The Fourth Wall: a public art critique

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On Tuesday, March 11, 2014, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts presented its sixth annual Fourth Wall Panel Review.  The literature accompanying the event describe it thus:

“[The Fourth Wall is] A unique event designed to shed light on the review process employed within the contemporary art world.  This panel brings together a curator, artist and author to consider work submitted by MFA Thesis students in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Graduate Program.  The afternoon will conclude with the selection of three students whose work the panel believes demonstrates the most professional promise.  Join us as we try to collapse the wall between artists and the procedures that determine their opportunities.”

For students in the program, this was optional to participate in, but we were strongly encouraged to submit our work to be reviewed.  Many of the MFA2 students did indeed participate, which is no small feat of bravery.  As artists it is common to feel that your soul is being exposed when your artwork is shown, and the vulnerability of having your work not only shown on a large screen in front of hundreds of people, but also critically discussed by strangers to be heard by everyone, truly takes courage.  I know that some of the figurative artists in the program chose not to participate because they knew their work would not be what the judges would favor.  For me, I was more curious than anything else.  My recent work seems to divide people between favor and dislike, so I was curious to hear what the art critics had to say.

The critics were as follows:

Alex Baker, director of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia.  Previously, he was senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from 2008 to 2012.  Formerly Curator of the Contemporary Art at the Pafa and Associate Curator at the ICA (Philadelphia), he has organized many exhibitions of note.

Josephine Halvorson is a painter who lives and works in western Massachusetts.  Her work has been exhibited internationally and she is represented by Sikkman Jenkins & Co. (New York) and Peter Freeman Inc. (Paris).  She is the recipient of several grants including the Fullbright Fellowship and the Tiffany Foundation Award.  Halvorson is a critic in the MFA painting department at Yale.

Crispin Sartwell teaches in the art and philosophy departments at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.  Sartwell is the author of a number of books on aesthetics and art, including The Six Names of Beauty.  His work is featured in a number of prominent publications, as well.

The afternoon started with a packed house, with numbers dwindling as the hours went by.  The first round, the critics went through every one of the 35 student’s work, talking about the strengths and weaknesses of it, and what they liked or disliked.  By the end of the first round, I had a pretty good idea of who the final five would be based on the comments and aesthetic leanings revealed by the critics.  It seemed that Alex Baker was the most postmodern leaning, with Crispin Sartwell arguing more conservatively, with Josephine Halvorson a balance between the two but leaning more postmodern.  All three were extremely articulate in letting the student body know why they were making the decisions they did as they cut the artists out round by round.  I found the whole process  terribly interesting.  It was a very weird vibe…knowing who made the work, but listening to strangers talk about it whereas you know the makers as your friends, and know the back stories to each piece.  IMG_4628

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The event was clinical and competitive by its very nature.  I was glad that I participated, however, because I gained valuable insight into how my work is understood by different people.  I’ve come to the realization that some will love your work, some will not, and that’s ok.  Do we really want to make work that pleases everyone?  The work you make is valid because it’s your expression.  And the truer you are to who you are artistically and aesthetically, the more satisfied you’ll be with your work–and the more fun you’ll have.  And if you believe in your work and what you’re doing, people will see your conviction, and your audience will come naturally.

Many of the students felt that this 4th wall was much more helpful than other years.  Part of that was the fact that David Dempewolf, a resident seminar critic at Pafa, was monitoring and keeping the critics on track.

At the end of the afternoon, the winners were announced: Katie Petrillo, Tiffany Tate, and Mary McCann.  An all-female cast!  The work was an eclectic mix.  Katie’s work is a mixed media mind-bending mix of optical illusions manipulating depth of field through tromp l’oeil and sculpture within clear shadowboxes, inspired by her own unique sight experiences.  Tiffany’s work is photography, transforming the ordinary and mundane sights of life into meditative, beautiful moments.  Mary’s work is an imaginative mix of sculpture inspired by stories and tales, and contrasting ink drawings that look like universes unto themselves.  Congratulations to these talented and hardworking ladies that I am honored to call my classmates!

Left to right, Katie, Tiffany, Mary
Left to right, Katie, Tiffany, Mary

Really, though, the work that was displayed at the 4th wall this year was all spectacular.  The work was solid and well thought out, with each person’s body of work a unique and multifaceted gem.

Author: Jessica Libor

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