Saturday, August 22, 2015

Reflections on Criticism: Acts of Committed Imagination

Let's take a moment to review. Why do I write art criticism on the internet? 
Ann Starr, from Home Security, 2005,
ink on paper

Reviewing art unasked by a self-constituted audience could be taken as an egotistical overvaluing of my own opinions; the more so since I do this without being employed by a media outlet that might pay me minimally for a certain number of words that illustrate an image or two.  But anyone who is offended can simply ignore rather than challenge the ideas I propose. In a twenty-first century of multitudinous bloggers, the world is awash with opinions for readers to drink deeply or dabble in. There's no curriculum. And essentially, there's no competition.

I write these reviews because they organize for my own sake my reactions to art shows that I see. Writing forces me—forces anybody—to dig deeper. Writing is a certain path to discovery. And what is any art about if not discovery? 

In writing I try to imitate the artist's process of digging in, observing, and solving a sequence of related problems—materials, colors, structure, size, memory, attitude... When I reach a conclusion, it may not be the artist's conclusion, but it will hopefully follow similar logic. Or it will arise from contemplation of the same materials with the opportunities they offer. To write is to shadow; it brings me as close as I can get to the generation of the artworks without having been there in fact.

So, to write reviews—to write criticismis to observe as closely and comprehensively as I can. To observe closely is an act of committed imagination. 

Readers will have noticed by now the way I have allowed the nouns "review" and "criticism" to assume the same space. "Criticism" usually carries the idea of evaluation more heavily than does "review," but both imply evaluation and analysis. 

Neither "review" nor "criticism" means synopsis or description without the addition of the writer's own analysis, evaluation, or insight. A reviewer or a critic has something to share with the audience beyond prose received from a press release and what observations will serve to prove that he/she did indeed visit the site of the show.

"Criticism" is often associated with academic study for whom the intended audience is scholarly or deeply informed. This is why I stick to the term "review." Criticism is popularly thought to be fault-finding and esoteric. There is enough witty, rhetorical criticism, too, that rips apart easy targets and constitutes its own sub-genre of writing to maintain general readers' leeriness of the term. Criticism is seen as a negative act that dismisses the content most people would be interested in. Criticism, as many understand it, focuses only on form, poetics, technique, tradition, and such aspects of art as non-specialist observers might consider secondary. 

While academic conversation is crucial for the advancement of knowledge, and while the work of academic intellectuals is to be respected, I wonder if its influence hasn't stunted the emergence of more practical criticism directed at a general, educated, and eager audience—those of us who visit museums and galleries for pleasure. Even the vocabularies of the premier art magazines are specialized, traceable back to the academy, not to standard English as it is popularly used.

"I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." It's a beginning, but it's not a place to remain. And I think such a statement implies a question about how to know more.

My job as a critic is to help that person go farther. It's a practical job, one rooted in non-specialist language (though not in watered-down language), and in modeling. 

I wish for my reviews to show the reader what I do when I look at a show and how I get my ideas about it. I hope to show what prompts me to make comparisons with other things I've experienced. The connection between experience and imagination will appear.

Ultimately, I hope that readers of my reviews—of all reviews—appreciate that good criticism can open doors beyond the simple recommendation that a particular show worth seeing. A good review—solid criticism, should give the viewer information that helps her/him see any show more deeply, with more searching questions and keener observations. No one is obliged to like any show, however warmly recommended. A substantial pleasure comes in the process of taking it in, considering how the artist must have made the work, how the curator put the show together, and how the whole piques our own feelings, memories, and imaginations. 

And, after all, how badly can you dislike something when you've invested yourself in genuine scrutiny of it? Liking and disliking aren't the goals we should set for ourselves in viewing art. How can we know what we like until we have invested ourselves in it? 

And how can we know who we are until we've invested ourselves in the work of observation of complex works in which others have invested their minds and their time? In learning how to consider art and to like widely in art, we become more fully human in the process. I write reviews as a practical matter, for those who would help along the way.

Ann Starr, Gouty Hand, 1998, pen and
marker on paper.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Andrew Lidgus: "Duality" at the Sherrie Gallerie

Andrew Lidgus, whose work is showing through August 30 at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus, is both a pianist and a fine artist. This may be called a duality, but Lidgus integrates two aspects of an artistic self singularly well in works that themselves defy genre. Neither paintings nor sculptures nor collages, perhaps "assemblage," that generously comprehensive category, comes closest to describing them.
Andrew Lidgus, Points of View, paint, matte board, nails,
 25.5 x19.5" i

All the work in this show simultaneously communicates high spirits and reassuring stability. The assertive color clashes happily; the construction is impeccably disciplined. Lidgus shuns artists' materials, turning to cardboard, carpenters' nails, sandpaper, house paint and other common treasures. His combination of color choices, attentive workmanship, and biomorphic shapes all remind me of mid-twentieth-century art. This may account for an air of classicism I feel strongly in this beautiful work.

