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An E-versation + Reluctant Review

By J R Compton
with E-mails from artist Brenda Robson

The E-versation    The opinion    The artist does not like the opinion.   Her last reply — and mine
My understanding of what happened.

Brenda Robson - David - 2001-2
mixed media, 17 x 32 inches
photograph provided by the artist

Brenda Robson emailed me recently with feedback on my controversial Outside The Lines 5 story. Her words are in solid black below. My words are in gray. Her words are quotes from her emails. I keep rewriting mine. I only changed Brenda's slightly twice when it made her meanings more clear.

Hi there,

I almost met you at the recent Bath House show. I was praising Rita's work, I loved her sleeping lady, I thought it was the best thing in the show and she pointed you out. But then the awards were announced and I didn't see you again.

I don't like awards ceremonies. I'm embarrassed by them, so I usually go somewhere else. I reluctantly attended them last year, mostly because I was one of the judges. Neither of the others even showed up. That may be another tradition I was outside the lines of.

This was my first "real" show, not a member show, etc. and I read about it through your revue and entered.

Glad.

I enjoyed your coverage of the show in depth the year you judged it. One thing you said "if you don't ask you don't know" stuck with me and I was going to ask the judges at the show what they thought of my work, a mixed media assemblage of my son David.

My coverage of that OTL was oddly in keeping with the spirit of OTL, I suppose. I've never discussed it with the other two jurors, but I suspect they didn't appreciate me writing about it, but was too interesting not to.

Since you didn't mention it in your review, (which might be a good thing even though it was in the hall) I thought I'd go out on a limb and ask what you thought of it privately. The judges were not there, I don't think, so I couldn't ask them.

The piece was in the right place. I think work in the main gallery, because it was so acceptable to so many people, could not possibly have been outside nearly enough lines.

I saw your piece in the show but didn't know what to make of it, what to say about it. Still didn't when I started this page of our correspondence. It flashed through my mind a couple of times after I first saw it, but it's as if I didn't really want to know or explore it. I'll think about it more. I'll look at it for awhile and ask and answer my own questions.

Don't tell me about it.

I'm more interested in what it says to me than what you tried to say with it. Clearly outside some lines, but inside others.

I can only write about work that talks to me, with me. It didn't speak to me when I first and second saw it, but I noticed it and wondered what that was all about. I didn't have any answers, and I can't write about it unless I do.

I agreed with the best of show winner and liked the other winners except for the clay piece. By the way, my son is dressed like the character from Redwall and the books and rocks and fossils are made out of clay.

Don't tell me about it.

So anyway, it is a direction I may be continuing on so I wanted some insight since honest criticism is hard to get.

Uh, since you liked it so much, tell me what you thought was OTL about Rita's piece. It looked ordinary, competent, to me. Different from her usual fare, but OTL? Tell me.

Rita Barnard - From Order Comes Confusion
mixed media

Rita Barnard - You Can Be In My Dream
mixed media - oil and paper

Photographs by J R Compton

I guess to me Outside the Lines means outside the usual fare of a flat 2D painting. Maybe not much imagination in my answer but there it is.

I think mixed media fits the bill and she took a fairly realistic figure and put it in its own world on three canvases. I liked the movement as the piece came forward with the perspective changing (as she got larger and closer) and her movements; and the gaudy golds were eye candy.

I don't see the connection. Maybe you had to talk with her.

I didn't know her and after meeting her and finding out they were prayer papers and that her sister has cancer it meant even more to me. But it was my favorite before that too, I am partial to figurative work.

Brenda sent me an attachment of her OTL piece (at the top of this page).
I didn't mean for you to take up your time to write anything about me just to give me your opinion.
Uh, yeah. You want me to clairvoy it directly into your mind? Got your antennae fine tuned?

Pretty much I have to write it for you to see it. And I don't enter into writing about art haphazardly — unless, of course, it comes to me automatically, as it sometimes does when I see a piece — really look at it.

If someone asks me to tell them what I think of their work, I can usually say something if I'm standing there with them and the art. But I'm going to be serious about it, even if it's funny.

If you have any thoughts I'd love to hear them. If not, thanks anyway.
I'm engaged in it now. I am going to write about it. That's set. Stop if-notting. Let go. I'm gonna wrassle this thing. If someone goes to the trouble to ask me about a work, and I'm engaged by it at all, or see a challenge in writing about it (as I do here), I do it.

