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Meeka Walsh on: How to Write an Art Review

 

Her mother was happiest in the Arctic. She, on the other hand, seems most content reading and writing about art. If there must be a place, it’s in the pages of an arts magazine Robert Fulford has called indispensable. Her writing, he calls elegant and powerful.

She is Meeka Walsh, editor of Winnipeg-based "Border Crossings." The place, last Saturday afternoon, was the Ottawa Art Gallery where a workshop on reviewing was held as part of the Gallery’s Articulation series on writing art criticism.

Before discussing the nature of reviewing and the expectations she has for material published in "Border Crossings" Meeka got political. Arts magazines, she said, are essential outlets for critical writing. They record culture, review what is important in creative output and report on in its presentation. Magazines are among the few venues where measurable distance exists between the commissioners of art exhibitions and those who write about them. Catalogues though instructive are rarely critical in the negative sense. A robust community of independent publications producing a multiplicity of views and voices and objective assessment is essential if serious arts culture is to survive in Canada. This self evident truth is evidently not so truthful to the Canada Council. They’ve cuts grants to the magazine sector in recent years, cuts that threaten to cripple the arts in this country, to put publications like "Border Crossings" out of business. This, we are informed, does not please Meeka.

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Holding to the philosophy that reviews should be written with a spirit of generosity, Meeka, as a general rule, commissions writing only from those who admire and demonstratively understand works that are assigned; she favours reviews with outlooks large and capacious, and advises they be written ‘as you’d wish them to be written of your work.’ From this perhaps unintentionally Christian baptised platform she looks, when assessing potential magazine contributors, for those who know the artist’s oeuvre, its location on the theoretical spectrum, its creative context, and the comparable efforts of others. In other words, writers who know their stuff. But this isn’t enough. They must have discernible style; must be able to write clearly and accessibly without making a spectacle of their words, without eclipsing the work under review, without jargon; in short, without showing off. Or as Fulford describes it: they must be able to communicate "art ideas to non-artists and artists alike, explaining what matters to the first group without boring or appalling the second."

Writing about exhibits should also create a feel for the event. It should make the reader want to be there, or failing this, to search for more, to learn more, to be curious. To achieve this the writer has to display enthusiasm and a sense of engaged interest. In order to get their opinions published writers must evoke, more than describe, the show, and let readers know, with some emphasis and flair, exactly how they bloody well feel.

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Subscribing to the axiom that the best way to learn is to do… Walsh presented several examples of ‘full,’ ‘successful’ ‘mature’ "Boarder Crossing" review/articles. These were 1800 words long, of a kind published but two or three times a year. Winning qualities included fairness, thoroughness, accessibility and just the right degree of cranky opinionatedness. Openings were declarative and intriguing, the type that require a certain authority. Politics, period, and curator intent were all explained. The writing also corresponded to the nature of the show examined. For example here’s what Brian Joseph Davis says about "The Downtown Show: The New York Arts Scene, 1974-1984": "Large and unwieldy blocks of time past are ripe for the ham-handed reductions and glib wall cards that often turn big exhibitions into lifeless kiosks, but "The Downtown Show" has turned the unwieldy to its advantage. The result is something cramped, complex, loving, messy and brilliant – like a neighbourhood."

And this Meeka loves: "Several artists float from one section to another, and punk, in the form of flyers and constant soundtrack, is a note that hovers through it all – perhaps a little too much. In a gallery context, punk always carries the sad air of a zoo animal about it."

She also speaks highly of veteran "Boarder Crossing" contributing editor Robin Laurence, whose article on "Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs" is accessible, un-jargoned yet erudite, instructive without being didactic. She hooks the reader, then offers context, locating the photographer in history and practice. Her prose also dances with a sense of rhythm that Walsh appreciates. "He also shows back alleys, fairgrounds, gaming arcades, rooming houses, parking lots, concession stands, billboards and neon signs. Lots of neon signs, glowing red, orange, green and blue against a nighttime drapery of rain and darkness." "Drapery" is a lovely touch. In addition to rarefied text, we also get a neat summary of subject, material, period and setting. What Herzog was and wasn’t interested in, who he is and what he does. An interesting pastiche of opinion and background.

Meeka will on rare occasion publish negative reviews, but only if she knows the artist can take it. The young and tender need not worry. But if the piece contains qualities mentioned above, if the attack isn’t gratuitous, if it’s grounded in genuine informed and passionate anger, and it lets loose with some memorable zingers, then she’ll damn the torpedoes.

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For those interested in submitting articles to "Boarder Crossing," Walsh suggests reading back issues, and noting the style. For example, don’t send manuscripts containing footnotes, they aren’t used in the magazine. Do so at your peril. Choose your subject carefully. Select exhibitions that are current, noteworthy, traveling, catalogued and controversial. Prove you are informed, not only about the art, but about everything associated with the artist, the show, the environment. Present a compelling reason for its publication, and persist, because getting published requires lots and lots of soggy, exhausting, disheartening log-rolling effort.

Finally, to hone your skills, browse and critique lots of reviews. Read especially The Nation and Frieze magazine. And practice editing, which is exactly what we spent most of the rest of this generously spirited workshop doing.

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One Response to “Meeka Walsh on: How to Write an Art Review”

  1. lynda cronin Says:

    I feel like I was there myself Nigel. Tx for the update.

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