April 15, 2010

Jurying an International Art Exhibition: Part 2

In my previous article, I outlined some of the process behind jurying the Mosaic Arts International exhibition. I had originally intended to republish an earlier article but could not find it so published instead based on an unpublished interview for Contemporary Mosaic Arts. This morning, after doing a clean sweep of my computer files, I found the original article so I will publish an updated version and answer some questions that readers have had for me.
I was one of a three person jurying panel for the Mosaic Arts International Exhibition to be held in Chicago in 2010. I had been a juror before on the state level but this was my first job jurying a national competition. When I was younger and even more naive than I am at present, the process of getting accepted into or rejected from juried shows and competitions was always a mystery to me. Hopefully, by writing this inside view, it will help remove some of the mystery and inherent uncertainty for artists applying for competitive exhibition venues.
Jurying this outstanding selection of mosaics for the Mosaic Arts International Exhibition was not only an honor, but personally gratifying. Back in 1999, when it first occurred to me to start an organization to represent the interests of mosaic artists, there were no venues to showcase this venerable art form - one so painstakingly rendered. In fact, one impetus that prompted me to start the Society of American Mosaic Artists ironically came from an experience with a jury deciding not to fund a body of my mosaic work because a committee could not figure out how to categorize it. I wondered how many other maverick mosaic artists were out there defying categories with their hammered stones and cut glass. Fortunately there were just enough to support a fledgling art organization. And then there were even more to read Groutline. And by the end of my tenure as president of SAMA three years later there were a few hundred mosaic artists who learned from each other, communicated with each other, and belonged together.
Every artist who submitted their mosaics to our first exhibition and conference at South Carolina State University and the Orangeburg Fine Arts Center back in 2002 was awarded a place. Despite the open admission there were several outstanding works of mosaic art at that show. The work of these artists inspired others to grow larger in their artistic thinking, experiment with new materials, and challenge themselves with greater risks. Who would have thought to use beads instead of grout in the interstices of a pique assiette mosaic? How amazing it was that an elaborate mosaic screen could be made from bits of corrugated cardboard!
With subsequent exhibitions, the mosaics kept getting bolder, more refined, and more varied. Every exhibition seemed even better than the previous one and it was always a joy to behold the beautiful complexity of this work. Every year the exhibition venue hosted museum quality mosaics.
Late last year I had the pleasure of reviewing the nearly five hundred submissions of mosaic art for the annual exhibition celebrating what mosaic artists do best. The process of paring these submissions down to a core group that was less than a sixth of that number was difficult. There were some mosaics that I was sorry to see not make the final round and I hope that they will find their own cherished spots on a gallery or museum wall some day. Because of the serious challenge of selecting so few among the many qualified entrants, I used strict guidelines about
what should be seen, who would most benefit from having these works seen, and how the cause of advancing the art of mosaic would be best served by this exhibition. This entailed choosing a broad range of subject matter, from representative to decorative to abstract, as well as mosaics that incorporated the versatile use of a large variety of materials. There are those, like OB, who wrote to tell me that organizing an exhibition based on a range of materials and subject matter should not be a priority but that artistic merit alone should be the criterion on which to base a decision. This is a point well taken so I will address this. Firstly, I can assure anyone that artistic merit is of course the first consideration in jurying an exhibition of art. But when there are several pieces in the final count that are equally meritorious, the next priority is balance.
I chose mosaics for this exhibition on the basis of how well they would inspire an audience to think more deeply about art and for how they might provoke other artists to challenge themselves technically as well as creatively. An exhibition is, after all, a learning experience. One should be able to walk away from it with all the energy and enthusiasm that new discoveries bring. Submissions that scored high for me were those that I thought used the medium of mosaic in a way that would rekindle an eagerness in artists to return to their studios as intrepid explorers, creating work for a receptive, appreciate audience.
The jurying process was fascinating, albeit somewhat painful. I mean the latter both metaphorically as well as physically, for halfway through the jurying process, I had an accident and lost a tooth. The dental accident delayed the jurying for a day, as I purposely kept away from judging mosaics for fear of developing a bias against mosaics that incorporated small ivory colored tesserae that looked like broken teeth. The other less physically painful part of the jury week was having to eliminate so many truly inspired and worthy mosaics.
