Confessions of an Art Show Judge

After having served as juror and/or judge in a number of art exhibitions, it is time I answered that question that is always on the minds of the artists in the shows. That question would be, of course, “how do you make your decisions,?” or “What criteria do you use when you judge or select a show?”

Let me make a few statements at the outset: The first is that it is NOT the subject that attracts the juror or the judge. Secondly, paintings are not chosen for great technique. So, if subject and technique aren’t the criteria, what is?

Very simply, let me say that creativity plays a huge part in my choices.

Allow me to explain more specifically . . . .

First, the painting must obey and exhibit good design: Subject should not appear to float or be disconnected from the frame . . . .there should be obvious UNITY in the piece . . .that is to say that all parts of the painting must look as though they belong to everything else . . .there must a feeling of “One-ness.” There should be well established paths for the eye to travel into the work and to enjoy the various contrasts within the context of the piece. Regarding contrasts, I try to avoid pieces that are too strident or excessively contrasty. And, of course, good composition is a must.

I could go on regarding design, but the stuff I wish to explain here is creativity. Creativity can and does take many different forms. And it can be a euphemism for a lot of goofing around. There are many paintings out there that are monuments to technique and skill, but lack feeling. To that point, I have a strong prejudice against paintings that are obvious copies of photos. That means if it looks like a photo, I will probably ignore it. Where the creative hand shows itself becomes immediately obvious if the subject has been altered in some way to expresses a feeling or exhibits something about the artist and his or her method of thinking as well as technique.

For example, the painting may show off an obvious texture because the artist deliberately smeared, smudged, twisted, or clobbered each brushstroke. For some artists, that may seem like carelessness. In my opinion, far from it. Texture can be a very exciting element when put to use in a way to enhance an image . . . .that is to make it exciting to look at.

Another example might be that the artist purposefully modified and completely changed colors out of the sheer desire to show off “fun!” . . . or went in the opposite direction and painted the painting entirely in grays. Either way, the artist had to
T H I N K in order to complete the piece and still hold good design.

I can recall several pieces that I considered completely enthralling because the artist obviously made his or her representation of a thing or place “Odd” or “Manipulated” or “Striking” . . . .certainly NOT “real.” It is those times when the artist confronts reality by openly opposing it and making his or her own “version” of the subject that it attracts attention. The viewer is drawn to the image BECAUSE it upsets reality.

Yes, I agree that there are some artists who can make photorealistic paintings that make the viewer look with awe and wonder. Those paintings deserve recognition because even the tiniest of mistakes can be glaringly obvious within the context of so much “accuracy.”

A painting in this man’s opinion should show that it is indeed made of paint. And it should show something about the person who painted it . . . that is to say something beyond skill. Let’s call it imagination. Paintings that do that are usually stunning to the viewer (at the least, THIS viewer!).

There are so many available tools to the painter today . . .computers and projectors and software . . . all of which can steal from the artist what the artist FEELS about making this painting. Those tools can indeed make for more accurate drawing . . .or some goofy distortion . . . . and those tools do have a place. But when it is obvious that such tools were used, it affects me as “Ho-Hum.”

I recently judged a statewide exhibition in which the top award went to a small painting of paper coffee cups. (OMG! Are you serious??) Yes! This painting stood way out above many others as it took a seemingly mundane subject and, through her creativity, elevated the subject into a state nothing short of spectacular. There were smudged, softened edges, atmospheric color, splatters and specs, lost and found areas and more. All of those ‘additions’ or ‘modifications’ told me this artist had attained a level of mastery that went way beyond just copying what she saw.

There have been many more that I can instantly remember. In every case, the artist did something special with lines or edges, colors, values, shapes to make the subject appear very unique and exciting to look at. After all, in my humble opinion, paintings are supposed to communicate a feeling to the viewer . . . .not just an image that is a record of some thing or some place or some body. It has been said many times before . . . .if you want to r e c o r d something, use a camera!

There is one last part of this confession: personal taste DOES enter the process of judging a painting. We can’t help it. As humans, as artists , as sentimental people who have struggled through their development, we have biases and strong opinions. Mind you, those opinions and biases were earned via hard won experience. So, the next time you question such decisions, try to see through that judge’s eyes.

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