From a distance, it's easy to feel the music in a work like Points of View, in which the viewer can find a lyrical line of red dots underscored by a slightly dissonant, broad violet, flowing across the rhythmic beats of black and pink strokes. Green forms have the shape of a grand piano's convex and concave curve and cut.  

The closer one comes, though, the fuller and more distinct the sound, for this isn't just music on a score, but music in dimension, moving into time and space. Some of the red dots are the heads of carpenters' nails, the shadows of which add in every sense another dimension—overtones, a locked hand—to the now separate melodic line. It's a duet, a duality? 
Andrew Lidgus, detail, Points of View

One sees too, close up, that the entire surface of Point of View is in fact created of many stacked planes. It's a topography of heights and it is further complicated by being a topography of colors as well, since the paint doesn't follow the geography of the cut-outs. 

Points of View is a gorgeous, multifaceted work of visual art, one through which any viewer can travel for a long time again and again. But its delight can be multiplied greatly by considering it as an example of interarts, replete with musical content as well. It looks like complex, free music sounds. We can experience this in feeling, in a synthesis of vision and sound.

Lidgus shows a variety of "looks" in Duality, but all of it is strongly related by rhythm, order, and color. Whether he depends on paint with raised elements, whether he works in monotone bas-relief, or in a blend of the two, all fits together to give his body of work tremendous integrity.

Gallery owner Sherrie Hawk has used her excellent eye to highlight this signature fact about Lidgus's work. She has hung the show in a way that not only shows off the beauties of particular works, but which invites the viewer to see similarities that could be lost opportunities in a less sensitive (and educational) hanging.
Andrew Lidgus. In the Privacy of My Mind (left) and Midnight Sky (right).
 At first glance the two pieces above may appear dissimilar, since the one is painted and the other is all black, made of primarily woven strips of  matte board. Nevertheless, the proximity of these works feels natural and restful. What makes them work?

Perhaps it's the rounded form toward the top in each piece: The circle on the right and the half circle on the left. Each work is dominated by lines. Though In the Privacy of My Mind repeats the semi-circles, those forms are filled with vertical lines; the circles in Midnight Sky are composed of the grids that fill the work. In the latter work, it appears different that strong oblique lines cut across the surface of the grid, breaking up the simple grid. But the first surface of In the Privacy… is not straight at all, but is built from lines like reeds in the wind, bunched and waving and irregular. In other words, there are enough similarities in design elements and rhythms to relate the two works. Or, rather, to illustrate how Lidgus, whatever the particular piece he's working on, is working from the same intellectual and emotional space, experimenting with integrity from his own soul's stock of material, not working with this finger to the wind.
Andrew Lidgus, In the Privacy of My Mind, wood, paint,
25.5 x 31.5."
NB the three-dimensionality.

Most of the works in this show are built on various types of cardboard or matte board. Lidgus uses these both as his basic support and to raise surfaces, whether they be the minute topographical gradations that we see in Points of View or the semi-circles that dominate the surface on In the Privacy of My MInd. Sometimes he uses corrugated cardboard stripped of the paper layer that usually masks the ripples, so that he benefits from the texture of the paper waves. 

Curators (and purchasers) have to be concerned about the durability of "non-traditional" materials. The other side of the coin is the expressive, poetic aspects of those materials. I've already noted Lidgus's workmanship: He is precise in the use of his everyday materials. Cardboard is allowed its own merits in a dignified way I haven't granted before. I find myself admiring its color, which sometimes appears as gold against black; its hard appearance in one setting and softness in another; the effects possible with whole or partial stripping of the surface from corrugation; its sometimes strength and its aspect when it buckles. Lidgus uses cardboard with the seriousness of a model-maker, of a person who is planning, who is in mid-thought, who is conceiving as he works.

Andrew Lidgus, Conscious, detail. NB stripped
corrugated (with metal screen, nails, wire on

This is my first exposure to Andrew Lidgus, and I find his work fascinating. His composition, colors, and sensibility are classical and hearken back to beautiful moments in Picasso and Matisse as well as to mid-century design. 

But it's his urge to extend mental and material space beyond the usual limits that shows his power. Lifting off to multiple planes without committing to sculpture; finding a way to bring the eye and the ear close together. For Lidgus, proximity isn't a failure to be one or the other, but a unique condition in itself. His works cannot be described or defined as fine art or music; as precious or rough, as sculpture or painting. They are none of these, and they challenge the discussion of art traditions on several levels. 

Duality? This is one concept Lidgus' work seems stoutly to refuse.

Andrew Lidgus, Birdman, matte board, wood, 25.5 x 31.5." How many colors does "black" represent?