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 I had originally intended to republish an earlier article but could not find it so published instead based on an unpublished interview for Contemporary Mosaic Arts.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.


Nancie Mills Pipgras said...

Fascinating reading, Janet -- both articles are very impressive. I'm so glad you found the first article because it offers specific examples, making your points all the more real. Hugely valuable and terrific stuff.

I am also glad you replied to JOB's post because I had had the same thoughts regarding merit. From what I read here, you focused quite a bit on providing a learning or inspirational experience for mosaic artists. And that's a good thing!

However, I believe that we do a great disservice to the art form every time we hold up something that is "less than" as an example for the rest of the world to see.

In the MAI, are we just talking amongst ourselves? Or are we also trying to "to educate the public regarding contemporary and classical mosaic fine art." The exhibit can do both, but not, I believe, without merit as the primary criteria.

I learned this the hard way while proudly showing a previous exhibit catalog to one of the country's premier gallery owners. She slammed it shut immediately upon seeing a mosaic that had clearly been selected for its "versatile" materials. The woman was kind, but definite when she said, "Sometimes, honey, less really is more."

Again, my sincere thanks for putting so much of your thinking out there for the rest of us to learn from.

Danette said...

I read both these articles with keen interest. They are so well written and I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts so openly about the juring process. I was fascinated by your detailed and thoughtful comments about the process. Thank you for your years of service to SAMA, the seriousness of purpose with which you approached the 2010 exhibit, and this informative and thought provoking article.

Susan Crocenzi said...

Fascinating to read your jurying process, Janet. Thank you for jurying our pieces with an open mind, earnest artistic sensibilities, and a refreshing lack of arrogance. Those of us who mosaic around the fringes of conventions really appreciate that. I love your take on Clockworks Diptych! Reading that was a treat! Thanks!