School is over. Finally.

Well… close.

Classes are done and the only thing left until registration for the fall semester is the graduate art show. That means sporadic trips to campus to do things like paint and put up show walls, pick up artwork that wasn’t juried in, and so on. I will write about the show at some point, probably after opening night.

This post is going to be a bit different, and (I hope) a bit more thoughtful than my usual blather. Instead of discussing day to day activities, I consider certain aspects of art and art education as they apply to me. There are reasons for that, as you’ll see, and perhaps these musings will apply to other art students as well. I don’t know if this will interest my readers, but I hope so.

Thanks — as always — for reading, and please report typos any way you can. Even a comment left here will be read and any typos mentioned will be eliminated.

Interdisciplinary Critique

This may seem like background (or a repeat from previous posts) but it’s needed to help last week make sense.

Some time back we second year art students went through something called an interdisciplinary critique. We picked a time slot and were told to bring two works to discuss with instructors who (ideally) we have not had for any classes (at least not recently).

I struggled with the choice of works to present, and honestly couldn’t decide. I talked with multiple instructors about it, and at least two told me to bring more than two works. I was told it would be fine.

The day of my crit arrived and I brought six works. I know. I know. Six is too many, but it seemed best to let the people doing the crit choose. Right away though, I was told that was not acceptable. Just two works, no more.

This reminded of something a friend (who reads these posts) had told me, which I have mentioned in these posts before, and which definitely resonated: art students do not follow rules. I was an engineering student the first time around, decades ago, and we followed the rules. Rigidly. If an assignment said “write a program to do X” that’s what you did. You didn’t decide halfway through that you weren’t interested in X and instead create a program that did Y but was loosely based on an X you saw eight years before. No, you created an X — whatever that was — and you made sure it matched the criteria that came with the assignment.

Art students, though, don’t always think like that, and rule breaking seems built into the program. Also, as you get farther along in your coursework, the criteria get more vague, so you have more freedom in your choices. That leads to the idea that the criteria — if they exist at all — are more like guidelines than actual rules (Pirates of the Caribbean reference, anyone?) and that affects all kinds of things.

In that light, bringing six pieces seemed an acceptable thing. As I say though, in this case it was not. When the instructors doing the crit pushed back on this point, I selected Echoes of Danno and Leo to discuss.

In the process I said — in passing — that perhaps these represented the past and present of my art making, or something like that.

By this point my crit had gone off the rails. The instructors were (I think) supposed to compare and contrast the two works, discussing strengths and weaknesses, etc. I was also supposed to ask a question they might opine on. In my crit, though, something entirely different happened: we got into a discussion of the difference between art and craft. In fact, my main takeaway was that I was in danger of being something other than an artist.

My skill with carving stone is (I think) apparent, but it seems they used that to make a particular point, saying that I was at risk of becoming merely a technician. They tried to soften the blow, saying a good technician could make more money than an artist, but it was clear they valued something other than (or at least over) good execution of a work. What that might be, exactly, wasn’t explained. And in fact some of the discussion involved the use of terms that I still don’t fully understand. I think my engineering education — and the emphasis I subsequently put on clear communication at work — left me in the lurch here. What, exactly, would it mean to “subvert the stone?” Good question, and one I am still not able to answer. (I could probably write an entire post on the use of jargon in business — and engineering — versus academic — and art — writing at this point, but it’s off topic. Let me know if you want me to write up my thoughts and experiences on that separately.)

The fallout from this crit bothered me a fair bit at the time. In fact, a fellow student said it had caused me to have a crisis of sorts, and though she was joking, she might have been right. I have always been more than a bit insecure about my artistic chops. I am still insecure about that, and probably always will be. Going to school here is an effort to address that. To get two years in and be told I was still going (or at least thinking) the wrong way was something of a shock.

The crit was (mercifully) short, and I was left to my own devices. My sculpture instructor — on learning my reaction— told me not to worry about it. Take what was of value and ignore the rest was her recommendation. Good advice, I suspect. Moving on and getting things done is what I do in any case.

Graduate Show Submissions and Jurying

Weeks later, it’s time to pick work to be juried into the annual graduate art show. This show is a big deal, and I am under the impression that every art school does this sort of thing. Graduating students (and those who have been around long enough, even if they aren’t graduating yet) submit works they have completed in the program. In our case, the combined fine arts faculty juries them all and sets up a show. It’s hung like a gallery show, there is an opening night bash, a printed catalogue, and so on. For those who are graduating, it’s a right of passage. The catalogue and experience are also excellent entries on your CV.

As it happens I am not graduating this year, but I am allowed to participate. Those in the show were allowed to submit up to six works to be juried, with a maximum of four from any one studio discipline. As with my interdisciplinary crit, I struggled with this, but in the end I submitted six works. Four from sculpture:

and two from design:

For the record, here are the work titles and media:

  • Echoes of Danno. Italian alabaster.
  • Leo. Plaster, steel, and paint.
  • The 13th Labour. Sandstone.
  • Metamorphosis. Sandstone chips, epoxy, steel.
  • Judy. Paper, cardboard, and LEDs.
  • Elroy. Plywood.

As I view it, those are probably my best work from the past two terms. Interestingly, though, that isn’t quite what the jurors thought, or so it seems.

They admitted five of those works to the show. The one they decided not to admit: Echoes of Danno.

