Thoughts from my studio about artwork; new pieces as well as those things that have have remained hidden in my flat file...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Making the most of a conversation with an artist

Corner view of my summer studio at the artist residency this past August.

At my recent open studio, I had several great conversations with people, some of whom have seen most of the work I've made in the last 6 or 7 years and some who had never seen it before. Not every conversation with an artist goes so well, sure the conversation may be pleasant, but many times whether it be an opening reception, a studio visit, or when a person is introduced to an artist in a social situation, the conversations are not so interesting, or productive.

Many times I have kicked myself after meeting someone for the first time, or reacquainting someone with my work for the banality and awkwardness of the conversation; feeling like I missed an opportunity to stoke someone's curiosity about my work. Many of my "non-artist" friends have also expressed a disappointment about the actual conversation they may have had with an artist whose work they are interested in, feeling awkward, or being afraid to say something that would make them feel stupid in front of the artist. Maybe you have felt the same way.
I thought carefully about those good conversations over the last few weeks, and while I didn't come up with a sure-fire plan for ending the problem, I did come up with some suggestions for people who are talking to an artist about the work they are looking at with the artist in the studio or the gallery. Some of the suggestions are no doubt a reflection of my experience as an art educator, trying to facilitate conversations that are engaging to the viewers and helpful for the artist in a critique situation.

Most artists want quality feedback about their work, after all if an artist is not interested in how others perceive the work, why would they show it to anyone? So what kinds of conversations are helpful to the artist? I feel it is those conversations which let the artist know what is being communicated to the viewer and how it is being communicated. It need not be exactly what the artist was driving at, but having quality input on this level is more helpful than most other things that can happen to and artist to motivate them to make more meaningful work.

So here it goes:
1. Describe what you see to the artist and don't feel like your description needs to be filled with art speak. Don't make judgments or insinuate what the work means at this point. Just describe it. Let the artist know what you see first and then after you have spent a few minutes with the work expand it to describe the way you are seeing it and why. This is often just as helpful for you clarifying your perceptions. An in depth discussion of the formal qualities of the work is very helpful for some artists, and just sets the playing field for others. Be as descriptive as possible no matter what your level of exposure to artwork is. Empty compliments/judgments are not helpful, and will not engage the artist, and perhaps even make the artist feel you are not even looking.
2. After you have described the work itself, use your description to drive any comments about your interpretation of the piece. Turning your interpretation into a question for the artist is a very effective way of engaging him or her, allowing them to effectively talk about their work without feeling the pressure of giving a canned "elevator pitch" about their work. Trying to imagine the decisions that artist had to make when creating the work is another great way to come up with engaging questions. Often additional questions and comments just start to flow at this point, and the goal of having an engaging conversation is already met, keep going with it.
3. After the artist is engaged in the conversation, feel free to ask questions related to the artist's personal history, and present ideas about how that is reflected in the work.
4. At this point the artist knows you are engaged, feel free to give compliments if you feel it is appropriate, but be specific about them.

So what kinds of questions/comments stifle this conversation? (or at least should be reserved unitl after your comments and questions demonstrate enought depth to let the artist know you really looked at their work)
1. "Your work is beautiful." Yep, I said it. I know it seems like that would be a great thing to say to an artist, polish their ego and so forth, but many times it sounds empty to the artist when it is all that is said, and it doesn't allow the artist to understand why a work may be successful. I'm not saying never say this to an artist, but only say it after they know you have really investigated it. (I love your work pretty much sounds the same to an artist, but the artist will believe you if they see you at their shows all of the time and/or you have had great conversations about why their work resonates with you, and most importantly only say it when you mean it)
2. "So how long did it take you to make that?" Ok, so this can be a valid question further into the conversation than the first two or three sentences, especially when the artist's work is process/peformance driven, or has a wonderful obsessive quality. It can also effectively creep into a conversation about technique, but when its the first thing that is said as you are holding a price list, its sounds like your are just calculating the artist's "per hour rate" and mistakenly thinking "Damn I got into the wrong business" - believe me, its not that simple.
3. Avoid making suggestions for the artist about pieces or future work until you have engaged them in a meaningful conversation about what is there in front of you. Let them know your are really looking and thinking about what they have presented, and that you don't just want them to make a red one that would match the cushions in your living room - this is a quick way to turn the artist off and shut the conversation down. Suggestions are helpful after both parties are engaged and on the same page or or at least reading the same book. Simple matters of taste or personal aesthetic often sound like just that, and go nowhere. I've also been surprised at how many artists do this to other artists and just sound like they want to turn your work into theirs, or to get you to create the work they wish they could create but are incapable of. Think carefully, what is the purpose of the suggestion? Pose questions to the artist to get them to consider these things instead just telling them what you think they should do. On the other hand, don't be afraid to let the artist know what you think after working towards a productive conversation about their work.

I know there are more suggestions that could be added, but I've been writing for longer than I planned to, and there are inventories to be made for upcoming shows, and work I want to finish, and I still haven't cooked dinner and so on.

So what do you think? I'd love some suggestions about additional ways to enrich these conversations.

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