Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Reminder of How Subjective Art Is

As I mentioned in a previous post, the feedback on my work varied wildly at the residency in Vermont. Not only from the other residents, but also from the visiting artists. Studio visits by the visiting artists were optional, however I signed up to meet with all of them. Because I was working on developing new imagery I knew that getting so much feedback could be problematic. And it was. The first two visits really threw me off and after each meeting, it took awhile for me to get back to work, I was so confused and unsure of which direction to take. By the time the second two visiting artists came in, I had narrowed my focus a bit with the figures and their criticism didn't really affect me quite so much. Mostly because they both had completely different opinions about each of the pieces that I showed them. It was a wash.

Anyway, I thought I'd put up a few of the pieces that no one agreed on and describe what was said about them.

This piece: by far got the most comments, mostly positive actually. Which was frustrating, and then by the end of the month, comical to me because I was so disinterested in it that I couldn't bear to even try to continue working on it. However, two of the artists had completely different ideas about what direction to take it, despite the fact that I HAD NO INTEREST IN IT. Visiting Artist #1 said I should develop the background, and leave the face blank. #2 liked it too and said I should leave it, #3 said it was the most successful painting that I had done and went on to say that it was a clear statement on isolation in America. Ok. #4 didn't really have much to say about it, although she liked the way I painted the dress.

Most of the residents that saw it, liked it. Some thought I should finish it, some said no way and most said they liked the blank face.

#3 spent a lot of time telling me why this piece worked so well: which was actually very interesting and helpful. #4 liked it (and my landscapes in general) and #1 and #2 didn't really acknowledge any of my landscapes, except in passing. #2 did say that the landscapes in general were too polished and it bothered him that he could not see any "struggle" in them.

I had been doing some still life paintings just to keep working, while I was trying to figure out the figures and so each of the visiting artists saw them in varying stages.

(These last two are the ones on canvas that I worked on while stapled to the wall. The canvas, that is, not me:))

#1 and #2 completely dismissed them and one implied that still lifes probably wouldn't further one's career as far as reviews, museum shows, etc, but one could sell them and maybe meet expenses. #3 didn't really talk about them either, although she mentioned that if I were interested in portraying still life objects, I could work them into the figurative paintings. #4 liked the tulips but again, didn't really have anything specific to say about them. I can understand the response here to these, they were really just busy work, valuable for that.

The figurative work that I did in the drawing sessions also got very little discussion, with the exception of #3. Who felt I needed to work from the figure much more. She thought my lines were too hesitant and that I erased too much. She though I needed to develop the model's surroundings in the oil sketches more. I didn't agree much at all with her assessment of them, but didn't say anything, or explain that the erasing is part of the drawing. Maybe it isn't working if she sees it as erasing rather than part of the drawing? She is the only one who has ever said that to me so I don't know how seriously to take it.

I had just begun the small little paintings of the single figures:when #2 visited, and I can't recall if #1 saw them. #2 liked them, he mostly saw them in the drawing and underpainting stage and liked how they were so subtle, appearing and disappearing. #3 didn't like the color on them, but liked the underpainting stage, and in fact thought one of them was very successful: and I should leave it be. (after much debate with myself, I went on to paint color on it anyway) #4 felt the the whole direction was not very good. She said they would never be more than "vignettes," which sounded like a bad thing, the way she said it.

A few more observations. #1 and #2 did not even mention my use of color. #2 said "your process is killing you" meaning that he thought the way I paint was dragging me down and limiting my options. #3 asked me about my color and how I have come to it, but didn't really talk about it otherwise. #4 was the only one who discussed my color, and responded to it at all.

With #1 I spoke entirely too much about how I show and sell my landscapes. His visit was early on in the month and I was still a bit nervous in the whole environment. And when I am nervous I talk way too much, which is exactly what I did with him. I made an effort to keep my mouth shut as far as my exhibition activities go with the other artists. However, I definitely got the vibe from all of them that selling from a gallery was not a good idea and would badly affect the direction of one's work.

#3 didn't like this painting:She thought it was too sweet and sentimental, and that the tree should be more prominent. #4 loved it, thought it was strong and bold, but that it just needed a bit of form in the foreground in order to create more foreground. And I did more work on that area.

