"Thinking in Wax"--Notes on a Juried Show

Earlier this year I curated a show for the Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta, and last week I juried a show for the Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Curating is quite different from jurying, (I talked at some length about curating in my blog post on the topic) because you’re selecting work by artists you’ve already decided you want to include. There’s usually some give and take—the artists wants to know who else is in the show; the curator may want a work that’s unavailable—but generally it’s a dialog between and among people who have agreed to be involved with the project.

Panoramic view of two walls. From left: Mimi Reilly, Heather Pilchard, Susan Hardy Brown (on pedestal), Molly Hamilton, two paintings by Shirley Mossman Nisbet, three paintings by Binnie Birstein, Cid Bolduc

Jurying a show requires much more flexibility, because you never know what the work will be like until it arrives. The artist has a reasonable expectation of being included (otherwise why enter and pay the fee?) as well as the understanding that not everyone who enters will likely be accepted. .

"Thinking in Wax" opened at the Castle Hill Center for the Arts last week and will run through August 31. I chose the title* because I wanted to see how an artist’s concept and use of the medium came together in a realized work. Delivery was by hand, which meant that most artists were from the Outer Cape (Eastham, Orleans, Wellfleet, Truro, Provincetown)—a good opportunity to see the best of a region that is full of art and artists—though one artist drove down from Boston and another from central Connecticut. About 35 artists dropped off about 100 works; 23 artists and 34 works were juried in.

So how does a juror select work for a show?
.I can speak only for myself, of course. What follows is some of my thinking for this show, which had a specific medium and a general theme, but it’s equally valid for work that is selected by slide or digital image.

1) In a room full of actual work, I started by selecting, more or less at the same time, the work that resonated positively for me, as well as that which resonated negatively. Positive went to one side of the room; negative to the other. (With slides or digital images, sides of the room are conceptual but no less separate.)
. A work resonates positively when I feel it is resolved visually and technically. In a show such as this, there must be evidence that the medium has been used in service to the idea—not as an afterthought, not as a way to get into a show--but in which the medium and concept are so fused, so to speak, that neither could exist without the other. I don’t have to love the work personally, but I have to respond to the elements that make it what it is.

Binnie Birstein, First Prize recipient. Work from left: Floor Through, 12 x 12"; Empty Room Full, 16 x 16"; Untethered, 12 x 12"; all encaustic on panel

. A work resonates negatively when it doesn’t do those things. Moreover, I’m looking for interesting ideas, for well-developed concepts, maybe even some pushing of the conceptual envelope, so birds flying off into the sunset, for example, was not what I want to see here, no matter how good the paint handling might be.

2) While my own painting is abstract and non-narrative, I made a point of looking closely at work that is representational, and at work that has a narrative component, either visual or textual. And at sculpture. One artist, for instance, entered a small spiral-bound notebook filled with page after page of fluidly rendered paintings that referred to Greek vases, and in the same classical palette of black, ochre and red. Everything about the work was a delight: the imagery, the brushwork, the colors, and the concept of compressing those Greek stories into a differently dimensional narrative.

Narratives. Above, Susan Hardy Brown, Leaves of Wax, app. 14 x 12", encaustic on notebook paper. Below, Cherie Mittenthal, Patron Saint of Wax Melters and Bee Keepers, app. 12 x 10", encaustic on paper

3) In jurying the show by actual work, the largest pieces were the first to be selected or declined, mainly because they were the most visible and I had to start somewhere. However, there were two small photographic collages—positive and negative image scans of a nineteenth-century baby doll, one overlaid with an old photograph of the doll, and both collaged with wax—which resonated quite strongly for me. So it’s not just about the visual impact of the size, but of the idea that propels me to the first yeas or nays.

Joyce Zavorskas, Found Child and Lost Child, each app. 14" x 12", encaustic collage

. Let me say something about size: While big may catch a juror’s eye first, it must hold its own, otherwise it will be the first to be declined. . .

. While slides and digital images all project more or less the same size, they have their own "large" and "small" in terms of image quality. The best images are considered first. And, honestly, it takes a dedicated juror to make the effort to look, if at all, at images that don’t immediately yield their visual information.

. By the way, if you are submitting sculpture to a show in which most of the work is two-dimensional, your work has a greater chance of getting in. Why? Because while the paintings are all fighting for wall space, the floor is wide open.

