Sonya gives us an insider’s view into the world of Art Selection at the 107th Clifton Arts Open Exhibition 2015 and shares her valuable insights…
Monday 6th July 2015 proved to be one of the most interesting and valuable days I have spent as an artist attempting to forge my way into the art world!
This insightful experience became available to me when I chose to join the Clifton Arts Club in Bristol and enter my work in their 107th Open Exhibition. As part of this process I offered my help during the Selection Day, Private View and Stewarding during the Exhibition set up. This opened up a wonderful and unique opportunity to see with my own eyes how an event like this takes shape…and this rare event took place in the vaults of the Colston Hall…never before open to the public! A suitably historic venue for such a rich and diverse group of paintings to be displayed.
Selection day came upon us and an enthusiastic group of professional artists lined up adorning entries for the Exhibition in a traditionally British line in front the judges! We were all very well behaved keeping silent as the judges mused and cogitated while we held pieces of artwork in front of them for their critique.
You could almost feel some of the paintings quivering as they waited to hear their fate! A single chalk mark on their backs would dictate their destiny…‘D’ for doubtful, ‘X’ for refused or ‘A’ for accepted, and in a single stroke we carried them to their applicable store holding. The foresight, the time, the emotional turmoil, and the painters brush stokes all sealed to their fate in moments.
So the question remains…how did the judges make their decisions?
To my mind there were 8 key elements to their decision making process:
I will take you through these points in order but would particularly draw your attention to number 4 as this was most eye opening!
The judges were quick to show a reaction to each piece, and most often a immediate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would transpire. I believe what I was observing here is ‘chemistry’ and is potentially the most accurate way a painting can be judged; after all, as we are told by scientists, as humans we choose a potential mate within 3 seconds of seeing someone and this is apparently the innate truth we should hold to for success! I believe it is the same for a painting or piece of artwork. It should hold an innate quality that just ‘works’. Deep within our genetic make-up we hold the pattern or formula searching for the complimentary match in our world and when that is seen, something clicks into place, but we often don't know why! The challenge is of course that like the mating game different people are attracted to different qualities which leads me to the age old dilemma in art - it’s subjectivity. So is the ‘chemistry’ a logical and correct way to judge art? It’s certainly not logical as often we struggle to describe why we feel the way we do when it comes to chemistry but I believe it is probably the most honest and truthful response because it comes from our unconsciousness and is often lead by our heart and soul. But what do you think?
Clearly a piece needs to have some sort of impact if it is to stand proud on a wall, particularly among hundreds of other paintings in an exhibition. This impact can be purely about the intense beauty of a piece (it may be so beautiful it takes your breath away). Or, It may create impact because it shocks you, either in the use of bold colour and form or because of a message it sends out. The point being, it has impact and stands out, and this on occasions may be enough - even beyond technical ability…
I was curious to see the judges being drawn into pieces because they couldn’t work something out. I suppose it is human nature to be curious, and for people who must see numerous pieces presented in front of them during similar events, a surprise must be like a breath of fresh air! Curiosity killed the cat, and I saw them succumb to some ‘unusual’ selections based on the ‘unknown’ nature of a piece. Of course if a piece of artwork is to have longevity on a wall or in a person’s home, one factor could be that it continues to draw you in and make you wonder without finding the answer! This maybe the selling point for you as the buyer. I could see that this intrigue factor was sometimes in the composition of a painting, sometimes in the subject matter but more often it was attributed to the technique used. A good example of this could be seen in a piece I remember where black lace had been overplayed onto paint of some sort (I couldn’t work it out myself). There seemed to be an image behind the lace, but it wasn’t clear and this whole mystery enticed the judges to the point of acceptance. Can you remember buying a piece of artwork based on intrigue? Please share your own experiences!
4. ‘Je ne sais quoi’
Sometimes a piece just had that X Factor about it! Something the judges couldn’t really describe or explain, but it held a special quality that caught one’s attention and formed a connection between viewer and painting. I believe this could be described as the aura of the painting, the energetic footprint left by the artist..almost as if the emotion, intent and energy that was used by the artist while producing the piece is impregnated in the layers of medium giving off an ethereal message. It was fun watching the expressions of the judges as they accepted pieces without really understanding why, but confidently saying… ‘Yes’… ‘Yes’… this piece has something, I like it!’
5. Personal Appreciation
Each judge had entered a piece of their own work in the Open Exhibition and before the judging started I asked about their inspiration. This was a useful exercise as while I watched their reactions during the selection process I could see a correlation between their own style of work and what each judge was naturally drawn to and would then go on to accept into the exhibition. Now this is a potential point of controversy! Surely a judge should be objective and not let their own personal style effect their choice during such a process? It could be said that their job is to determine the level of technical ability such as perspective, proportion, drawing ability and to ascertain which paintings ‘work’ as hung pieces to attract the buyers and fit within the criteria of the exhibition; not whether they appease their own inner personal taste! But as we all know art is subjective - it is in the eye of the beholder and something that works for one person and ‘hits the note’ may actually turn another off. For example, there was an inherent attraction in one judge to appease moody and dark paintings which in my mind where reminiscent of her own dark and turbulent pieces; another judge had experience in print making and their eyes lit up as they critiqued works with similar technique; the third judge also had a propensity to abstract works that told a story and this too can be seen in her own artwork.