Now that a little time has passed, I have a different perspective on much of the feedback I received. The very specific comments concerning my process or what my intent was as far as respect vs sales, while perplexing at the time, have actually served to help me feel more confident about what I do. I LIKE my painting process and I enjoy it. I like that it is limiting and I like the challenge of having to work around those limits. I also know that when those thing really don't work for me anymore, I will change things up. And while I do make some decisions regarding exhibiting or gallery representation based on what I'd like to happen for me in the future, I don't think much about it when it comes to actually making art. If I were so concerned about showing in Chelsea, for example, I would NOT be painting a representational landscape or barns, god forbid. heh.

The visit from #1 and his comments helped me realize that I needed to simplify the figures, get rid of the backgrounds and work at a smaller scale in order to work out some of these issues. The encouragement from #2 and #3 concerning the small figure underpaintings was good, although I ultimately decided that I needed to add the color anyway. And I am glad I went in that direction. I can always do more that are monochromatic anyway. And #3 really gave me insight about why some of my pieces worked, as well as why some didn't. #4 encouraged my use of color, giving me some ideas about how to use the color to create and push the forms behind the figures. She was also really nice to just chat with and I appreciated that.

So overall, despite wanting to pull out all my hair and give up painting entirely after most of the critiques, there was some valuable information from each visit, that will ultimately help me. But the really amazing thing was how much the opinions varied.


Melody said...

Good post Tracy....just reading it made me chuckle. Something similar happened to me last year at a show. Three different artists came through and each of them had a different opinion on my work....very different. I took what I could from it (like you) and decided to keep following my path. Because we are all so different, and wouldn't it be boring if we weren't, other's opinions will always run the gamut and be influenced by their own journey. The tulips are gorgeous by the way.

Sus said...

I love the still life with the two bottles, the color is beautiful on that one.

The visiting artists must have all been teachers, huh? Or they have trust funds...

Tracy said...

Thanks Melody. You are right-it would be so boring is we liked and disliked the same things. As frustrating as criticism is, it is a lot more useful than compliments, so I appreciate all of the feedback I got. A lovefest wouldn't have helped me much, if if they are much more fun:)

And thanks about the tulips-they were so much fun to do!

Sus, Thanks for the compliment about the still life.

I think they all show to some extent in galleries, but I suppose the teaching comes in handy too. I know that two of them teach at colleges, and the other two come to the Studio Center each year or so. One was a replacement so I am not sure of her teaching credentials.

Anonymous said...

You make still life and landscapes interesting ! Thank you ! Wonderful work ! I adore your vibrant pink paintings quite a few postings ago.

Hylla said...

Then it's Chelsea's loss.
You're the artist and you make every decision, maybe making important ones unconsciously. Art by committee says nothing. Try asking four people on a street corner and see if you get four opinions similar to those you got in Vermont.
Ultimately, your work is your own and the opinions of others are there for your amusement ;-)

Kesha Bruce said...

Interesting post.

Critiques are always so hit or miss. I find that they really aren't that helpful unless the visiting artist and I are already on the same page anyway. I think that at a certain stage in your career random critiques are pretty useless.

It's like Hylla said- If you stand on a street corner and ask random people about any subject you'll get a hundred random answers. None of which will be useful in any real way.

I had a similiar experience at VSC. I think its par for the course because VSC really tries to get a diverse group of visiting artists to be of interest to all the different types of residents, but in my opinion they're only half successful at it.

Michelle said...

Tracey, your post made me crazy. I come from a museum and gallery background and I could actually hear the voices and inflections in my head.
You create what you create.
I think that alot of academia surrounding art happens in a vacuum. And I also think that hter are alot of egos in the art world with their own agends that can get stroked/massaged...by how they deal with other artists.
I love our work.
I am glad you are able to distance yourself and put it where it belongs.

Tracy said...

Thanks so much for the comment Sheri. i am glad to hear interesting.

Hylla, Thanks and you sound exactly like the very kind residents who gave me good pep talks after each studio visit:)

Kesha., I think they make a good effort. And I think it's tough for the visiting artists too-they get plunked down in the middle of nowhere, visit a dozen artists each day, look at their work out of context, and have to come up with something to say each time. That is EXACTLY why I don't teach or do those sorts of things:)

Thanks Michelle. Well, it did take me some time and much angst to use their comments constructively or to put them wherever they belonged:) It was tough getting the feedback while developing new work and that may have been a part of the problem. But I signed up for the crits so I had to at least consider everything that was said.

Don't worry- "I get to do whatever I want" is my mantra!

Martha Marshall said...