It's what I do. It's what needs doing.

I just wish I'd perused at it more carefully when I was in its company. I do remember it, but only peripherally. I kept thinking I would go back to the show a fourth time, but I already felt bad about what I'd said about the show, and I didn't want to face the people there, so I procrastinated till the show was gone.

oil on ?
clay, painting,
kind of wood
shelves
??

(Me asking what medium(s) were used in the piece's creation.)

Oil on copper, Polymer clay (some rocks, some fossils, frame, small books; book covers and pictures are a liquid polymer clay transfer).

Wood is an old typesetter's box with old typesetting letters. The words chosen have to be able to spell forward and backwards because the letters are meant to print in reverse.

Character is colored pencil on plastic shrink film. Other things are found objects he liked.

Oh god, is he dead? You use the past tense. Guess i'm gonna have to go back on not wanting to know about your end of making it. Okay. Tell me about David, the art piece, and I suppose, David the person.
He's not dead but his interests have changed. He is a really neat kid but a little overboard when he likes something, more than most kids and he was pretty wild about Redwall.

The character is the bad guy and one day David came in with an actual skull that he had attached to a cape just like the Cluney character and I thought "As strange as this is, I need to capture this moment." So that's how it began.

He's crazy about knives and that's an antique we got at a garage sale. The rest is pretty much his second phase, Bionicles. They are all masks that signify different powers, etc. And the bones and fossils are things most boys like I think, he sure does.

I still do. I have an armadillo tail, a gift from a friend who'd read my book about our furless friends, Dasypus Novemcinctus.
The armadillo was another thing he was fascinated with, I am the only mother, I am sure, who brakes for road kill just so he can see it. Years of therapy will reveal I contributed to his condition, whatever it may end up being, (smile).
I'm sure you will have been. But, as Garrison Keiler says, by then you'll be a much better human being who would never do that sort of thing, then, in your aged wisdom...
Now he's almost 14 and on to other things.
By the way, have you read Ian Pears' The Portrait?
Don't know about that one either. Guess I'm way behind in my kid lit. Last time I read much of that was my first two years at U of D, when i caught up with Dr. Seuss, Alice in Wonderland and others, and looped back through (pre-Disney and Sears) Winnie The Poo, with whom I grew up (if I ever did that).
One of the best books I've read. I already finished all his serious works and his Art History Mysteries but this one is about an art critic and an artist. Food for thought.
I hadn't heard of any of those. Are there others of your work anywhere on the internet?
No.

You're missing a great bet by not [being on the internet].

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Reviewing Brenda Robson’s David

In the 70s, there was a new genre of photography called Environmental Portraits, which meant putting the subject in their own environment, among their things.

These portraits were informal, replete with odds and ends, nick-knacks, work items, hobby things, in offices, work places, play places, wherever are whatever details that lend the subject a life. Visual information about that individual that tell us who they are.

It's an established genre, an accepted form of communication, sometimes art, often journalism. Presentationally very within the lines, and after several decades, traditional.

So here is a painting of David framed — juxtaposed — with objects that may have meant something to him. Or rather reproductions of objects selected by the artist. This is, after all, an art piece, comprising many pieces, each expanding slightly our visual understanding of who this is we are looking at. Thrice removed from reality, as Socrates said, though he may be.

Or, more likely, mirroring the artist back through her choices, of subject, of objects, of presentation, intentional or not. Maybe more a portrait of her than of him. Maybe.

David Lambert - Moonboy Day Last October (detail)

I like that David is hooded with what looks like a blanket, something real yet fantasy-based in its own way. It reminds me of my own painting — (I own it. It was painted by David Lambert.) — of a kid flying in his neighborhood, not with a cape but with a towel, one of those universal symbols we can all identify with. Like a blanket. Readily available and something that can be turned into a lot of different things in our child imaginations.

At first I liked the vertical triptyched grid of the wood box. But I am wary of its orderliness. Its formality, entirely framing the boy, in an unrelentingly regular, squared up, flat, level, frame of vertical and horizontal slats and shelves. Untraditional? Well, maybe. But all staying too much within the lines of parallelness and perpendicularity, too careful about its rigid proscenium of boxy order.