Abstraction. From left: Jessica A. Gosman, Indigo; Francie Randolph, Coral Series 9 and 15, each app. 10 x 10 "; Kim Bernard, Spyro Gyra, app. 24 x 24", and Spiral Six, on pedestal. All encaustic on panel

4) Then I considered the vast middle ground. Often, I’ll find that I’m selecting, or deselecting, additional work by artists who were selected or deselected in the first round. This is not surprising. If an artist’s work resonates, then his or her second or third pieces are likely to resonate as well--or not.
. If it’s going to be a narrowly focused show, then I’d select more work by fewer artists.
. In this situation, however, I wanted to see a wider range of "thinking," so often I selected just one work (occasionally two, and in one instance three) from the same artist.
. But isn't the jurying done anonymously, you ask? It was, right up to the point where I had to make some decisions about whether to include two pieces by one artist or one piece by each of two artists. In this situation, the names were of people I didn't know, so it made no difference. And besides, there was other work I recognized as having been done by people I do know. So the best answer here is that a good juror--and I think of myself as one--is not influenced by whom or what she knows but by the quality of the work she sees, based on all the factors I mention in this post. (Grant juries, which have the power to award thousands of dollars, are a different issue, and I think anonymity is essential. And notice I said "juries," for big decisions require more than one person's power to grant or deny.)

Carol Hardy Brown, Leaves of Wax; Molly Hamilton, When the War is Over, app 24" x 36". Both encaustic on paper

5) At this point things got really interesting, because there were pieces that could have gone either way. I wanted to be fair to the artists, but I also wanted to be fair to the show, which is larger than any one artist or work. Once about half the selections were made, the curatorial part of my brain kicked in and I began to think about how all of this work would look together. I wanted a cohesive show, not a jumble. You do no favor for artists if you put their work into a big mess of a show.
. To be honest, this is the point in which context helps make the decision. A weak-ish work (that is, one that resonates weakly for me), may converse well with the already accepted work and become stronger in such context. In that case, it goes over to the accepted side. A strong-ish work (one that resonates but not enough to have motivated me to include it initially) that doesn’t converse well meets the opposite fate.
. I do a lot of back-and-forthing here. It’s in. It’s out. In. Out. Effecting this visual balance is probably what takes the most time, and certainly the most emotional energy, because I know someone’s excitement or disappointment (and entry fee) is riding on the pendulum swing.

Geometric and (mostly) abstract. From left: Michael Teters, Strength; Barbara Melcher, Bursting Color (top), Heather Pilchard, Untitled (bottom); Cecilia Rossey, Entrapped; Carol Odell, Looking for Adventure, app. 24 x 24"; John Shane, Skew; Ellyn Weiss, Blue Hill

6) Jurying was completed when all the work selected seemed right, both individually and together. I left the room several times before I reached this point. (I would have done the same thing with projected images)

7) Looking at the declined work in this or any show, it’s clear that a different juror could have made a different and equally good show. That different show might have come from declined work from artists whose other piece(s) got in; or from choosing an almost entirely different roster. So a juried show is as much about the taste and response of the juror as it is of the quality of work by the artists. Moreover, it’s a snapshot of a particular brief time in a juror’s thinking process, as well as of the selection of a few works by an artist, out of how many paintings or sculptures in her entire oeuvre. More than once it has happened that a painting declined from one show receives first prize in another—and vice versa.

I’m sure that a different juror would offer you an entirely different perspective on how she selects work for a show. Unlike competitions in which you have to hit a target or physically surpass a competitor’s leap in order to remain in the running, in a juried art show, the target is constantly moving, as is--
metaphorically, at least—the ground under your feet.

* Thanks to the New York painter Debra Ramsay for the phrase, "Thinking in Wax"


Hylla Evans said...

Thanks for this sane, thoughtful, and sensitive explanation of your process.
Artists at all levels will benefit by understanding what you've written. It sure makes it easier to bare one's soul and risk 'delayed acceptance.'

N. Hyde said...

What a great insight into how a juror goes through the process! I appreciate your posting this.

Nicole Hyde

Munira Naqui said...

Thank you so much for illuminating this process. It certainly helps to understand how jurors work.
I also love your work. Saw them at June Fitzpatrick's Gallery in Portland Maine. Your book was my first inspiration to want to try this wonderful medium.