Most jurying these days is done on line. The Mosaic Arts International was no exception and used the now standard Juried Arts Services Organization. For those using this system there are benefits with regard to the ease of sending images to jurors who may live in different parts of the country, or even, as in our case, different parts of the world. The disadvantage is that with this system, it is difficult to see the textures and bas-relief that give mosaic art its unique qualities as an art form. For mosaics that did rely on relief sculptural effects, and even those that were only in low relief, it was most effective to have detail photographs shot from an oblique angle that revealed the actual mosaic terrain. I would have to add that another disadvantage of the jurors being in different locations is that it does not allow for discussion. On the other hand, one could argue that distance and isolation prohibits a more charismatic juror from imposing his/her viewpoints upon others.
With regard to photography of art work, when entering a seriously competitive exhibition, it is best to have only excellent images of the art work. Most of the art work I saw was photographed with great diligence and care. But there were a few - like the one photographed leaning on its side so that I had to look at it with a crooked neck - that did got eliminated by round one on that account.
Other mosaics that were eliminated on the first round were those that appeared very much in a student stage of development. When entering a competitive national exhibition, it pays to know what the competition is. Are the other artists professionals? Do they have advanced degrees in their art form? Have they devoted years to the development of their craft? Do they have a history of merit awards and significant achievements in their field? If all of the above are true, then an art work that was completed in an afternoon seminar devoted to beginning students may not go very far. For that matter, even seasoned artists may wish to submit work that required significant time and attention to detail. This was a lesson for me as well. Jurying this group of mosaics made me realize that most of my own smaller work would probably not qualify for entry and I had the distinct impression while looking at the large, brilliant works of my peers, that my own work falls short. But that was probably a good lesson, for I will now return to my studio to work harder, and strive for excellence.
Some first round eliminations may have had something to do with the artist’s statements. Although the main focus should always be on the art work, a piece could have been harmed by a statement that was overly glib, too sarcastic, bombastic, or even incoherent. When in doubt about what to say about an art work, a simple description of materials used and techniques employed will suffice along with a brief statement about what inspired the work.
The jurors of the art show chose from numbers on a scale of one to seven. During the first round of tabulations, I am guessing that anything that scored below average did not make it to round two. Because most of the submissions were very professional, round two entailed comparisons of what was good to what was better. At this stage, everything was competently executed and presentable. They could all be hung in galleries or in the homes of wealthy clients. I recall that at this point we were down to about 180 art works. This was where pain began - for art that was skillfully done and obviously took time and sensibility to create could not go on to round three without being truly striking. Here I began to eliminate work that was good but perhaps cliched - things that may have been overly influenced by an instructor’s style, images and compositions that had been overused, or employed standard "tricks of the trade." This could put professional mosaic artists who work under market pressures to produce stock images produced by a formulaic approach at a disadvantage. My only suggestion to those artists would be to have a strict line of demarcation between their commercial work and their more personal exploratory art. This would entail setting time apart from a busy schedule of commissioned interior and exterior design work to make something that embraces a larger vision of what art is for. Another option would be to seek clients who grant a high degree of artistic freedom in the execution of a design. But most of us, myself included, don’t usually have that degree of freedom in commercial design.
Designs in round two had to be original in order to progress to round three. There was one work, for example, that although finely executed, looked like a book illustration that I had seen somewhere before. Diligent juror that I was, I searched the web until I found it - not an exact copy because a mirror image was used, but close. Another work was a copy of another mosaic. Although there is a copying tradition in mosaic art, for a juried exhibition I felt that the work should reflect the artist’s personal vision. In a previous mosaic exhibition I attended a number of years ago, I saw mosaics that were fabrications of paintings done by other artists. They were done fabrications based on another art work if I had been a juror at that time. Originality is the lynchpin that drives an art form forward.