This orderliness is slightly contrasted with the organic shapes of face, arm, head, body and hood of the central painting. But the frame is all lined up too carefully for any little boy I've ever known or been. Too formal. Too neat and organized. Too oppressing.

Is the artist trying to tell me that David is a hooded neatnik with a knife? That he is imprisoned by the things he used to care about? If so, she may be more successful than I thought.

I'm not so sure about that knife, either.

It's so dark I didn't see it till she mentioned it, almost as if (Almost As Ifs are always true!) it were a shameful thing. Dark itself and in a dark place. Its pointing away from where he's looking, is either a visual mistake or a clue, but to what crime?

He's not looking at us. Nor at his portraitist, but away. Posed, I'm sure. Surely that look-away, lost maybe even vacant, look is no accident. But looking away is cue to dishonesty or studied aloofness, mindful aversion. David looks so serious. All those toys and free things — shells and animals and what could have been, maybe what might have been, flights of childhood fantasy — if only they weren't so carefully anchored.

But there's none of that childish freedom in his stance. He's not curved or swooping. This dark little monk has murder in his hand. Like an adult stuck in a child's body and ready to slash back. Too serious. Too gloomy. Too menacing.

The more I look, the darker is my vision of who this person is. I am afraid for him, trapped as he is in this grid of cells of still objects, unanimated, unmoving. Himself collected, a part of the accumulation. David and we are all looking away from who he really is.

And the knife. That knife.

Dark, but its power muted by almost sticking into a word game palindrome, empty words feeding back on themselves. Knife into YO YO doesn't compute. The connection lets go. The bridge is down. The two objects are too close to be anything but a failing in the art, a falter in the story, a cultural disconnect that needs more space.

What does all this careful placement of objects tell us about this guy?

I don't sense this is a pretty picture. There's some brightness of hue midway up the left column framing him. But no intra connection of the parts. No joy in the painting, and no air to breathe around him.

Ultimately, David is trapped in an environment not of his making, and he doesn't look happy about it. The only whimsy is near the bottom right corner, a kid pic, an armadillo.

No, not a happy picture. The colors are browns and reds. The wood, the portrait, the person, the toys. Repeating and feeding back darkness. So dark that after a few minutes of study, I don't even want to know how it all connects. I want to look away, too.

At a serious gut level, I Don't Want To Know.

Looking back, that was my initial impulse. Not to look. Be mildly interested in the multitude of objects, of their proscenium presentation, but not so much I wanted to study them, their realities, their colors, shapes or masses. More I just wanted to get away, escape.

The gloom bothers me. I like the kid in David Lambert's painting so much better. He's light, flying free, unfettered by so many things, by reality, by How It Should Be, by how it is.

Despite his gathering of toys and objects, this too-careful collection presents with neatly detached precision, this David is not a happy camper. Instead of delving deeper into who this portrait tells me he really is, I want to think it's all a big, aesthetic mistake, a mish-mosh collage of too many disparate parts.

I don't want to look, and I certainly don't want to see.

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The artist does not like the review.

Brenda,

As I said, I don't enter into writing about art haphazardly.

> You do NOT have my permission to re-print my letter to you.
> Brenda

It's a little late for that. On both the How to Submit Stuff to DallasArtsRevue page at www.DallasArtsRevue.com/cal/submit-stuff.shtml and on the Contact Us page at www.DallasArtsRevue.com/contact-us.shtml, it states very clearly:

“If you send feedback, be sure to notify meif you do not want it published.I assume everything is for sharing.”

That's about as clear as I can make it.

I suppose if you had liked what I said about your work, you would feel differently. I knew you were a "young" artist. Because of that I was very careful what I said about your work. I wrote what I saw, and made few value judgements.

> I noticed you changed the review title to "a reluctant review". Is that

I change a lot of my reviews, trying to make them better, more clear. Online is a format that allows, even invites, changes. I am the editor. I edit. You are probably used to ink on paper, which is difficult to change. It seems to bother people when I change words or opinions but make them happy when I correct spelling or grammar.

> because you felt bad because I am fresh meat? New artist, first art accepted
> into a show or because I was asking "what you thought of it privately". How
> stupid of me! Or was it because this was a personal piece expressing my love
> for my son? Who by the way is dressed as a bad guy, the robber in cops and
> robbers is usually not smiling.

