In the Neolithic times when I signed onto the art world, art criticism was a rather different species than now inhabits the cultural ecology. It's a serious undertaking, then and now, but it was usually a solitary enterprise, surrounded by clouds of myth and mystery. Some critics, and I've known a couple who did, wielded considerable influence on the direction of things, theoretically and sometimes financially.Nowadays the art business is a much larger and more fragmented population than it once was and critics no longer possess their former business or polemical muscle, but the mystique of the critical response remains, at least for artists. Lori Waxman's performance "60 wrd/min art critic" is an interesting gauge of how things have changed, and haven't. Waxman, who is the regular critic for the Chicago Tribune and writes for other publications including Artforum, recently spent the better part of three days at SPACE Gallery in Portland writing 200-word reviews on the spot about artwork that people brought to show her. The reviews were made available as they were written to both the artist and audience, and many of them appear in the following pages — all 30 of them are available at Portland.thePhoenix.com.
The event is one of a series that Waxman is presenting around the country, visiting places that have lively art scenes but are outside large metropolitan areas, cites like Birmingham, Buffalo, Kansas City, Austin, and more. In each, the hosting venue provides a public place for her to work, a receptionist to handle appointments and other details, a projection screen to watch her write, and a wall to post a printout of the results. Artists come in with their work mostly by pre-arranged appointment, with a few slots reserved at the end for walk-ins. At SPACE her working office was on a small raised stage, looking rather like a minimalist drama.
My visit was on a fairly quiet day and I formed an audience of one. I hadn't expected a large spectator attendance but felt that if I had come in with something to show, I would probably have waited to see what happened. Or maybe not. As I watched, Waxman's words appeared on the screen, she corrected things, back-spaced and highlighted, looked things up, and did, in short, the same things other writers do, except publicly. It was a little hypnotic.
I encountered the artist James Chute, who had brought his work to be reviewed. Asked about his reason for coming, he said that he had gotten very little feedback about his art, and was interested in what Waxman would have to say. Like the others, he didn't stay around to see what happened. Chute has two distinct threads in his work, simple anarchic installations and rather severe small abstract paintings. Later, after he got his text, he said, "I found Lori Waxman's review of my work to be quite perceptive. She made a connection between two disparate bodies of work that I had not been able to articulate myself."