A Few Art Articles
By Gary Michael

Criticism: The Art That Enhances Art

Pity the critic. No one in the art world is more maligned — not shady dealers, not creators of schlock or sentimental art, not even deadbeat gallery owners. A critic draws more ire from more people, generates greater condemnation than even politicians. And for no more than expressing his views. For a critic is, in the simplest sense, someone whose opinions appear in print.

Criticism didn’t always suffer a bad reputation. It was held in high esteem until a brazen Frenchman had the audacity to satirize the bold and colorful paintings of a group of his countrymen who came to be known as impressionists. Little did this intrepid writer realize that Impressionism would come to enjoy the same sacrosanct status in the history of art as the Renaissance Old Masters. Criticism has been suspect ever since. Because one of their number grievously misgauged the merits, influence and eventual acclaim of a new way of painting, all critics suffered discredit.

Today its legions of detractors regard criticism as an activity of, by and for snobs — and uninformed snobs at that. Characteristic is the reaction of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) when someone asked him to comment on certain critical assessments of his poetry. “I don’t pay no attention to no kind of critics about nothing. If they knew as much as they claim to about what they’re criticizing, they ought to be doing that instead of just standing on the sidelines using their mouth.” In other words, criticism is something done by non-creative people at the expense of creative people. A critic is but a mentally impoverished parasite preying on that most noble of breeds, “The Artist.”

Rubbish. Criticism is not the enemy of art but its handmaiden. Good criticism is far more valuable — and creative! — than the mediocrity that often masquerades as art.

The greatest misfortune of criticism is that it is misnamed. The word itself, if not prefaced by “constructive,” connotes fault-finding. It would be less misunderstood were it renamed interpretation, which is what, in fact, it is — the application of intelligence to art in an effort to understand it better. Criticism is a quest for meaning, and it exists in not one but several forms.

We can specify at least three kinds of criticism: historical, theoretical and practical. The first concerns itself with the chronology and classification of artists and movements, of ideas and their development into that nebulous yet quite tangible aspect of art we call “style.” Some people consider art history a separate discipline, but a historian is an interpreter as well as a chronicler.

Theoretical criticism has much in common with esthetics, that branch of philosophy that seeks to define the nature and function of art. It deals with generalizations about art, the categories into which various art falls, and the ideas that inform it. A lecture or essay that described the identifying characteristics of Romanticism would be an exercise in theoretical criticism.

Practical criticism analyzes specific works of art. The analysis may entail a highly technical description of the artist’s method or the writer’s reaction to the painting. But it always concerns itself with individual pieces of art.

Obviously these three kinds of criticism have points in common and overlap. The historian deals with theories as well as artists. The theoretical critic must ground his generalizations on specific works of art, as when John Canaday credited the popularity of contemporary western art to “an ecstatic love affair…between the affluent purchaser with mediocre taste and the skilled painter of mediocre conceptions.” And the practical critic who is ignorant of art history, much less art theory, will have only the most subjective basis for his comments. (That strikes me as precisely the case with many of the writers who cover art for daily newspapers. Their impoverished opinions aren’t based on any thought out and consistently applied standards of excellence.)

In each kind of criticism we find an evaluative aspect, an implicit or explicit statement of standards. The historian exercises value judgments in the very selection of his material. Part of the theoretical critic’s work is to define standards of excellence, if not for all time at least within the context of his discussion. And if practical criticism fails to convey the writer’s sense of the meaning and power of the work he talks about, or his lack of such sense, it’s probably not worth reading.

Evaluation is thus an integral part of criticism and is hardly a reason for condemning it. Evaluations of a sort are made simply by asserting a like or a dislike of something. When one goes so far as to affix a label of “good” or “bad” he wades in critical waters. By giving reasons for his judgments he performs a critical function. And if, heaven forbid, his views are published, he may be blessed with the appellation “critic,” complete with stigma.

Like an artist, a critic must have a refined eye. Where the painter works with color, shape and line, the critic uses words. Criticism appeals to the analytical mind, the person who wants to know what things mean and how they relate. Like good painting, good criticism is a mode of correct thinking, an attempt to propagate excellence. The ideas it produces are conducive to artistic creation. At its best, criticism is an informed vision that deals with art in a way that awakens in us a fuller, more intimate sense of how and why art exists and helps us to see more clearly.

This piece was previously published in Southwest Art magazine

Plein Air: Anybody’s Guess – Almost

Ask 10 artists what a plein air painting is and you may get 11 answers — with one point of agreement: outside. We have a plethora of plein air painting associations and competitions but no consensus on what qualifies as a plein air painting. And it’s no wonder.

Consider questions around the common component of painted outside. Need the subject also be outside? If you go outside and paint something that’s inside while looking in a window, is it plein air? Or if you set up by a window, whether of your studio or vehicle, and paint an outside motif, does it count? Does it matter if the window is open or shut? Monet’s series of the Rouen Cathedral, painted from a room across the street, may not qualify.