During the jurying process there were a number of mosaics that persistently made a strong impression on me. Some were majestic - like the installation of what looked liked Faberge eggs rendered on a grand scale in an undulating mosaic landscape. Others were equally sublime as intimate gems - something looking like a turquoise studded axe caused my eyes to pause and scan the bejeweled surface. I especially liked mosaics that used multiple overlays of complex textures and patterns. They were the visual equivalent of fine opera - where several performers can sing their story at the same time and yet it all makes sense. "Familiar Ground" and "Radiance," were examples of the sheer joy one could feel from seeing these amazing colors and lose oneself in the intricate weaving of mosaic tesserae. "When the Stars Line Up" made striking use of large chunks of coral colored stones against an intricate background pattern. There were many others in this genre that I unfortunately neglected to note the titles of as I would like to have pursued my interest in them further.
There was one mosaic in particular, that made such a deep visual impression on me that I would dream about it at night. That was the "Impromptu in Green," a stark black wave of smalti running between two separate strata of greens in a subtle gradation of hue. The black roadway of tesserae stood out in high relief like a black waterfall tumbling over rocks. There were subtle
lines of gold interspersed among the black and running down the length of the center of the mosaic. It was probably the fact that my mind’s eye could almost discern a meaning in this but the mosaic would ultimately defy identification that caused me to pay so much attention to it. What was it? A road or a waterfall? Was it running through an abstract depiction of vegetation? Or wass it simply an exercise in pattern, hue and form? Whatever the reason for this holding my attention, I was inspired to use the idea of a large gray and black line wedged between a wall of lighter squares in a design I was working on in my own studio. And what a pleasant surprise to see this very mosaic featured some weeks later on the cover of Groutline!
I was impressed by how many ways a mosaic could be successful. Although I gave high points to mosaics that could sustain a balance of multiple complex color patterns, I also gave high points to compositions that were restrained in color. Two examples that come to mind were the mosaics "Permafrost" and "Rainy Day." "Permafrost" used an ensemble of whites, silvers and reflective mirrors. Thus the artist allowed the work to hold the viewer on the integrity of the tesserae alone. It was all about the andamento - which made it in this respect the quintessential mosaic. "Rainy Day" used smalti in the black, white and gray scale to reproduce a photograph of a rainy day in Central Park. Through the canopy of leafless trees standing in rows aligned in stark one-point perspective, distant figures could be barely seen at a distance. They reminded me of the moonlit marine paintings by the Flemish painter Adrien Brouer, with his enigmatic figures in silhouette against the ambient light - anonymous parcels of humanity that pique an interest in what they might be doing.
Mosaics that made bold use of unconventional materials - especially ones that dared to juxtapose the sacred and the profane - like smalti and rusted found objects - were favorites of mine. An example of this would be "Waterwheel," which used both high end purchased mosaic materials and old metal pipes arranged in an abstract composition reminiscent of Juan Gris. Sometimes materials commonly used in mosaics were also used in interesting, provocative ways, as in "Clockworks Dyptych." The surface of this mosaic was like a glassy clear pond on a spring day - reflecting the budding forms in trees and along the banks. This placid surface was punctuated by what looked like crystal flowers jutting directly out of this surface - multicolored glass poking aggressively out of the picture plane at the viewer. This is one example of how important it was to see the mosaic from the side in order to discern the degree of sculptural relief.
Just about everything in round three was exhibition worthy and it was sad to think that only half of these would be physically there in Chicago for the Society of American Mosaic Artists audience and I dearly wished that more than forty works could be displayed. What could jurors do when everything is worthy? Rely on instinct and impulse I suppose. At this point everything that was chosen became a matter of what resonated with aesthetic impulses. Associations become almost arbitrary. Did I love the strange truncated sculptural figure of a girl’s legs and mid torso with a cruelly deceptive bonnet on top for the offbeat humor as well as its ingenuity and artistry? Or was it because of its title "Easter Sunday 1957?" I was born in 1957. Did I love "Temples" because I was warmed by the associations of Europe, excavation sites, and Israel?
It came time to pick a juror’s choice award. We had to each pick our top three. I picked six. I was informed that my beloved "Impromptu in Green," was not included in the pack after round three. So I had to choose between the five remaining pieces that I have included in my discussion. I wanted to give a juror’s choice award to all of them. After much wrangling, I finally settled on "Temples." It was a mosaic that I could truly explore and one that was beautifully composed. It also embodied all the elements that I looked for in a mosaic; technical craftsmanship, integration of multiple patterns, incorporation of different types of materials. But there was that one thing extra that set it apart from the rest. That was the ineffable spiritual dimension of the mosaic in creating a desire to explore lost civilizations and a sense of physical continuity between the past, the present, and a future state of being. It simply resonated with me.
