Sunday, May 10, 2015

How I Judge a Show

Northwest Pastel Society International Open Exhibition
at The American Art Company
Before the Reception

While I was in Washington teaching a workshop, I had the pleasure of judging the Northwest Pastel Society's annual international open exhibition. During the workshop, I was asked several times how I go about doing that. I thought I'd share my process with you here.

In addition to being the judge of awards, I was the juror of selection. Prior to the exhibition, I was asked to select anywhere from 70 to 75 pieces from about 200 entries. (I have done this for larger shows, but the process is the same.) These days, this is all done via computer.  No one uses slides anymore.

On-screen, large paintings often look better than small paintings. Large paintings are much reduced, and any minor flaws or eccentricities in mark-making disappear in the reduction. Small paintings aren't reduced as much or, in the case of very small paintings, they may even be enlarged, which makes flaws more obvious.  I try to see past all the inequity, of course, but the images that look best in the first pass have simple designs with strong contrast and an element of rich color.

Once I have my list, I quickly go through the images and divide them into three categories: Yes, No, and Maybe. A "yes" always jumps out as being quality, well-crafted work. Likewise, a "no" jumps out as being amateurish (and sometimes lazy.) A "maybe" is more problematic, since the quality of the painting isn't immediately obvious. Often, paintings in the "maybe" pile deserve further scrutiny.

Next, I tally up the paintings in the "yes" pile to see if I need more for the show. This always seems to be the case because I tend to be overly-critical in the first pass. Then I go through the "maybe" pile, looking closely at design and color usage. Quite often, what I run across are subtle pieces that are quite good, and I add them to the "yes" pile. In this pass, I always end up with many more pieces than I need.

After this, I go through the "no" pile to see if there is anything I may have missed. It does happen sometimes that I am too hasty and have inadvertently discarded a gem.

Finally, I go through the "yes" pile several times to get it down to the number I need for the show. At this time, I look very hard at all the factors that go into a good painting - not just design and color usage but also emotional impact and, if I can zoom in enough, mark-making - to make sure I have truly quality work.

This selection process can take several hours.  The first pass doesn't take that long, but as I get deep into reviewing my choices, each pass takes longer.

Sometimes, as with the NPS exhibition, I am also asked to be the judge of awards. This is always supremely enjoyable, because I get to see the work I selected in person. Because the selected pieces are of high quality, judging may take me a long time. For this show, it took a good two hours to review the 71 paintings.

Here's how I do it. I walk through the gallery with a little pad of "sticky notes." I make several circuits of the gallery, putting a sticky note on any painting that makes me stop. Strong, clear design, engaging color or an air of mystery will do this. In some ways, at this stage, selecting paintings is more about emotional appeal. Emotional appeal is less a factor when you are looking at a small image on-screen; but it becomes huge when you are looking at the actual painting. By now, I've already selected paintings for craftsmanship, so the gallery viewing is more about how the paintings strike me.

After several passes, I have winnowed down the selections to a few more than I need. I go through again, looking at each painting very carefully with respect to craftsmanship and mark-making. Some paintings get pulled; some paintings get added. I want to make sure my final choices truly deserve the award.

Often, it's difficult if not impossible to choose between first, second and third, and I have to go with the "Ah!" factor. The quality of painting of each of the candidates is top-notch, and choices become personal.

I find it very satisfying to attend the awards presentation and to see how the artists and collectors receive my choices. They don't always agree with me, but then, that's the way it is with art. A great painting always contains a mystery that sparks a very personal interpretation and response.  I wouldn't want it any other way.

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