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   Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!

   Also please check out my second blog, The Painting Archives to see older (pre-2004) paintings for sale.

Sunday, April 29, 2012
  critique, part one

I seem to have a lot to say on the topic of critique for artists--from the importance of self-critique , to how to elicit helpful feedback from other people, to advice for offering the same to others. I'd hoped to teach a two day class on the topic this weekend, but for some reason--probably that the word critique itself is too scary--I couldn't get sufficient enrollment and had to cancel. So I'm left with all these ideas in my brain, and where else to spill them but here in my blog? Too much for one post, but I'll make a start and come back to it again.

Maybe it was a stretch to think that "critique, " so closely linked to "criticize," could entice many people to an enjoyable and exciting weekend workshop--the term is widely misunderstood. This quote, excerpted from thefreedictionary.com, explains:
...the verb criticize, once neutral between praise and censure, is now mainly used in a negative sense ...Thus, it may be preferable to avoid this word. There is no exact synonym (for critique, but in most contexts one can usually substitute go over, review, or analyze.
Maybe I should have read that before planning my class! But to me, critique is the right word, a great word--it implies, let's dig in, get beyond the superficial stuff, go for depth. It means talking about someone's work at length, in an informed and objective way. Personal opinions will enter in, of course--but in good critique, these are supported by basic art principles. (As in, "I really like the colors-- I think the interaction of warm and cool add richness" or "this composition seems off-balance, I see too much emphasis in the right corner.") You don't have to have an art degree to talk like this or benefit from it, though--any thoughtful analysis, whether one knows the right terms or not, is helpful. Good critique includes praise, problem-solving, questioning, and observations. It offers the artist ideas to mull over, respond to, feel excited by. It can deepen understanding, point out a direction, clarify an idea. Like so much in art, critique is a process, and it can and should be learned if an artist aspires to grow and change in the studio. I find the whole topic intriguing and exciting.

Admittedly, those of us who went through art school, especially graduate school, are likely to remember critiques with a harsh vibe that justify their frightening reputation. There are instructors whose critique style is based on the belief that art students need to be toughened up, made to defend their choices in response to strongly worded criticism, and to justify their work in a atmosphere charged with the pressure of grades and the competitive attitudes of other students. (I know--doesn't that sound like fun??) Accountability by the student for their work is part of getting an art degree, and intense critique sessions are part of that, but the blunt, aggressive approach is only one way. I was blessed with some teachers who were thoughtful, measured and polite during critique sessions, and they are my role models when I conduct my own sessions.

Still, I can't entirely dismiss the effectiveness of the "bad-cop" style of critique. I recall one in grad school that left me in tears once I made it back to my own apartment, where my protestations and justifications ran wild. But some time later (weeks, actually) I realized that the instructor had made a valid and important point, one I've never forgotten. "We don't want to read your diary--get out of your own head and give us something we care about--this is just boring" (and so on) actually meant that the emotional, narrative content I believed to be in the work was not being communicated. It was a rude shove, but in the right direction. Experiences like this left me understanding the value of critique, but motivated to do so in a more gentle manner.

But--the positive, kind approach only works well if it is done with meaning, energy and intensity. In many critique situations those involved are at such pains to avoid negativity and offense that there is little energy present or anything of substance discussed. This is especially true in informal situations--among friends, peers, in workshops or club meetings. I recall years ago being in a women's art group and looking at someone's figure drawings that were very awkwardly done. Instead of addressing that issue, however gently, we spoke only about her materials and the cost of hiring live models, and she never once asked our opinion of the work itself. At the time, I was as timid as anyone else in the room. Now I see this as a wasted opportunity for everyone involved.

I believe that the goal in any critique should be to find productive ground, where honest feedback can be offered and received, and that it isn't all that hard to do. To that end, I plan to offer some tips and ideas in future posts for taking advantage of informal critiques--from the perspective of both the artist and those providing the critique.

(The painting above is Rose Veil, 24"x24", oil and mixed media on panel, recently delivered to Woodwalk Gallery in Egg Harbor, WI.)
Monday, April 23, 2012

Until very recently, it had been years since I'd done very many paintings on a horizontal format. There were a few in 2010, but these failed to open up a strong direction and I soon felt I had exhausted the impulse. Vertical paintings have been my preference for many years, and have been associated in my mind with my move away from landscape (traditionally associated with a horizontal format) and into abstraction. I pushed the vertical idea in an ongoing series of Column paintings (later called Verticals, see image below) --these series included dozens of paintings in all. A square format has been another ongoing favorite, interesting for its tendency to pull the eye inward to the center and at the same time to push it outward along the appealing evenly spaced edges.