I feel good about what I wrote. Should I only write about artists who've been entering shows for a long time?

I believe all the best art is personal. An artist's first responsibility is to be themselves, the unique individual only they are. That's what art is all about.

As personal as you think it might have been, however, when I saw it, it was in a public place where anyone could express their opinions about it. I'm sure many people did just that. You probably would only have liked about half of what was said there.

I have often thought about placing a hidden microphone in one of my photographs in a show, so I could hear what people said while they're standing in front of it. First-hand comments. What a gift that would be.

> A critic's role, I believe, is to forewarn a viewer about a show or

That's your opinion. The roles of critics are varied. I do not feel constrained by your opinion. You certainly should not feel constrained about mine. As DARts Friend Mary Ray keeps telling me, I am "just some guy with an opinion." She's right. The sooner you understand that, the better.

> exhibit or help them understand a piece, not completely humiliate someone asking for
> advice.

What I wrote should help you see how someone else might see your work. I did not lower your pride (not by a long shot; your letter proves that), or reduce your self-respect (that's your responsibility).

You DID NOT ask for advice. You asked me what I thought of your piece, and you didn't just ask once.

> I think you crossed a line and the thing is I am probably the only one
> that will say it because all the other artists who read this won't speak up or be
> real with you because they are afraid you will trash their work in public
> too.

I try to avoid saying negative things about art. I do not seek out art to write negative reviews of. That's too much work. I'd much rather write about art I like. Anything anybody ever says about "all the other artists" is probably wrong.

I like artists because they are real with me. Few others are.

Nor do I equate liking an artist with liking their work. There are artists whose work I love whom I can barely stand to be around. Other good friends make work I will probably never appreciate.

I looked at the photograph you sent me for a long time before I wrote anything. I showed my story to a trusted friend who agreed with my comments (and others who do not want to be quoted have since). I assumed, when you show a child wielding a knife, you meant it as a dark piece. That's certainly how I saw it.

Now you tell me David was "dressed as a bad guy," yet you are upset at me for seeing darkness in the painting. You're angry with me for saying you succeeded.

For the record, your piece has more positives going for it than negative. I mentioned only a spare few negatives. I wanted to explore my feelings for this work, because it stirred me in ways I did not understand until I gave it the time.

You seem to assume that I hated it, but if you read the review carefully, you'll see that most of my comments are positive and descriptive of what your work stirred in me. There is no objective truth in art (or anywhere else). There are only opinions and inter-relationships.

We each bring our own baggage to each new encounter.

I didn't write about it when I first saw it, because it didn't strike me, it didn't talk to me. I told you it would be a challenge for me to write about it. But you talked me into it, and when I finally did, you didn't like what I said. I suspect you might have had that reaction no matter what I said.

As am I, you are entitled to your opinions. If I were to exclude your comments from [this] page, all anyone would have would be my words and feelings. As is, they can agree with you or agree with me or agree with both or neither of us. That is always the readers' prerogative, just as what we think of art is always in the eyes of the beholders.

The more information provided, the more informed are the resulting choices.

Brenda Robson - David (detail)
photograph provided by the artist

> Please remove [this] page,

No.

I've put too much work into it. It says too many important things that I've not been able to find the right forum for before. This story is about way more than one painting, one artist or one writer.

> you have answered my question and I assure you I
> won't be entering any other shows so what's the point of leaving it up?

One review and you're out of the game? That really is silly. You got in that show. You'll get in others. You have talent. You'll learn and get better. Please don't blame me for anything you do.

Although I wrote this review at your request, I did not write it just for you. As always, I wrote it for whomever wishes to take the time to read it, to wrap their understandings around your and my words.

My readers are far more important to me than any one individual artist. To be the best writer I can, I have to express my Self in many different contexts. As, I am sure, you have many more contexts left to express your art. I hope to see more of it in future.

J R Compton

Her reply to my reply to her reply to my review

A couple days later I received another email from the artist. Since she has made it clear she does not want her new emails published, I will paraphrase her remarks. This is unfair, because I'm putting her words into mine, whereas all along I've been careful to keep the two apart.