Let’s be honest here, we are all human and I know if I were to help in a selection process I would naturally be drawn to works that involved the figure because I love drawing the figure myself, so I think we need to be honest with ourselves when we talk about art and subjectivity because we would all do it! Therein lies of course the challenge for all creatives - that the work you produce and it’s ultimate success lies in the eye of the beholder and that is as diverse and unpredictable as the human race itself!
This observation was both eye opening and reassuring to me as it told me it’s not all about ability. So much of it is about luck, timing and being in the right place at the right time with judges who may happen to have similar taste to that of your own work. I saw so many ‘brilliant’ pieces be refused at selection…it really is quite a random process in many ways! I would appreciate hearing about your own experience of subjectivity in art so please do share.
6. Technical Ability
For those pieces where the points above didn’t stand out significantly it seemed that technical ability played more of a role. You may be very surprised that this aspect isn’t further up the list, and yes I was too. But this is truthfully where I feel it sits. Technical ability is a strange thing, because yes as artists we need to know how to use paint, how to draw perspective, and represent proportion but there is a certain appeal and vulnerability when a painting shows honestly that it may not have mastered these things. If it has other qualities I feel they can override the need for technical perfection or skill. This too is a point of controversy and I hear many of you reading this scream! ‘But I have trained for years in drawing skills and now you suggest to me it doesn’t matter!!!’ No, it does, but it isn’t always the most important thing. Ironically I believe an artist needs to go through the pain barrier of reaching technical ability and then pass over it only to come back to nativity in their drawing. You can’t jump the process and think, ‘ok so I won’t bother going to art school, I’ll just draw as I see it and hope for the best’. Although there is certainly a beautiful naivety in children’s’ work I do believe as artists we need to gain knowledge in our subject and practise skill to then learn to free ourselves from the constraints of perfection. This is where the real challenge lies. It’s a little like life - the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know! As an artist I believe I am constantly striving to gain new skill and I like to challenge my technical ability by learning from teachers. Alongside that I battle with truly seeing and drawing with emotion and from a place of ‘the present moment’ rather than worrying about how technically sound it is. This is a paradox and juxtaposition as on the one hand you want it to be technically ‘good’ but you start to learn in your adventure as a creative that the nativity we all lost as we grew from childhood is in fact that illusive quality that makes a piece hold beauty. So, I have decided to play like a child does with my art, just do what I am drawn to and experiment to see what transpires in the hope that the two learning curves, ability and artistic honesty will collide one day to make something truly special. Where do you see your own work sitting within this paradox?
7. Framing Choice
On several occasions I observed a piece of work being refused entry based on the frame selection. The selection of a frame can either bring out qualities in a painting or literally ‘kill’ the beauty in a piece. Again this choice is personal but quite clearly important. On a couple of occasions the judges asked to have the back of the painting marked with ‘poor framing choice’ so that the artist would understand their decision. So a clear learning for all of us…be considerate with your framing!
It was interesting to see how the decision making process speeded up towards the later end of the morning. Clearly it is a tiring process for the judges, very intense and so their decision became more spontaneous and I saw them trusting their ‘gut reaction’ more as time progressed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as I think that is often when we are more in tune with what is instinctively ‘right’ - when we linger and procrastinate over a decision we are not in the flow. I also noticed another interesting dynamic - a decision was sometimes effected depending on what painting had been seen directly before another. For example if there had been a clear ‘winner’ or ‘special prize’ potential piece beforehand, it seemed that the next painting would have to hold itself even higher in order to contend and be accepted. Conversely, if there had been a weaker painting or even a painting that the judges bulked at beforehand then the following piece seem to have a better chance! Of course in life we all take on experiences and to some extent carry some of that experience with us in our daily lives. It can be hard for example to meet a friend who may be having troubles and not empathise and take on some of their turmoil. We often carry emotions from one experience on to another and although we are taught to let go of these experiences and live in the moment, this is hard to do sometimes. I think this runs true for this selection process too. Some paintings were so powerful, they left an impression on the judges and that was carried forward to the next ‘encounter’ with a painting so effecting the decision. I came away from this realisation thinking, ‘my goodness, it really is like the decision is in the lap of the Gods!’ Fate is also a significant part of this process…being in the right place, at the right time and with the right judges to allow the door to success to be opened…
I hope you have found my honest rendition of what I experienced on selection day interesting and maybe you can use this to your advantage when entering work in future exhibitions. I suppose you are left with one choice….
Maybe there is a little to be gained from both, I will let you decide but, I know which sounds more fun and free! But then you have to be prepared to take a risk…and isn’t that just what makes you feel alive and what life is all about! Good Luck!
Please do share your comments about this blog, so we can all learn together!
My working ethos is 'Play & Revelation' where I continually explore new ways of working, sometimes even destroying works to transform into new!
From February 2019 Sonya will be selling her collections at 'Leaf Creative' in Huntley, owned by Peter Dowle. This beautiful garden centre specialises in unusual shrubs, acer trees and hand selected plants. The perfect place to showcase her leaf inspired ceramics!
Sonya is pleased to announce that having been a provisional member with the Cotswold Craftsmen during 2018, she has now been accepted as a permanent member and invited to be publicity officer on the committee. Sonya will be exhibiting her work at a number of County Shows in 2019 - watch her events page for more upcoming details.
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