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…criticism has smacked me against the head with recognition, racked my practice with doubt, saddled my movements with embarrassment, and struck me on the ass with a hot poker of jealousy and desire.

TA Johns Critic Sees 600x300

Jasper Johns, “The Critic Sees,” 1964, sculpmetal over plaster with glass
© Jasper Johns/VAGA, NY, NY. Under Fair Use Guidelines.

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“If you really believe in art, then the artwork has a life of it’s own and an authenticity of its own. The artist can tell you what he meant, but you can say ‘I don’t care, the work’s better than your intentions.’ The work has to stand up on its own. Intentionality is this drive within the work towards a certain goal, asking certain questions, referring to certain traditions; all of that is intentionality. That’s what makes the work rich, and it’s [the critic's] job to deal with it.”

That’s David Cohen during audience Q&A at The Review Panel in New York, on 3 March 2006.

What Cohen said that night about the life and authenticity of a work feels, as I transcribe it from the audio today, entirely self-evident. But when I first heard it a few years back, it hit me with the force of revelation.

Here’s the full snip, the uncut and helpful exchange between Cohen, Martha Schwendener, Michael Brenson and Lilly Wei:

Audio © + courtesy of artcritical.com and The Review Panel, 2006, 2014.

All of this was news. That it all could come down to just the life of the work, that the work could be read without recourse to biography or regard for artistic creed. That it could be read without taking the renegade stance of chucking authority out the window. That intention, if it’s to mean anything over the long haul, resides in the work and not anywhere else, indexed by the mark and the mark being a record of nothing else.

I need to be clear. David Cohen said none of these things when he said what he said that night in March 2006. But I was just back from a long and failed photojournalism jag in the Mideast and this is what I heard him say. That work could be unfreighted by throughline and still stand up to critical scrutiny–or more to the point, that it could simply stand up. Just the idea of it was freeing and helpful. It’s been helpful since, especially in the studio.

All of this needs unpacking. But, first, some finer points need to be made. So today we kick off an occasional series on artists and how they read and use criticism to help inform their studio work. First up: Gabriela Salazar, Farrell Brickhouse and Stephen Maine.

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Gabriela Salazar
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Gabriela Salazar

Gabriela Salazar, "for For Closure, '13

Gabriela Salazar, “for For Closure,” 2013, polyester seat belt webbing, 5.75 x 18 x 2 inches
© Gabriela Salazar. Image courtesy of the artist.

My relationship to criticism has always been ambivalent. But at important impasses in my studio practice, reading criticism has been essential to bridge the gap between tangible making and an elusive idea. These outsider’s sentences can serve as a lubricant to the cluttered pathways of my brain. Or, as Rosalind Krauss elucidates so poetically with the metaphor of a swimming pool in Under Blue Cup, the confines of criticism are a surface to push against, like the specific walls of a genre or medium, a clear point of contact and resistance for the gathering of energies and actions to move through material and content.

But it’s for this very voyeuristic buoyancy—and the frequent discomfort, almost racing impatience, it can cause me—that I have shied away from reading criticism as much as I know I have benefited from it. Criticism is not fiction (though I’ll take the latter as the former), in which your suspension of self underpins an enjoyment of the text. Choosing to read art theory can feel sort of like bungee jumping: Possibly thrilling, probably safe, and all about anticipating when the rope is going to jerk you back from free fall. In doing my due diligence, criticism has smacked me against the head with recognition, racked my practice with doubt, saddled my movements with embarrassment, and struck me on the ass with a hot poker of jealousy and desire. And it can do this with tedium. But I keep reading because I know it’s good for me, and with the hope for that moment of glide between the walls of the tank.

Gabriela Salazar‘s recent solo projects include For Closure (Outdoors, the Bronx) and Site Set, at the Luchsinger Gallery, CT. Her work has also been included in group shows across the country, most recently La Bienal 2013: Here is Where We Jump at El Museo del Barrio, NY; and Building Materials at Real Art Ways, CT. Her essays and criticism have appeared in artcritical.com, and Contemporary Aesthetics. More at gabrielasalazar.com

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FarrellBrickhouse
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Farrell Brickhouse

Farrell Brickhouse "Home Life" 2014Si-3

Farrell Brickhouse, “Home Life,” 2014, oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches
© Farrell Brickhouse. Image courtesy of the artist.

With all the blogs and sites for thoughts on art, it seems a good moment for criticism and discussion. I certainly do read articles, especially relating to current painting. Articles by John Yau, Sharon Butler, Peter Schjeldahl, Jason Stopa, and numerous artists who write on painting both inform me as to what peers are doing and shows that should be seen. Most importantly I feel current criticism carries on the dialogue about what the re-energized painting scene itself is talking about. Sometimes confirming my own intentions and thoughts and, too, deepening my understanding of the ongoing dialogue amongst my fellow artists and how that ties into Art’s deep History. At its best criticism brings to life in words the best of the unspoken intentions of the artist. I also use quotes from critics that help me make the point with my students.

Farrell Brickhouse‘s recent solo exhibition, Wishes, Prayer and Offerings, ran 24 Jan – 22 Feb, 2014 at Fred.Giampietro, New Haven. Recent group shows include Outside In at Life On Mars Gallery, Bushwick and Caving at Honey Ramka. He is currently showing in Chelsea at New York Eden, Luise Ross Gallery (27th Street), through 19 April. Farrell Brickhouse has been teaching painting at the School of Visual Arts , in New York since 1980. He is represented by John Davis Gallery. More at www.farrellbrickhouse.net.

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Stephen Maine
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Stephen Maine

Stephen Maine HP13-0414-560W-A

Stephen Maine, “HP13-0414,” 2013, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
© Stephen Maine. Image courtesy of the artist.

It is often interesting and sometimes genuinely illuminating to compare my responses to exhibitions with those of the critics whose work I follow in The New York Times, artcritical.com, and the monthly print magazines, among others. But that kind of critical thinking differs significantly from the critical thinking I do in the studio. There, the more fundamental questions that arise (e.g., where my work falls on the spectrum of strategy vs. sensibility; how to make use of art history; etc.) relate to pursuits that have not much to do with making judgments of quality, but rather are about what motivates the work in the first place.


Stephen Maine: Halftone Paintings opens 5 April at
490 Atlantic Gallery, Brooklyn. (Through 10 May.) A shortlist of publications in which his essays and criticism appear includes Art in America, artcritical.com, and The Brooklyn Rail. More at stephenmaine.com.

*Sorry, Wally.

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