Monday, March 22, 2010

Art Criticism

"Let the wise artist invite criticism and survive it when it comes."
Eric Maisel

I first picked up a paintbrush when I was 10 years old and decided to fix the clouds in my father's painting.  I was so careful to mix the right color, to extend/soften the edges just so.  After the work was done, the brushes were cleaned, then carefully placed where they were found next to his palette.  George (my father) knew right away, then turned on me.  His anger at my 'destruction' of his work, was the first criticism of my 'art' and it was not kind. 

Criticism can be a scarey thing for an artist to take, yet this is the way we learn our trade, our craft. Following is a list of critical responses to my work, and some of my responses:

1.  Who did this?  from my father when I was 10.  then from my 8th grade art teacher Mr. Lillie.  terrified I raised my hand.  He just looked at me, gave me more paper, and made sure I had plenty of charcoal. This happened again in art school when I presented my slides for a final portfolio.  The old terror of George's first critique, always my first response, I prepared myself for the 'slap'. Instead Henry Altmann praised my efficient use of the brush to draw with the light.

2.  Where's the edge of the form?  Here? or Here? or Here?  This from John, an art school boyfriend in response to my figure drawing.  My first response, disappointment, fear of loss of love, just because I didn't 'see' as he saw.  His critique was later echoed by Peter Hoss, my art school drawing teacher, when he asked me if I was looking at Giacometti's drawings.  yes, I was trying to incorporate Giacometti's use of line into my work.  Peter kept poking his finger at my drawing:  is it here, or here or here? Don't just copy Giacometti, understand his seeing.  That's when the lightbulb went off.  The 'edge', the 'line' wasn't anywhere out there, it only existed on my page.  That's when I fell in love with the line, and came to understand that everything exists in space, infused with light and my drawing 'style', this use of line was simply my experience of 'looking'. 

3.  Tell us about your work. This from my final portfolio review at The Art Institute of Boston.  I critiqued my work with all of the negatives.  I had a concentration of still life charcoal drawings that were black and smudgey, and I was trying to combine a strong abstraction with figuration.  I was feeling as if I had failed in my attempt.  "But that is WHAT YOU ARE DOING!" was the resounding chorus. I cried.  My sculpture review was abysmal:  everything happens on the surface.  Today, almost 40 years later I do 'flat sculptures' through my use of glass and metal leaf, they walk a line between figuration and abstraction.

4.  Don't hold your brush in your mouth!

5.  Don't point your brush up with your mouth!

6.  Why are you starting over?  Who said you can't use an eraser?

7.  Use a mask when you sand your paintings!

8.  Don't wear your good clothes when you paint!

9.  You never finish your work.  Why don't you finish your paintings?  They are finished.  They 'don't' look finished.  and this is one of the cornerstones of my work:  to leave the work as if i have just stepped away and could pick the brush up again to 'finish'.  I like this tension, and the introduction of a sense of being 'in the moment' of creating.  the most frequent critic of this 'not finishing' was my father George.  The last time he saw my work we were looking at a 7 foot standing self portrait that took me a year to do.  the first comment  by me to him was "I know it looks unfinished, but I like it this way."  George said:  "I do too."  and we stood in silence looking at my work for one of those 'timeless' moments.  was it a minute or an hour?

10.  Just a few days ago an artist friend said:  I've been looking at your video demonstrations on youtube.  What bothers me is the Sharpie.  I laughed and said:  The erased sharpie?  she said no, leaving the sharpie, it is not permanent.  I smiled and said:  oh, that. it doesn't bother me.  if the sharpie pigment detaches, so what? I don't care if it is permanent.  (is anything ever permanent? no. truly, truly archival? no. why? time. change. impermanence says the buddha).  My artist friend thought for awhile then said:  Well, at least I learned how to put metal on glass.  Then she got up and abruptly left.

I have been painting for 46 years.  I can paint and draw anyway I want.  i give myself this permission, with no apology.  I can leave things, tear things up, show them, not show them, give them away, throw them away.  It doesn't matter.  All that matters is that I have a practice of seeing, experiencing, transcribing and making art.  It is what I do.  a few good well timed criticisms have helped me along the way to live a life of art.
if you are a practicing artist may you know what criticism to receive, may they be well timed and may you be honest in your 'seeing' and kind in the giving of your critique.


"Stand" oil on linen, copyright debbie clarke, gloucester ma, a self portrait

1 comment:

Kay said...

Wow Deb, this really resounds with me. So many of the same feelings and pain over criticisms of my art. I have an open studio this Friday and Saturday and I am trying to think of responses to the inevitable questions about my art. I have already written a short bio/ statement to handout..but it is an accomplishment to be able to talk about your art without apology, or self denigration. I will have to write about my experiences over the past 50 yrs. of painting and drawing on my site someday. I like a lot of what Maisel says..not everything but he has real insight. It is great that you have come to a place of knowing yourself and your art.