In jurying this exceptional body of work, my faith in the art of mosaic had been renewed and I looked forward to the day when I could finish a few painting commissions and experiment in this medium again.

April 14, 2010

Zen and the Art of Homes and Homelessness

My exhibition in Kansas City is now a part of my personal art history and a concluded line on a resume. I expect the fully loaded crates to be at my doorstep any day. While it was a good experience to have had a one-woman exhibition out of South Carolina once again, it will be quite some time before I will invest in shipping so much art such a long distance again. It is my good fortune that the Thornhill Gallery is picking up the tab for the show’s trip back home.
With this show on the road home, my attention is on the upcoming exhibition at Gallery 80808 in Columbia, "Locations/Dislocations: Abandoned Homes and Unsheltered Souls." The exhibition explores the theme of abandoned architectural remains so prevalent in this state through my paintings and my husband’s documentary photography. Khaldoune Bencheikh will be exhibiting drawings of the homeless population in Columbia. Part of the proceeds will be donated to the "Keepin’ It Real" ministry, which supports aid to the homeless.
There are times when I do things that follow my heartfelt inclinations even though I know that those inclinations run counter to everything rational and sensible. Perhaps that is why I am an artist. Two things about my work for the upcoming exhibition fly in the face of good sense. One is the very idea of having an exhibition that is in part a benefit when my art has not been a commercial success. The other is abandoning that small part of my painting that has been marketable in the past. Add to that a dental bill that is outrageously huge in proportion to the size of the repair and it becomes clear that now is not the time to be idealistic. (Truly, of late I’m thinking of just keeping a gap in my mouth).
Now having admitted these things as a mea culpa in not contributing to our country’s economic restoration, I’ll detail why.
Things started out well enough in my studio. Several panels and canvases were lined up at the ready - ready to receive splashes of paint spread with a palette knife and detailed with a little nylon brush. All would form small saleable paintings of architectural remains. But I found that after four such paintings, I could do them no longer. This was, of course, after painting well over a hundred such works previously. I just could not bring myself to paint one more bucolic scene of South Carolina. I was helped out a little by the recession - for even reliable subject matter was ceasing to be marketable. So I decided to jumpstart my creativity with a little experiment. I reflected on the theme of homes and homelessness, the sorrow, the fear, and the implications of being with or without a home. Then I used my three greatest passions, ancient Chinese language, painting, and assemblage as a vehicle for expressing these feelings about home. Rather than force a solution I just played with the media and let the raw materials and raw emotions speak for themselves.
I began by carving ancient Chinese on to stones to make prints. I made a series of small prints which read "having a home" or, conversely "without a home." The Chinese word for home, "jia" can have an interesting alternative meaning to a literal home. It can mean a family. Or it can even mean a school, as in a school of thought. So "without a home" could be interpreted to mean "without a school of thought" or not being a part of any particular philosophy or religion. Other prints read "A belief in Zen" "In all the world there is no other" and "belief in the spirit." I printed these in red, brown and black inks onto transparent papers. I then glued the prints onto acrylic and mixed media paintings on paper. These bits of paper were in turn assembled onto the very boards that were supposed to receive the paintings of scenes from the countryside. So now they have a very different message - a strange amalgam of fragmentation, Chinese language, and gestural painting. I did find that the details of these new collage works were very bold and expressive so I have been experimenting with painting these details large - coming in the back door to painting again. And maybe in some way in makes sense after all.

April 12, 2010

Jurying an International Art Exhibition MAI SAMA

The following is an updated essay on my experience late last year as a juror for an international art exhibition. I had published an article about this and gave an interview somewhat pre-emptively and therefore withdrew it at the time. Several months have passed, and the sorrows of the rejected and the exhilaration of the accepted has been tempered. The Mosaic Arts International Exhibition has been held in Chicago, catalogues purchased, work probably shipped back home or sold by now. Economic and family circumstances prevented me from attending the Society of American Mosaic Artists Conference to see first hand the exhibition that I helped jury. I therefore never was able to discuss the jurying process on hand so I will belatedly discuss it now. I do feel that since it is no longer an emotionally charged matter, a better perspective can be brought to bear on the words that detail this process.
