A critique at most art schools, I’ve been told, is a painstaking process, in which students and professors alike spend time criticizing, very bluntly, the work of each student. Such is not the case at the Marchutz School. We had our first group critique on Wednesday, which, although serious, was by no means an opportunity for competitive art students to fling mud at one another. We at the Marchutz School are what a philosophy professor at my College once called “friends in learning,” and the critique was a perfect example of this. It not once did it turn nasty, although weaknesses were respectfully pointed out in some works. And on the flip side, we maintained a positive tone, admiring strengths in paintings without the whole event turning into an unproductive praise-fest. We started the day with cupcakes in the garden, prepared and brought by some students. They were delicious. After a few minutes of relaxation in the sun while the last of the selected works were being arranged on the wall (Alan is careful to create the best possible groupings of paintings), we made our way into the studio to have a look. Sitting us down in the chairs that had been spread along the room, facing the wall covered in work, Alan explained how things would proceed. We would begin, as we do with most things, by simply looking. We were encouraged to walk along the wall, carefully examining the works that struck us, and seeing everything from a few different distances. Alan would then pose some questions, and students would talk about some issues they had been dealing with, which would bring us into the work. The point was not to discuss every painting, or even paintings by every student, but more to gauge where we are as a class, and talk about what could make the work stronger.
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Alan opened with three questions. What is a “whole?” What is the relationship between drawing and color? What is a portrait? After flooring us with three questions, each of which might take hours of discussion to even begin answering, he asked the students to start by talking about what questions they might have, or issues they feel like they are facing when they work. We heard from one student, who felt like he was struggling with color. Some were unsure of when to stop a painting, others were worried there was not enough “imagination” in their work, that it was too bound in reality, lacking their unique vision.
We entered into the paintings, spending time on a few comparisons, looking at paintings by the same artist, figuring out which ones come to life more than others, and why. As we talked more and more we came to realize that some pieces were stronger as whole paintings; the surfaces worked, each stroke together, to create something living. We also discovered that these paintings were not always the paintings in which the student had painstakingly created an exact likeness of his or her subject. In fact, frequently, we found that the more energy a student spent in trying to replicate the exact features of the person sitting, the less we sensed of the artist and the “whole.” We also found that, in portraiture, while the face can act as a sign saying, “This is a portrait of Nick (for example),” the key to capturing Nick’s essence lies in the relationship of head to neck to shoulders to torso. The way our teachers put it, when you see Nick walking down the beach, you understand it as him well before you can distinguish his eyes from his nose or mouth. You can see it in the way he carries himself. And when an artist lets go of the necessity of creating a photographic reproduction of each detail in the face and, instead, focuses on capturing the essence of his or her subject, the painting is alive with it. From the strokes emerges a portrait.
After almost four and a half hours of looking, Alan concluded with a little pep talk. He said not to worry if we don’t make a perfect painting. He told the story of Michael Jordan and his coach. After a 60 point game, the coach came up to MJ and asked, “Mike! How did you do that?” Mr. Jordan couldn’t give an answer. He wasn’t thinking about scoring a 60 point game. He just saw the basket, threw the ball, and for some reason it went in a lot of the time. His coach tried to get him to do it again, and, when he was thinking about scoring 60 points, he failed, and had one of the lousiest games he could remember. All this, Alan explained, is to say that it is important not to come away from this critique thinking about all our better paintings and try to replicate them. The only way to paint a 60 point painting is to be in the zone. It was a perfect segue into this week’s seminar, for which we read Eugene Herrigel’s book, Zen in the Art of Archery, but that is the subject of a different blog post.
-O'Neill Cushman, Alumni Fellow