think your reference to the "fashion for explaining" is very interesting.

  11. I enjoyed reading your post and also the review linked to by Kathleen's comment. Although I may not agree with many of Dorothy Shinn's ideas, I enjoy considering her's and others' thoughts and ideas and I'm glad to see fiber art and quilt shows being reviewed as art shows. And thank you for promoting critiques and reviews!

    1. Thank you Gina. I too enjoy hearing what others have to say. In this review the writer seemed to make huge blanket statements without talking about any specific work. The only thing I learned was that Shinn wants work to be inspired by current events.

      I so appreciate your taking the time to comment!

  12. Hello Terry,
    I had a piece in this show, and not modest at all at 6' high and 7' wide. And with the return of my work this last week they included this article. Ms Shinn gives not one example of her dissatisfaction or comfort in this group of works exhibited. She merely lists the award winners (without comment) and proceeds to compare the exhibition to days-gone-by. The selection is a factor of two things -- works submitted and works chosen. So, I would ask her to look at the submission pool and the selection of the juror (in this case, Dorothy Caldwell) and commit to clarifying her stand on artist statemets,as well as pointing out what she sees as her one or two "nice surprises." I could use just one or two nice examples.

    1. Hey Pat! Thank you for commenting....especially since you were part of Fiber: Focus.

      The size of your work and the sizes of a number of other pieces in the show were substantial. This makes me think Shinn was again mentally returning to the show she mentioned in which I believe there were installations by some artists. Perhaps she is telling us that work must not only be "serious" on her terms but it must also fill the room. It just becomes more and more specific as to what is "acceptable" for her to consider as art.

      You are correct that there was no actual discussion of the work in the show. How unfortunate. Here would be where the writer could educate the reader and really shed light on the pluses and minuses of the exhibition from her perspective.

      I have not mentioned Dorothy Caldwell in all of this so thank you for doing so. I have studied twice with Dorothy so I do have some insight into who she is. She is as serious an artists as I know. Meaning that she is educated about her medium, educated about art as a whole, aware of what is going on in the art world and takes her work seriously. While we may not agree with every choice she made for the show, I am completely confident she made careful and well founded choices from what she had to choose from.

  13. This discussion reminds me of a ballet review by Anna Kisslegoff (sp?) in the Times. Years and years ago, she very enthusiastically reviewed a Chinese ballet company that was in the US on tour. She was so enthusiastic that I felt I had to go. (I'm not usually so suggestible.) The company was wonderfully precise, disciplined, and earnest in its execution of the dances but, in the end, not very good. The performance had the air of a school recital, albeit for a very rigorous school. I was a little baffled by Kisslegoff's enthusiasm. A couple of weeks later, she wrote a follow-up in whch she said that, yes, the company was earnest rather than good, but she believed it was important that their work be seen, and so she encouraged people to go, to support the art form, to support the artists and the venue, and to learn about the wider world of dance.

    Those things are important and it seems a very rare thing for a critic also to be an open-minded enthusiast, so I cherish this long ago example.

    1. What an interesting story. I don't think I've ever heard of a critic admitting to this sort of generous gesture. Well, who knows what lurks in the hearts of widely read reviewers. Long live newspapers and art their numbers ever dwindling.

  14. Couldn't agree more with your thoughts, Terry. Personally I wish the writer would have spent more time getting to know the exhibited pieces and their makers so she could have given the readers that weren't fortunate enough to attend a better picture than lamenting about what should be...or what was in the distant past. 1977, seriously?

    I seldom let critics sway my opinion whether it be reviews of movies, new restaurants, or art exhibits. I like to think it through with my own eyes, senses, brain.

    I'm also more than a bit tired of the bombardment of negativity, in movies, in newspapers, t.v. shows etc., the dumbing down of America with some of these reality shows airing seemingly every channel.

    Two painters that are sociopolitical are
    painters Franck de Las Mercedes and Yoko Ono .
    for Franck's PEACE boxes and Ono's "Mend Piece," inviting viewers to join broken pieces of ceramic pottery together.
    They both provoke thought and emotional effects through simple gestures but the messages aren't being beaten into the viewer.


  15. Thank you ParisMaddy for your comments. I checked out the site you mentioned and I loved the idea of the Peace boxes and Ono's Mend Piece. I think we all need positive interactions.

    I appreciate your statement about making up your own mind. That is what we should do. In the end, critiques are only people who may or may not be well informed or who may just have different ideas, histories or needs than we have.

  16. Interesting topic. This is a good reminder as well as a good note to say: keep your mind open and you may find things different than others do.

    I find myself giving my personal opinion away more often than necessary when sometimes it isn't even solicited. This is a nice reminder!

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts Terry!

    Kaci Kyler

  17. Great to hear from you Kaci! Yes, it is our "job" to make up our own minds. Often, the issue with critics is that they don't have enough competition and therefore are give far too much credibility.

    I appreciate your comment.

  18. Excellent discussion all the way around the table. I agree with your sentiments and concur thatIn the future, I hope that Ms. Shinn does not dismiss the textile work produced by artists who live in Ohio and in the seven-state region surrounding it. I do expect that Ms. Shinn understand the context in which these artworks were selected and that she make fair assessments of the art on view in the exhibition she is ostensibly reviewing.

    1. Thank you Christine. I appreciate the phrase "fair assessments". I believe it is the Job of a critic to be informed about all aspects of work they are critiquing, otherwise, what is the value of such critiques?

      Everyone has a right to their opinion but the critique has a bigger platform and I believe a responsibility to be better informed than the casual viewer.

      Always great to hear from YOU!

  19. I wonder whether Ms. Shinn actually saw the show. The accompanying photos incorrectly identified. There were several "political" pieces dealing with cell phone towers, use of land, the plight of the working woman, the life of Korean students, fast foods, etc. Now if we are going to base shows on content do we need one basic anti-war, a prerequisite hate-the-republicans piece? To me these are kind of lazy topics, I mean, who is for killing people? Should we make a check list for content? But to compare a curated (by museum curators) invitational international show to a regional juried show? And a show some 30 years ago to what has happened now? Come on!
    And by the way the show is never in the Cleveland Museum of Art whether they are under construction or not. Wish we were but it never works out that way. We are lucky to have CMA as our backer and we get to purchase works to enhance the Cleveland collection and will have a textile gallery in CMA next year (a first). A small in road but we do get the insight of the head curator and we are making textiles known to the museum. We have their ear!

    1. Thank you Mary Ann. Great response to the demand for "topics".

      You are indeed fortunate to have the support of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Having your show in their galleries is a super goal.