My artist friends rarely ask me to critique their work and I never offer anything more than ”Gee. That’s great! I like what you’re doing!” On the rare occasion when I am directly asked, I hem and haw and mutter platitudes. I just don’t feel I have the right to impose my vision on someone else’s work. I also don’t like other people telling me what to do. The last time I listened to an artist friend, it took six months to undo the damage. The only exception is my friend Elena who can actually take a brush to my canvas and make it better.
Teaching art in general is a treacherous business. You can learn the basic techniques in a couple of hours, but the remaining time you need to become proficient has to be done on your own. When we first moved to Fairfield County, decades ago, there were at least a half dozen hunky older men who taught bored housewives “watercolor.” All their students’ work looked alike, a bag of tricks taught to them by their mentor. Mostly, the guys were serial seducers; while it was amusing to watch them in action, it was hard to consider them serious artists or art teachers.
The only one I knew who had any idea of what he was doing was a Hungarian emigre painter named Victor Candell. He wasn’t a particularly good artist himself but he was a master teacher, the Sigmund Freud of the suburban art scene. He taught a weekly seminar at the Greenwich Arts Center to a bunch of conservative matrons desperate to find their inner creative souls. I was the oddball in the class; I had actually studied art, but after being a ‘stay-at-home’ mom for several years, needed some help getting back up to speed. Candell taught me what abstraction really meant (I had been painting “Abstracts” for over a decade with no idea of what I was actually doing). I would never be doing the work I’m doing now without his guidance so many decades ago.
Anyhow, what brings this all to mind is an image a friend recently sent me of her latest work, an excellent example of Action Painting. She asked me to critique it, something I rarely, if ever, do. What could I say that would be helpful, not throw her off track the way someone had done to me decades ago? After pondering a while, I realized what she needed to do and rather than my telling her, she had to get there on her own. The only way for that to happen was for her to work, day in and day out, until her conscious mind no longer controlled her hand and her subconscious, with all the suffering she had been through in her life, came through in her art. I gave her the example of Rothko who managed to infuse abstraction with intense emotion. That was where she needed to go, but I couldn’t tell her how; she had to get there on her own.
By the way, my suggestion that she plumb her emotional depths puts her completely out of step with the current art world. There are no serious painters of note today. Everything is a gimmick, a spoof, a take off, a marketing ploy. If you want to know where today’s artists learned their craft, I recommend Sarah Thornton’s book of essays, Seven Days in the Art World, published in 2008, The piece de resistance is The Crit which describes a seminar at CalArts in Los Angeles, (one of the top art schools in the country) in which MFA students present their work for collective critique. I’m not going to tell you what happens; you have to read it for yourself, especially if you want to understand the current scene.
Anyhow, the bottom line is, I really hesitate to critique or advise anyone; I have enough trouble managing myself. Can you imagine Cezanne asking Bonnard whether he should keep on painting apples? Maybe try pears?