I used two sets of criteria for judging the current SAMA exhibition. One set of criteria was for the individual mosaic works, the other set was for maintaining the integrity of the exhibition as a whole through presenting a diverse body of work representative of the best that the art form has to offer. With regard to the latter, I sought to achieve a balance of abstract, decorative and representational mosaics. I also sought to include mosaics in a wide variety of media so that the viewing audience as well as other artists would be inspired to think creatively and outside the norm. I aspired to be as egalitarian as possible in choosing mosaics that used both high end, expensive materials, and those that incorporated everyday found objects. I hoped to compile an exhibition that would be instrumental in showcasing the art in such a way as to promote the appreciation for and stimulate positive growth of the art of mosaics. For evaluating the mosaics on a case by case basis, I looked first at the craftsmanship of the individual pieces. How well did the artist cut, adhere and blend the individual tesserae? Did their choice of placement reveal careful study and understanding of the art form? If not, was there evidence of a purposeful "bending of the rules," so to speak, to create a highly individualized approach to the andamento of the mosaic? I also sought to answer the question, through scrutinizing individual works, of why the medium of mosaic was used to express the artist’s creative intentions and how well this choice of medium conveyed their ideas. I read every artist’s statement to see how well their written essays dovetailed with their visual interpretations. Would another media have served just as well or better than mosaic to convey the message? Why mosaic?
I chose mosaics on the basis of how well this medium was used to the best of its capacity and in all its glory. I also looked for originality and creativity.
The jurying process itself was fascinating. I was part of a three person panel of judges, one from Great Britain, one from Mexico, and I representing the United States. Our jurying was done online through Juried Arts Services. We all judged about five hundred entries, architectural works, 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional mosaics all included in the same batch. Each entrant was rated on a scale of one to seven, one being the lowest and seven being the highest. All three jurors voted in three rounds with results being tabulated at the end of each round. I had mixed feelings about on-line jurying. On the one hand, it was a great convenience for jurors who may want to work as a team but are in different geographic locations. It saved time and money for entrants as well. In an ideal situation though, jurying would be done from actual art work. But because mosaics are often quite heavy and the jurors were at various places around the globe this was not practical. Perhaps a good compromise would have been to have made selections for the exhibition on line and awards given in person from viewing the actual art work. This would have entailed, of course, flying in the jurors, which may or may not have been practical for a small organization on a strict budget. If some compromise could have been arranged with regard to virtual and real world viewing I would have loved to have seen that happen in the case of mosaics. Mosaics are so dependent on texture and low relief, photography can often not do them justice.
Another possible improvement for future exhibitions would be for the artists to get a numerical score for their submissions. There are few organizations that do this but the ones that do give their artists valuable feedback. When I applied for entry into the Smithsonian exhibition, I did not gain entry, but was told that I had been in the upper 25% of entrants. This was helpful to know so that I didn’t second guess my photography or the subject matter of my submissions. With the jurying process that is in place now through Juried Arts Services there are three rounds of jurying with eliminations made after each round. But an artist will only know that his work either gained entry or did not, and not how far along in the jurying process his work went. An art work eliminated in round one is very different from a mosaic that is eliminated after round three.
In the process of jurying the art work, I would occasionally see familiar faces reflected in the submissions. Although this is an anonymous process, there are certain "signature pieces" that would come up - something I had seen on the cover of a magazine for instance - making the working positively identifiable. When that happened I found myself reflecting on something that I heard from a national juror some time ago. When I was a freshly minted MFA, I attended a seminar at the College Art Association conference in New York hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts. In detailing some of the factors in awarding artists grant money, one of the representatives said "It helps if we know you." I was shocked at this unbridled admission of what appeared to be blatant bias and it rattled my sensibilities as a young aspiring artist hoping for fair and democratic treatment by the art world. Decades later, I understand her words better as simply a candid confession of the way of the art world. In this respect, in any jurying venue, the fame factor comes into play. High profile artists often have highly recognizable art work. Regardless of the professed anonymity it was impossible not to associate a name with a style.. I would like to think that it had not influenced my judgement. As a strict rule, I separate a person from his or her art. This is because no matter the person or his peccadillos, a person making art is a human being at his or her best. Their art is a gift and should be cherished as such - especially when it is excellent. Conversely, no matter how beautiful a person is, if they have been less than stellar in their approach to their art and need to apply themselves to their craft just a little more diligently, it does them or the art no service to promote their creative work before the art of those who have worked harder and sacrificed more.
