Anyone who has written art criticism focusing on art galleries and art museums knows it’s not easy to do so.
For starters, in any fair to midlins-sized city, an art critic has to visit a dozen or more art shows a week just to write one review. Theatre, dance, performance, music, and other cultural critics generally just pick a show to attend, or a movie, and then write about that one event.
So it’s no surprise, with perhaps the notable exception of New York, that most newspapers and other mainstream media usually only have one person writing about the galleries and sometimes a second body to write about museums.
In the nation’s capital, incredibly enough, with one of the largest gallery scenes in the world, plus a sizeable number of museums, visual art critics are rare, and art criticism for local galleries and museums scant. For example, the Washington Post employs one freelancer to cover all of the Greater DC area art galleries and she pens a column every two weeks — that’s right: about 25 reviews a year to cover around 1,200 possible shows. The paper’s Chief Art Critic (Blake Gopnik) does not cover local galleries and instead only writes about museum shows everywhere and a random review of NYC art galleries. The Washington Times‘ coverage is even more scant, with their Chief Art Critic (Joanna Shaw-Eagle) usually writing about museums, and every once in a while about local galleries. On the other hand, the alternative weekly Washington City Paper (WCP) does an exceptional job. Under the leadership of Arts Editor Leonard Roberge, this weekly has picked up (somewhat) the slack and apathy shown by the two main dailies.
Art criticism usually needs more than one look to get a true view of what’s going on.
Let’s take our current exhibition: Compelled by Content. Joanna Shaw-Eagle, the chief art critic of the Washington Times delivered a major review of the Compelled by Content II exhibition in the Washington Times last Saturday. Shaw-Eagle (who has been writing about art since I was a kid) provided yet more evidence of how “healthy” it is to have more that one critical voice look at an artist or a show and offer a different perspective or opinion. I used the recent multiple reviews of the Connie Imboden show at Heineman-Myers as such an example. Now our show adds more evidence why it is important in most cases (and whenever possible) to have more than one set of eyes and more than one pen on paper to deliver an opinion.
I’m not criticizing either of the views, as art criticism should have teeth; but rather pointing out how two independent writers view the same artist in a completely different way. In his otherwise very positive review of our show, the WCP‘s Kriston Capps describes Carmen Lozar’s work as “puerile figurines [that] look as if they could have been made by Walt Disney.” Looking at the same artist, Shaw-Eagle (who disses my news release in the second paragraph of the review) writes:
Other glass works, such as those by 31-year-old newcomer Carmen Lozar, a teacher at Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University, delightfully intrigue and puzzle.
An artist with impeccable credentials – study at Alfred University, Corning Museum of Glass and the Pilchuck Glass School — Miss Lozar presents Tenuous, three tiny glass sculptures named “rabbit,” “lizard,” and “baby with umbilical cord.”
She writes that many of her charming pieces emerge from her dreams. Sister in Butterflies, an intricate, four-piece construction of flameworked glass and mixed media, comes apart to reveal the engraved words, “I dreamt my sister has beautiful long eyebrows. I dreamt she fought off butterflies while laying beneath a dogwood tree, thinking they were threatening when really they were just searching for her smile.”
Although there are still some missing images, most of the exhibition can be seen online.
Bottom line: Two writers with two wildly disparate views of the same artist illustrate why we need more voices.