I think Cara Ober at Bmore Art started an excellent discussion about the quality, QUANTITY and honesty of arts criticism in Baltimore. This is a discussion in which I am endlessly involved, proudly as a member of the art critical writing force while simultaneously lamenting its smallness and consequential lack of coverage for the gallery I co-direct.
As a member of the arts community, wearing many many hats happily and often exhaustedly, I would invite anyone with any interest to contribute to the conversation. BLOGS ARE FREE. There is a constant paranoia about the perception of our multiple roles, our own studio practices and competitive inclination to slight our fellow artists. I have to say, in the case of every arts writer I know, there is never a personal or duplicitous motivation behind the need for and crafting of the local arts dialog. The money isn't great, our contributions are a labor of love and a lot of thought.
With criticism, here I mean negative criticism, comes the vested interest in the continuation of the conversation, the urging on of artists to continue to work hard, be open, and to produce great work.
Through my gallery and writing both, I am only seeking to promote and work hard to gain attention at a national level for the unbelievable range of talent that exists in this city. That being said, the Sondheim seems like an amazing opportunity in and of itself to attract this kind of attention. It is largest art prize in a city that has been enjoying an international reputation for being cool and cutting edge, especially thanks to its music scene.
Unfortunately, the Sondheim has little impact on the national art front, it is not a household name and many people cannot name its recipients, however talented. Despite my disinterest in Matthew Porterfield's works last year, it was politically the smartest move and biggest push toward disseminating the Sondheim prize and its benefits into the greater art world. This year, however, I felt much of the work was of a weaker caliber, and did my best to contribute to the CP cover story two pieces that highlighted both what was strong about one artist, and what was lacking in the second's installation, hoping that this artist will continue to make work, and take bigger risks when presented with future opportunities. My second piece was cut.
I am a gallery owner, and the partner of a semi-finalist artist. I have exhibited, both locally and in other cities, the works of many other semi-finalist artists. My criticism is not based on the selection of the artists who where chosen, but how artists chose to represent themselves. I would like nothing more than to be surprised by and introduced to new artists making excellent work through the Sondheim selection process.
Jury-based prizes are often determined on a grading system. Some high scores are weighed down by low marks of those jurors who don't understand the work. It is a general agreement amongst artists and anyone who has ever served on such a jury that those artists consistently in the middle scores, ones whom everyone can agree are "pretty good" are selected as finalists. This can produce some conservative choices, and of course, some excellent surprises. It is up to those artists to put their best foot forward and give both the selection of their artwork and the prize prestige and legitimacy. THIS SHOULD BE A HUGE DEAL!
This is the piece I wrote about Jon Duff that was replaced, after much deliberation and the added delicacy of having a mutual, professional respect for one another, by my acting editor.
Photo from BmoreArt
Jon Duff is the youngest of the six finalists this year, a 2012 graduate of MICA's Mount Royal MFA program; he has been out of school for a mere 2 months. The works exhibited at the BMA are elements of his thesis show, pared down and spaced out around his allotted portion of the museum. Working in painting, sculpture and a single digital print, Duff's pieces reflect the stylistic freedom and unaccountability that comes with the student studio process, along with the pitfalls of trying to relate this erratically referential practice (and learning process) to an art-savvy audience.
Duff's spacing of the works and experiment with sparseness is detrimental to the impact of the overall installation. An odd, even attention is given to almost every piece in the show, with the exception of the lone digital print - an image of minerals and semi-precious rocks arranged on shelves- which is the only piece in a frame, and the only two-dimensional work hung on the wall. Four unframed, modestly-sized paintings are placed directly on the floor, spaced out at odd intervals between the sculptural works. Each painting depicts a flat, colorless shape sitting atop a spray-painted, grey gradient. Washy neon color accents in transparent primary colors surround the main form in both tidy shapes and semi-aggressive smears. None are particularly memorable. As a recent graduate, the decision to re-show recent works without much adjustment for the venue can be chocked up to circumstance, and inexperience. The end of the school year can be a tough transitional period, at which point one's thesis exhibition seems like the be-all-end-all of your artistic output. In retrospect, it is usually just a point from which to begin your independent artistic career.
Created for a smaller, more intimate viewing experience, the pieces lose visual potency when physically separated from one another. They sit apart like pieces of a puzzle, none making a large impression individually, but as a whole might articulate something more interesting. The urge to rearrange and push together certain pieces, and to pick the paintings up off the floor is almost uncontrollable.
The apparent stylistic consistency in Duffs work seems to be a constant battle between a meticulous representation of “Contemporary Art” (as appropriated from a wealth of internet-based art research) and a desire to illustrate a child-like frustration in the studio. Messy paint and mixed media (including fertilizer, and pieces of denim) coat a Franz West-like blob in his sculpture titled “Stranger,” and hang off of a few nondescript objects on wire shelves in “Closest Maid.” Between these works, “Slouch,”a sculptural work consisting of a sock oozing latex paint onto a white chair, and “Ape” a painting with fertilizer flung across it, the works read as a mix between a prank and tantrum. A similar childish quality comes across in “Orange Drink,” the title given to a glass of neon orange resin on a boxy pedestal in the center of a blue rug. Duff's work seems to shrug at its own defeat and immaturity, which is both irksome and slightly endearing.