Which brings us to umbrellas. Most of us make use of these shields from direct sun on our palette and panel. They bring conditions a bit closer to those of the studio and make gauging values, maybe the most difficult thing about painting in sun, a little less of a guessing game. Now suppose you have a 10 foot black umbrella and struts to keep it from toppling – your task just got simpler. What if there’s a cupola conveniently located beside the lily pond of a botanic garden. If you avail yourself of its shade are you still truly in plein air? It seems even “outside” isn’t cut and dried.

Suppose you sketch an outdoor scene in pencil, noting the colors and values, and then paint from the sketch outside but miles from where you sketched it. Does that count? You observed the subject outside and painted it outside.

Surely it’s permissible to return to the same spot on different days to complete an outdoor scene. Dan Sprick showed me a highly detailed painting he did of downtown Denver over several days from the balcony of his 16 th floor studio, clearly plein air. (Let’s not confuse plein air with alla prima.) But the highly detailed painting only an artist like Dan could do had none of the looseness we associate with plein air pieces.

If you commence and complete a painting entirely on the spot but take radical liberties with color and composition, ending up with a fauvist work that looks as though Duchamp did it on drugs, can we still call it plein air? Or need it bear a recognizable resemblance to the motif?

Those who propose to determine plein air based on what percentage of the painting is done outside with have questions to answer. Suppose you say 80 percent need be done at the site of the scene. Eighty percent of what – the time you spend (does the thumbnail count, the squeezing out paint, mixing color?), the strokes you deploy, or the surface you cover? Who times himself, counts strokes, or measure square inches of color? There is simply no agreed upon way to measure how much of a painting is “done” at a given moment, and we don’t know we’re finished until we stop. So this manner of determination leads to hopeless confusion, even if you paint with a brush in one hand and stop watch in the other.

A fellow member of Plein Air Artists of Colorado firmly told me if you do any more than “tweak” a painting in the studio it fails to qualify. But what’s a tweak — one stroke, three, five? Can you soften an edge, correct some drawing, add or remove a shape the bothers you? One person’s tweak may be another’s refinement.

I saw Charles Movalli do an outdoor demo in which he laid out the darks, no more than a shadow pattern, very quickly. He said, “There’s my painting.” Clearly he meant that having established the composition, determined where the big shapes would be, he’d done what he considered the most important part. Addition of color and any detail was secondary. Moral of story: different parts of a painting have different weight, more or less importance. If you put down the big shapes outside, you’ve done the preponderance of the piece, on this view. The basic drawing, scale, perspective, and all-important design are accomplished. How much more time or paint you may spend refining, outside or in, is arbitrary.

So between those ultra-orthodox purists who declare that the entire painting should be completed outdoors in the presence of its subject and those who believe if any part of a painting is executed in plein air you can call it by that name lies a vast expanse of interpretation. I think that’s a good thing because it doesn’t really matter how a painting comes to be: Ours is not a performing art (unless you’re doing a demo!). Plein air is not a genre or a medium; it’s a place. Painting in that place is fun and instructive but does not in the absence of freezing temperature, high wind, or voracious mosquitoes bestow an aura of machismo, much less greater authenticity. Neither buyers nor artists have different standards for judging work according to where the artist worked. Ultimately all that matters about a painting is its quality.

As a juror in a criminal trial, I, along with my fellow jurors, struggled with “reasonable doubt.” The judge couldn’t define it for us. Whose “reasonable” are we talking about? In the end I got it: Reasonable doubt is whatever a jury decides it is. You see the analogy — some things resist strict definition. And therein, I think, lies much of their beauty.

Gary Michael

Juror’s Statement for Kansas Art Association’s State Exhibition

Every time I jury a show I make more enemies. So why accept the invitations? Because it forces me to confront my own biases, defend decisions others find inexplicable, and give a little traction to my aesthetic discernment.

Issues a conscientious juror faces: How to weigh technical excellence against originality? Should we favor a well-executed commonplace, like oversize flowers, to a modest performance in pursuit of an unusual idea? Are the subject and background congruous? Sun lit flowers set off by black: What’s wrong with this picture? Does the work merely show the influence of another artist or is it a blatant attempt to appropriate another’s style and subjects? Does the format fit the statement? Just because it works at 8×10 doesn’t mean it deserves expansion to 30×40.

Jurying a show forces me to confront my limitations. If I don’t relate to something, is it due to a failure of vision or intellect on my part or a failure of conception or articulation on the artist’s? Do my criteria have any claim to objectivity or are they merely personal? Should we value an original idea poorly executed above a commonplace idea skillfully stated? The answers elude me. My point of view, that collection of biases through which I look at art, I can at least clarify.

Design is foremost: it is the first thing that arrests our attention and the one area in which we can improve on nature (the plethora of stimuli from which we select). Asymmetry holds more interest than the predictability of the symmetric. Give me variety in the shapes. And unless detail is integral to the statement, subordinate it to the overall scheme. I’ve rejected otherwise exquisite paintings because busyness in an area overwhelmed the larger pattern.

There exist no agreed upon standards of excellence for purely abstract work. Therefore, one’s assessment of it is totally subjective, a visceral response to color, line or mass. No degree of sophistication or critical claptrap can alter this fact. Liking an abstract means simply that the image is one with which you agree and thereby declare it good.

