Artist Johnathan Baldock makes curious little stitched-together fabric puppets. I know nothing about them, except that they are titled The Soft Machine, 2014, are currently on display in a gallery in Cardiff, Wales and that one of the puppets looks like a turnip. The others are vaguely scary looking and while I’m sure my five- year old son would like them, he also might have nightmares about them.
If I want to know more about Baldock’s work, learn about this exhibition, or even decide if I’d like to hop a flight to Wales to view The Soft Machine, 2014 in person, I might search online for a critical art review in a local paper or published art magazine.
One would assume, of course, that a visual art review would be similar to that of a movie or novel review, that is, to explain the ‘gist’, exciting the reader without giving too much away, and thereby ruining the experience. Art reviewing, however, has found itself in an oddly academic cubbyhole, rife with overly elitist vocabulary and an assumed set of pre-conceived art knowledge and experience.
Frieze magazine, for example, describes “Jonathan Baldock’s eponymous installation…as corporeal: a compartmentalization of bodily forms that gradually mutate from one to the next…traces a peripatetic journey through time and place..’ Further in the review, words such as ‘mallaeble, morphing and permeable’ are bandied about. Art Review magazine adds that Baldock ‘raises questions of dependence and control, questioning the hierarchy between visitor and sculpture, maker and material.’ Both reviews are fantastic, however, they assume a relatively high baseline of understanding with regards to both contemporary fine art and ‘art speak’ jargon.
Speaking of jargon, as both art professor and a mother, I find myself using the words ‘supraliminal’, ‘apperceptive’ and ‘poop’, if not in the same sentence, at least in the same conversation more often than I’d care to have on record. Mindful of my own high/low vocabulary, let’s take a look at the origins of critical art review to find out when this academic cubbyhole of vocabulary elitism first manifested.
The first visual art review likely began after the first Neanderthal painted a reindeer in a cave. Someone else stood nearby, hand stroking chin, and commented on the ‘sepia tone juxtaposed with frenetic markmaking.’ While this description is certainly imagined with tongue in cheek; it does explain that art making and art review have been a tightly knit pairing since forever.
Perhaps more relevant than an explanation of origins, why read art reviews? In an age where every image is easily accessible in high resolution via smartphone, why even go to a gallery or museum to view art?
Writer, art critic, painter and poet John Berger wrote Ways of Seeing, a seminal book pairing images with text provides bold insight into the role of critical art review.
Berger brings the reader back to the childhood corkboard, where every snapshot and flyer and postcard was pinned and looked upon. The corkboard is like an individuals own little art gallery. The language and the images are easy and excitable, arranged to be visually pleasing or merely to fit as many as possible upon the board. The corkboard doesn’t necessarily explain any one item; rather, it explains a relationship between the individual and the collection of items pinned.
Remember this childhood corkboard when you learn that Johnathan Baldock’s work, The Soft Machine, 2014 was influenced by novelist William S. Burroughs novel, The Soft Machine, in which Burroughs describes the ‘soft machine’ as ‘the human body under constant siege from a vast hungry host of parasites.’ Yikes! And yet, pan out a bit and view it from a distance; we are really looking at a critical art reviewer’s relationship to work Baldock made, based on Baldock’s relationship to a book he read, which is based on Burroughs own relationship to a self-designed world.
As complicated as these relationships are to mentally connect, keep in mind that in reading a critical art review, we are merely viewing one individuals ‘corkboard’. We are gaining insight into his or her individual relationship to the work, nothing more or less. As John Berger states in Ways of Seeing, ‘we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.’
The critical art review may give academic insight, may even excite the potential viewer, however, to decide whether or not the work is more turnip-like or nightmare-giving, you must become the viewer and begin to develop your own relationship with the artwork. Pin your own images to the corkboard, if you will.