Tracy, this discussion is great to read through. I belong to a critique group that has met once a month for 7 or 8 years. Even though we know each other well, we still occasionally come out of left field about another's work with statements that may or may not be constructive. A lot of it is just thinking out loud. Just throwing stuff out there to think about.

I can see you took your experience in the same spirit -- just stuff to think about.

And I agree about the trust fund thing. One's approach to art is greatly influenced by whether or not sales are important.

Your work is sure and strong and right on track. I hope you don't decide to make any abrupt changes to what you're already doing.

Casey Klahn said...

Firstly, they are idiots who don't see your color genius.

OK, I got that said. And what's all this about galleries being bad for your art? Hello? Earth to artists.

I think Martha has it right - your art is solid. What I like about your post is it reveals the difficulty in going one's authentic direction with the chaff blowing around from the market, the art world, directly from artist's crits., etc.

BTW, we're talking about still lifes over here in pastel world, and they are strong. About ten years ago, my oil painting mentor was being told by his gallerists to paint still life. They were awesome! I am struck by yours and especially love the colors.

Well, sorry I don't have much cogent or brilliant to say. Keep it up!

Olga said...

It is interesting how different opinions of work can be, but I think that that is a good thing. As long as we remember that the work is our own expression, then critiques and opinions can be useful to the extent that we want, and in some ways the wider the range the better.

I think that the best critique I experienced and witnessed was in a workshop of eight of us in a room where we could probably all hear the one-to-one discussions of the others. The teacher did not actually engage with criticising the work itself, but chose an adjacent element - with me he took framing in the broadest sense - and talked about our thinking about that in relation to what we were doing. He gave me another angle from which to look at not only the work, but the way I worked, without saying whether he liked my stuff or not. Because although we love it when people like our pieces, that's just individual taste, that's not what we really need in critique.

I'm disappointed to read that the still life exercises you were doing were not appreciated as exercises by your professional visitors. I think it's such a clarifying way of sorting out so many aspects of a new approach - to take yet a third one. It sounds mad, but I understand it completely.

Your barn, building, and other landscape paintings are largely successful in your own eyes I believe. Your figurative paintings are not yet in a state to receive criticism from anyone but you, but what I would ask is - what is it about the barns that you want to capture in the figures, and why?

Christine DeCamp said...

I enjoyed reading this post---thanks for bothering to put it all down. The wonderful thing is, that when you've been doing art for awhile, and you're away from the art school atmosphere, you can see that what a critique really boils down to is--someone's opinion! And we all have one, don't we? It's great to be able to feel confident about your work and your process in the midst of that. Good for you!

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Tracy - I can't help feeling that what they said revealed a lot more about themselves than it did about your work.

For what it's worth I'll just tell you what I like
- I very much liked the figures when they were monochromatic. They just reminded me of times past, almost as if colour is in the 'here and now' and lack of colour is about the past
- I also like them now you're doing them smaller
- when I saw the big still life paintings up on the wall I thought they were simply stunning.
- you have an excellent colour sense - I'd know a Tracy Helgeson anywhere if you painted absolutely anything in the barns palette and process.

Tracy said...

Martha, I have definitely learned not to make any big changes in my work. But many things have gradually shifted over the years and I am happy that I can slip those changes in.

Casey your comment was quite brilliant, especially the part about what idiots the artists were to not see my color genius! Heh. Thanks for mentioning your experience with still lifes. I find that subject matter to be fascinating (other's still lifes, not mine so much:)) even if they supposedly aren't "in style" anymore. Guess they are in some pockets anyway.

but what I would ask is - what is it about the barns that you want to capture in the figures, and why? This is a good question, Olga. But i have no idea how to answer it! I am not sure that my intent is to capture whatever it is that I get in the barns, in my figures. I haven't really thought about it specifically. I guess I just think that there will be similarities just by virtue of the fact that my process and palette in each is similar, but maybe I have different things to say with each kind of image? I don't know...

Christine, You are right and you know I didn't even put that together until you said it! It is all about opinion, the critiques in college were too. Somehow I recall the college crits as being more constructive, but maybe I am wrong. Or maybe it's because I am just in a different place now than I was 20 years ago. Again, I don't know.....

Thanks Katherine, for yet another great observation. I suppose all criticism is quite reflective of ourselves, I hadn't really that about it in that context. And thanks for your feedback. I like the monochromatic figures too and will pursue them as well. Um, in my spare time:)