But having said that, when I looked at some of these mosaics and know just how much some of the makers have contributed towards pushing the art form forward, the words "It helps if we know you," kept coming back to me. But they were all outstanding pieces so there wasn’t a true conflict of interest there - at least I hope not. I have to confess here though, that while I was jurying I realized that my own work would be recognized by select groups of artists. I couldn’t help but think that I certainly hope that I haven’t alienated them!
Having set goals for a cohesive exhibition, set standards for artistic integrity and accounted for the fame and familiarity factor I set to work. Art that did not make the first cut was often eliminated due to poor photography or to the artist not having fully developed his/her skills. Again, it would be helpful for an artist to have had a numerical score so that he/she could seek better training or hire a photographer. A mosaic that didn’t make a second cut were those pieces that were competent but perhaps too formulaic. Someone whose work was eliminated at this point might compare his work to his contemporaries to see if he is presenting something that stands apart from the crowd. He could then review his work to see if he is growing artistically beyond the conventions he has been taught. Any work that went very far in the jurying process but still did not gain entry was a winning mosaic in my estimation. The artist should try again in a different venue with a different juror. Indeed, one of the pieces that I had short listed for a juror’s choice award after round three had been eliminated by the other jurors for the final round!
The process of paring about five hundred mosaics down to a core group that was less than a sixth of that number was very difficult. There were some mosaics that I was sorry to see not make the final round and I hope that they will find their own cherished spots on a gallery or museum wall some day. The jurying process was fascinating, albeit somewhat painful. I mean painful in both the metaphorical way as well as physical for during the process I actually had a dental accident and lost a tooth! It seemed like a macabre parody of the art of chopping bits of stone for a mosaic. So intense was the experience that I began to bodily produce tesserae!
It was exhilarating to be immersed in the world of mosaics for a few days. I was so impressed by the ingenuity of these presentations. And I felt humbled by the time and patience artists must have devoted to completing these. They made me want to return to my studio and a work harder. Some of the accompanying artist’s statements that I read were as well crafted as the mosaics themselves and they, too, were an inspiration. It was indeed a rare privilege to be able to do this.
I took my responsibility seriously and allowed myself ample time to review the mosaics.
While jurying the exhibition, I sometimes revisited my own strengths and weaknesses in various stages of developing as an artist. I could now see reflections of some of my own foibles in statements that were perhaps overly glib or sometimes unnecessarily obfuscating. Or maybe there was a time when I hadn’t presented an art work at its best. I could appreciate how painstaking the process of artistic development is by being on the other side of that looking glass. I even learned a few things about how I might photograph my work differently in the future.
I made many notes about compositions, techniques and materials that I might incorporate into my own work some day. During the jurying process, I borrowed an element of one of my favorite mosaics and painted it on the side of a ceramic ocarina I designed - it had such an elegant charm!
The experience itself shifted with the various stages of the jurying process. The first stage was not difficult because the jurors all seemed to concur on what should move on to stage two. The second round was more difficult because pieces that were quite competent were removed. Yet there seemed for the most part a confluence of selection. By the third stage I believe that some of the jurors’s differences began to emerge as the selection grew more subjective. What was interesting about jurying from a large pool of entries was that some of the images that tended to keep popping out strongly were often those that were simple yet iconic. I acknowledged this while attempting not to be too influenced by what I thought might be a kind of juror’s battle fatigue - losing the ability to concentrate on intricacy - for I love the particular complexity inherent in mosaics. At all stages I was acutely aware of the consequences of my choices. No matter how seasoned an artist is, a rejection still stings on some level. And it was a little sobering to feel that other artists were stung by my choices - which was one reason why I was grateful for these choices being shared among three jurors. I felt confident, though, that the process produced a great exhibition and was sorry I couldn’t see it in person.