Does an image command attention because of its vitality, subtlety or unusualness or because it soothes you? Has the artist conveyed his or her excitement about the subject and created a mood or merely rendered the obvious? Does the work evoke emotion, even if only awe at the virtuosity necessary for its creation? These questions help to inform my sensibility. Do you know those that inform yours?

I always welcome questions. It’s fine that you second-guess me. I second-guess jurors, especially myself, all the time. In our muse’s imagination are many mansions.

Every time I jury a show I make more enemies. So why accept the invitations? Because it forces me to confront my own biases, defend decisions others find inexplicable, and give a little traction to my aesthetic discernment.

Issues a conscientious juror faces: How to weigh technical excellence against originality? Should we favor a well-executed commonplace, like oversize flowers, to a modest performance in pursuit of an unusual idea? Are the subject and background congruous? Sun lit flowers set off by black: What’s wrong with this picture? Does the work merely show the influence of another artist or is it a blatant attempt to appropriate another’s style and subjects? Does the format fit the statement? Just because it works at 8×10 doesn’t mean it deserves expansion to 40×50.

I welcome questions. It’s fine that you second-guess me. I second-guess jurors, especially myself, all the time. In our muse’s imagination are many mansions.

Imagination in Realist Painting

Imagination is more than an artist’s best friend; it’s his or her very raison d’etre. In it’s absence, the artist is, no matter how skilled, but a reporter of what already exists, instead of a creator of fresh images. Imagination is a response to things seen, either at the moment or as memory presents them, and it responds in various ways.

Imagination enables us to combine ideas and images. Trees from one locale, hills from another, and a stream you may have seen in yet another can be brought together to form a whole new scene. Thomas Gainsborough would arrange lumps of coal, sticks, sand, glass, broccoli and other things on his kitchen table. When he arrived at an interesting pattern, he used it for the basis of an imaginary landscape.

Whether you use broccoli or real bushes in your imaginary scene, you have to be careful to keep the angle and degree of light consistent. An overcast mood is easier to invent than brilliant sun because you don’t have to deal with shadows, which are among the trickiest things to make believable in the absence of good reference. Some painters say you should include in your scene only such rocks and vegetation as are indigenous to the area depicted. I find this ethic too confining and concur with the painter John F Carlson’s policy: “If the trees before us are of a . mass or color that would impair an aesthetic completeness of our motif, we simply ‘transplant’ other trees of more compatible character into our picture.” Of course, a scene with a palm tree, in front of Pikes Peak might look a little silly. On the other hand, it might make a more provocative statement.

Several years ago, I did a 30 x 36″ oil that brought together trees from Wyoming and Colorado, barns and a shed from Tennessee (although they could have been from anywhere), and hills from Virginia. In a previous work, an 18 x 24″ pastel, the autumnal colors of the Colorado cottonwoods predominated, so I called it San Juan Scene after a Colorado mountain range. In the oil, much more importance was given to the verdant Virginia hills, so its name became Appalachian Idyll.

Another but related way imagination can serve as a source of ideas is by enabling us to rescue motifs or images that we have previously encountered.

If we take the world as our workshop, it doesn’t seem to me to matter whether the stimulus lies in nature, a museum, or photo magazine. Anything is a legitimate starting point (even someone else’s painting) as long as it remains that – a starting point. Much the same can be said about references. The notion that there’s something nefarious about referring to any photos other than those you have taken yourself is arbitrary. Glean whatever you can from wherever you find it, let your mind feed on it for a while, and then make of it something new. That is not wholly new need not bother you — nothing ever is. If you’re satisfied that a transformation has taken place, that’s enough. You have to be the ultimate judge of whether your art is what David Smith called “an act of personal conviction and identity.”

A landscape I once saw in a Vienna museum dazzled me. I made a pencil sketch of it, indicated a few colors and values to refresh my memory later if necessary, and carried the sketch back home. In my studio, I did a small study much as I remembered the painting, with a little help from my sketch. Then that wonderful process called “play ” began. My thought processes went something like this: Instead of these European trees, lets substitute pine and aspen. Some sage would look good in the foreground and so would more fall colors. Now, how about a big blue mountain behind the yellow-leaved trees on the right? Let’s get some wind into the picture, break up those cumulus clouds into moving wisps of moisture, a portent of coming cold. Ah, but those yellow leaves are too close in value to the distant blue mountain; an evergreen behind them will solve that. Oh no, the sap green is starting to take over; better break it up with some strategic hits of violet. Okay for the color, but now we need a diagonal to counter the direction of the cloud drift. Lets just slip a dead tree in by the evergreen and..

By the time I finished, of course, it was a different picture, reminiscent of a different place and a different time of year – a new thing. Because it was of no place in particular, I just called it Color Theory.

There’s a story in Genesis about a wrestling match between Jacob and an unidentified man (revised standard version). The story can be taken lots of ways, and at one level it speaks to the artist. The mysterious man is the Muse. We wrestle with him in our struggle to give expression to our ideas. And through the struggle, if it is steadfast, we obtain his blessing.

(This article first appeared in a longer form in American Artist magazine. Later it was reprinted in Learning From The Pros, a Watson-Guptill publication.)