To be clear, having five of six works accepted is a fine thing. I am not disappointed in the least. But it did, once again, put a spotlight on the nature of exactly what is being taught — particularly in my case — and I am still not sure I get it.

It’s also worth considering that the number of students participating in this show is very large, and I suspect the hanging committee is going to suffer a lot trying to get all of this work displayed well in the available space. To have five works in the show is an accomplishment, and I really am satisfied.

But there are still some nagging questions.

Putting It Together

In particular, I am sill trying to figure out what it is about Danno that kept it out, and how that perhaps relates to things said back in my interdisciplinary crit. It’s not simple.

First of all, I have been told that Echoes of Danno is a “tight” work. That is (I think) it is very controlled in its execution. The other works I submitted are much more reactive to the media in use and what was going on at the time. In comparison, perhaps Danno shows a greater degree of control over the media. My own opinion is that Danno is one of the best stone works I have done. Ever. At a technical level it is executed very well, and I think the composition is good too. I worked with the stone to feature what it can be. In short, I see it as a successful work, and I have had quite a bit of feedback — including the grade the work was given by my instructor — that supports that conclusion.

And yet it was not accepted into the show while Metamorphosis — a work I put together in much less time and which was never even critiqued — was selected.

What can I learn from this?

First off, if Danno is what I was doing (and capable of) before I started school here, then it might be argued that it shows no growth on my part. That’s an interesting idea, and possible given that there is no set of jury criteria available to me to try and figure it out.

There are also the more mundane possibilities: the jurors may not have liked the piece for some reason, or perhaps they didn’t like the base it is on. There are about 12 jurors, and they have to agree on the works being admitted. Maybe that piece bothered some of them. Again, I have no insight into these options unless some instructor chooses to fill me in.

More interestingly, this may go back to the art versus craft conversation in my interdisciplinary crit. If Danno shows my technical skill, it could be interpreted as showing I am stuck in technical skill only, at least in regard to that particular stone carving. My other works are all of different styles, looser (in some sense of that word), and thus perhaps more “artistic” in nature.

That’s tricky in my mind, though. In a world where Duchamp is one of the most important artists ever for saying an artist can create art simply by choosing it, and where Koons can create art by bringing a mass produced toy to a group of craftspeople and paying them to make something exactly like it, but ten feet tall and out of polished stainless steel, what — exactly — does “art” even mean? Am I perhaps really a technician — or craftsman — at heart? Or are the works that were accepted indicative of a more artistic approach that these jurors found more interesting (or valuable)?

Some other things to consider:

  • Two stone works by other students were accepted, and one other stone work was rejected. They were all carved for the same assignment that led me to carve Danno, and all are nice works. Since there is always a subjective element to art, perhaps the jurors thought the other two they accepted were better compositions than Danno. It’s possible, but once again I have no way of knowing.
  • Reading the tea leaves, I suspect that if I had submitted Tower 3 instead of Danno, it might have been accepted. It’s a looser work, and not like anything I’d done before coming to school.
  • There was, it seems to me, a change in direction when the jurors moved from jurying sculpture to works from the design classes. I would say that both my design works were “tight” in comparison with my sculpture works, and even compared with Danno. Judy and Elroy (the lamp and the stool, respectively) were both the result of extensive rounds of refinement and work. Judy — the lamp — saw something like a dozen versions (if not more) laser cut and tested before the final design was selected. There were many refinements made before I declared the work done. The stool — Elroy — saw many versions created in the computer and viewed from all angles. The joinery was of particular importance to me, and I spent hours working out exactly how to make it work. I wanted it to be simple, sturdy, pretty, cut with a three axis CNC router, and yet not look like it had been cut on such a machine. That kind of refinement, it seems to me, is akin to (and well beyond, at least in my mind) any tightness in Danno. So why were my design pieces accepted? Was the critera for accepting design works different from that for sculpture? If not, the exclusion of Danno could argue that Judy and Elroy should have been excluded on similar grounds. Once again, I honestly don’t know.

In the end I am left wondering: am I an artist, a technician, or something in between? Does it even matter?

It might matter if I push ahead with an arts career that moves in the direction of gallery shows and that kind of institutional acceptance. From what I can tell, curators look for artists, not technicians. And a visit to a gallery or museum showing recent artworks will include a lot of rough (loose) work, and less that is tight (by which I mean controlled and perhaps technically more well executed). There are always exceptions, of course. In this case, though, I think it is safe to say that things like photorealism aren’t in favour right now, and while the abstract expressionists might not be dominant anymore (and as a result there is more figurative work of all kinds to consider) an awful lot of current work is looser and less restrained than was the case before (say) the invention of photography.

I will continue to struggle with this over the next year, and my literal (engineering taught) mind may never completely embrace whatever it is the art establishment wants. But then again, it seems quite a few artists work in direct opposition to the art establishment. The impressionists definitely thumbed their noses at the Salon, and Duchamp — for all that his importance may be overblown — definitely didn’t like the established art world.

Maybe I should embrace being a technician and ignore concerns about having an art career. On the other hand, perhaps there is value in letting go more, and letting the work be less controlled. Or maybe my attention to detail — at least when working stone — will prove to be an asset, and the lessons of my crit and Danno’s rejection (assuming I have guessed at them correctly) will prove incorrect. I honestly have no way of knowing what the right thing to do — or the best reaction to have — is.

Check with me again in ten years.

And In Conclusion…

This is apropos of nothing above, but I needed a laugh, And I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords:

Written by

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.

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