Now, after all the anguish this has caused me personally (and caused her, too), I'm hoping she no longer feels the need to respond further.

She says it was her error, that she should have asked me if I did private critiques and THEN (her caps) sent me attachments; that I was determined to review the work publicly with or without her assistance, which she believes the dialog (on this page) makes clear; that she attempted to assist me and would have been excited with a good review.

These links go to footnotes below.

She takes me to task for calling the review "reluctant," as I was, she says, anything but.

She believes her previous letter should have been private, because she sent a follow-up denying me permission to publish that letter (that I already had published by then), which denial of permission she believes I conveniently chose to misunderstand.

She concludes saying that her husband told her she deserved what she got for talking to strangers on the Internet, because so much can be misunderstood or "you never know what a person is like."

I replied, simply saying I agreed with her husband.

Possible Explanation:

A Personal Statement of Editorial Philosophy

DallasArtsRevue strives to be personal and nonobjective (Objectivity is a self-serving lie perpetrated by people who know better.) Contributors to this website (linked below) incorporate our personal experiences into what we write here.

While DallasArtsRevue struggles to be fair and honest, its editor has no compunction about objectivity. We're all in this together, and I have no better handle on The Truth than anyone else — except I am willing to express and publish my opinions, when others are not.

I don't believe in objectivity — mine or anybody else's. And I don't let fears about that nonentity stay me from writing about art, people or institutions.

Stories are more natural and interesting when the writer is personaly engaged. Only when we — artists or writers — create from our own, peculiar point of view, does our work rise to universality. Unless we risk expressing our true selves, we can not make art.

Because of this careful nonobjectivity, DallasArtsRevue has both heart and soul. Heart lets us share our experience and want others share theirs. I care.

Soul is that which makes each of us unique. It is the animating principle that gives us our individuality, and makes our stories worth reading, our art worth experiencing.

The intentional heart and soul on these pages gives readers a sense of belonging — the feeling that they are part of something — members of a community — friends and friends of friends.

That sense of belonging is so personal, so separate from the rest of our lives, that some readers may assume a collegiality and rapport with me or with other contributors here.

They are so comfortable in this atmosphere of honesty and openness, that when they write in, they assume I am here for them as individuals, instead of for the whole community, which comprises many individuals.

I cannot, however, foster that important Sense of Community without writing about our foibles and failures, as well as our fine points. We are, all of us, less than perfect. And while pointing out those imperfections may be momentarily painful, it is a necessary part of our collective growth and progress.

My first responsibility is, of course, to myself. Then come my readers, all of them. Last, only perhaps least, are the individual artists.

Some DARts Contributors

footnotes

Private critiques:Actually, I do private critiques from time to time. I remember one of my earliest attempts, for George Green, one of the Oak Cliff Four, who gained national attention in the (gosh, what?) 60s or 70s. This was when I was publishing DallasArtsRevue on paper (1979-1996)

It was grand fun for both of us, I think. He asked what I thought of his work (not an unusual wish for artists), and I walked from piece to piece around his studio telling him. This was about the time when he was showing pieces like The World's Greatest Artist Sits on the World's Sharpest Sculpture, (approximate title) with linoleum colors and textures. It was both challenging and wonderful fun.

He knew I was relatively new at my form, and he was very secure in his, so it was totally pleasant, and it was an open exchange of ideas and opinions. He told me what he'd been thinking about doing and what he'd already found worked and didn't work. So it was both a learning and a teaching experience for us both.

Others have asked since, and I'm usually game to try, since it's a stretch for me. And, as an artist (photographer) myself, I know how deep in the psyche our need for other viewpoints is. The most common reason to demur is when I do not, initially at least, like the artist's work.

Good reviews: Many artists would prefer a positive review over an honest one.

Reluctance: When I saw the piece in the show, I chose not to mention it in my original review, and I did not photograph it, which is usually how I usually note work for review. Even after the artist wrote asking my opinion, I was not eager to write about it.

Return to footnoted text above.

As always, reader feedback is requested. You can be anonymous or use a pseudonym, if you wish, so that your opinions do not reflect upon your person. I will make no comment on your opinions here. E-mail the editor.

Information about helping support DallasArtsRevue —
including a new, Easy Guide to Joining this site
is on the DARts Member Page Index.

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