I couldn't bring myself to look at the screen. I was there. The critic was there. My artwork was there. And that screen was there, revealing, character by character, every word, every typo, every revision the critic entered about my work.
I sat off to the side, watching a few others watching the screen. One was a fellow local arts writer. The other was a curious member of the public. I could see on the screen that the critic had switched from the Word document to her desktop, where she appeared to be using some kind of application. "What's happening?" I queried from my sequestered spot. "She's using the thesaurus!" someone cried. From my vantage point I could just make it out—she was looking up synonyms for the word "meaningful."
This was neither an artist's fever dream nor a scene from an absurdist play but a moment in Lori Waxman's public performance project 60 wrd/min art critic, which took place two weeks ago at the Durham Arts Council.
Waxman is an accomplished professional art critic. She freelances for the Chicago Tribune and has written for heavyweight art magazines such as Artforum and for scores of other well-respected publications. As an art-world insider, Waxman began to question her role as a critic. The art review is a very real form of currency. A single, well-placed review can catapult an artist from obscurity to prominence. Why are some artists afforded this privilege while others are denied? One of the reasons seemed to be merely geographic. If you're not in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, you might be out of luck. Waxman wondered how she might, in some way, tweak the system a bit.
Waxman has been presenting iterations of 60 wrd/min art critic since 2005. The protocol of the project is simple. Identify smaller American cities with thriving art scenes whose output far outweighs the capacity of the local press to cover it. Show up in a target city. Take up residence in a public arts space. Meet in 25-minute increments with local artists who bring in samples of their work. Within the space of these fleeting allotments of time, view the work, take notes and produce short but serious pieces of art criticism. Print out these reviews immediately and display them prominently in the space. Waxman arranges in advance with a local paper to run the reviews. [See slideshow.]
Watching Waxman at work feels like a taboo is being broken, like we're watching something we're not supposed to be seeing. It's intimate, personal. Waxman, typing for all to see, is not cloaked in the kind of public anonymity afforded the legions of laptop practitioners stationed in cafés the world over. The difference is to be found in the monitor that displays her every writerly move. With this not-so-simple gesture, Waxman seeks to dispel preconceptions, to demystify the act of critique, which is always necessarily obfuscated by the review itself, a self-contained, self-referential object.
Waxman told me that the 60 wrd/min art critic could be described as "art criticism as an extreme sport." She loves the way it challenges her critical faculties and takes her purview far beyond her normal range of aesthetic inquiry. I stood with another member of the local press outside the gallery space at the Durham Arts Council, where Waxman's reviews were taped to a large pane of glass. We found it almost impossible to reconcile the uniform high quality of these reviews with the mere handful of minutes in which they were produced.
With a seemingly bottomless arsenal of references, Waxman waxes vastly. She allows her mind to be fluid, fertile, open, playful, searching. Writing about Tanya Casteel's ceramic dishes, Waxman falls into a reverie in which she imagines that one aqua-colored plate might best be adorned with "house-cured wild salmon of the deepest, richest pink," only later to muse that her own evocation of sea-born delicacies might ultimately and tragically be read as elegiac, given the current BP disaster along the Gulf Coast.
Waxman attacks these reviews with an almost hyper verve and clearly takes great pleasure in nailing specific details. I'm guessing it was a minor thrill for the writer (and probably for the artist as well) when Waxman was able to lightly toss off what was clearly intimate knowledge of the small town along the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec for which Vickie Mitchell's abstract painting "Kamouraska" was named.
Other spot-on art citings include (the less obscure) Kandinsky and Mondrian in connection with Rachel Goodwin's abstract figurations. In her Goodwin review, Waxman engages in fabulous flights of fancy, positing "so many painted toenails or so many painted women," as well as "a partial skeleton or a multi-pronged insect" as nameable configurations that could be perceived (hallucinated) within Goodwin's supposedly non-imagistic images. For Collin Blackmore's review, Waxman throws down not one, not two but three poignant references, a Japanese anime film (Howl's Moving Castle), Calder's circus and the oeuvre of Tim Burton. Louis St. Lewis' flamboyant found/ altered portraits are predictably, but not unforgivably, "Warholian," but next thing you know she's pulling out the stops again, as in her review of Maria Britton's bedsheet paintings: "The effect is a bit Carroll Dunham meets Philip Guston by way of Amy Sillman." Waxman writes up to the reader. She knows that for the uninitiated but curious, Google is just a few clicks away.
Waxman doesn't hesitate to unleash quirky details. In discussing Matthew Zigler's illustrations of pigeons, she busts out the Latinate appellation for the common pigeon, Columbia livia. Riffing on the phantasmal figures in Mary Ann Anderson's graphite rubbings, Waxman cogitates on the notion of the tattoo as a storytelling medium, only to rush breathlessly, free-associating headlong into a literary reference to Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man," which she classily refrains from naming.
Waxman's condensed moment of viewing/considering/ producing brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, an investigation of how we are capable of receiving—and effectively processing—tsunamis of information within a few seconds of apprehension. (Coincidentally, Blink came out the same year that Waxman began her 60 wrd/min art critic career.) These glimmers of the vastness of human potential bring us to the brink of what we know or are capable of knowing.
If you are one of the artists who participated in 60 wrd/min art critic, please leave your comments below or on the slideshow. Waxman indicated that one of the limitations of the project is that, because of the time constraints, she isn't able to get feedback from the participants.