In retrospect it seems a little strange that I have so neglected the horizontal, but it's back. A few weeks ago, at the request of one of my galleries, I created several horizontal paintings (one of them, Spritus, 30"x56", oil and mixed media on panel, is shown at the top of this post.) I approached the idea without huge enthusiasm but figured, why not give it a try--and decided to start by working over a couple of vertical, multipanel pieces that I had not quite resolved. As soon as I started in, though, I felt excited about the possibilities. The second horizontal painting that I did, Ramble, is shown below (also 30"x54".)

It's always hard for me to analyze the appeal of a direction when I'm in the midst of it--I just know it is something to follow. But with these paintings I sense that I've come far enough along my abstract journey to relax about the landscape implications of a horizontal format. They feel expansive to me, wide open. The painting shown at the top of my previous post, Solas, is the third so far, and I have several more in progress in the studio.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
  upcoming exhibit in milwaukee

Below is my artist statement for Vestiges, an upcoming exhibit at Elaine Erickson Gallery in Milwaukee, WI, with Allison B. Cooke, which opens April 20/21. This statement contains segments from earlier blog posts, reworked and expanded upon to address the title of the show.

Allison and I chose Vestiges for its range of meanings related to traces from the past, and also as a direct reference to a shared working process which involves the building up of layers of cold wax medium and oils, allowing bits of underlying paint to show through as a kind of visual history of the work.

In addition to the way we create our panels, we recognize another common theme for this show--that of travelling and working in another country, and how as abstract painters we have responded to that experience. For Allison, it was time this past summer in Italy and for me, five weeks in Ireland in the fall. We are both drawn to places with long histories made evident in ancient walls, monuments, archaeological sites and other evidence of the past.

Details about our exhibit may be found at the end of the post. If you are in the Milwaukee or Chicago areas, both Allison and I hope that you will have a chance to view the show, which is up through May 26th.

Artist Statement for Vestiges:

A few years ago, walking on a foggy, craggy moor in central England, I realized that there must be many places around the world (like that very moor) that --despite their geographic location--can feel like home, the true home of my senses and feelings.

For each of us, these places will be different--but in certain surroundings, particular to our own experience--we sense that we belong, and feel special creative energy. There are aspects of the color, the texture and the features of these places that resonate in our souls. The vestiges of these places that linger in our minds are far more than just mental pictures of a scene or beautiful landscape. They are sensual and emotional memories, mingled with other moments in our lives when we felt this special connection. On that moor in England, for example, I remembered wandering in nature as a child, and my love of rocks and wild places. I felt at home with a core aspect of myself, though I was physically far from my own country.

The way I express this kind of experience is through the creation of complex, layered surfaces. I build these up with many layers of color and texture—and also with parts selectively washed out, scraped and scratched away, so that traces of earlier layers are revealed. The resulting images symbolize the layered experience of memory, and express an essence of the rough, weathered landscapes and structures that I love.

The work in this exhibit is largely the result of five weeks spent in Ireland in the Fall of 2011—three of which I was an artist in residence at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, located in the gentle countryside of County Monaghan. I also spent time in Dublin and a week traveling in the West of Ireland with my husband. Certain experiences left strong emotional and sensual traces in my mind and continue to feed my work. I was very moved by a number of megalithic stone cairns and monuments, and by the visual riches of the moisture-saturated landscape. I have been working to bring increasingly complex color and texture into my paintings as a result.

An important aspect of the work in this exhibit is the idea of the “veil.” The word evokes both the misty damp that so often pervades the air in Ireland, and also a more metaphoric veil between the world of everyday reality and one more spiritual and mystical. A woman that I met at the Guthrie Centre remarked that “the veil is very thin here,” a phrase that I have recalled many times since in thinking of the beautiful mystique of the Irish landscape and what I know of the culture. In a number of recent paintings, the many layers of paint applied, along with sand and spattered solvents, create a complex visual veil.

Spending time in Ireland has led to a longing to return, and to feel again that exquisite blend of peace and focused energy that characterizes a true home for the soul. In addition to a possible trip this fall, I will be going back in the fall of 2013, as I have been awarded a Fellowship to the Ballinglen Art Foundation, located in the tiny village of Ballycastle in the northwestern part of the country. It is within walking distance of the rugged seacoast—a new and exciting aspect of Ireland to explore.

The painting at the top of the post is Solas , 30"x56," oil and mixed media on panel,and will be included in the exhibit. And here is the show announcement:

Sunday, April 01, 2012
  art foolishness

I don't have a single serious thing to post today, so in honor of April Fool's Day I am sharing this ridiculous photo, which I found in a pile of old papers of my mother's that was bound for the trash. Three cheers for art silliness! Photo taken from the article: "Ingenious Creations Worn by Guests at Artist's Guild Dinner"(from the Society section of St. Louis, MO Post-Dispatch, Feb. 25, 1945.)In addition to the wearing of strange hats, the activities included a marionette show, square dancing at midnight, and elephant impersonation. Yes, really.


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       Rebecca Crowell