One Year In: Chicago Artists Writing

In Chicago, we often have the best conversations about art after midnight.

Chicago is known for its vibrant alternative art scene, which typically means we’re having these conversations hanging out in garages, front and backyards, gardens, graveyards, or taking in ephemeral gestures that happen inside of purses, medicine cabinets, or in even stranger places. One such place, The Hills Esthetic Center – a warehouse turned artist studio/apartment/gallery/tiki bar – is where we first talked about how few of these activities are thoroughly reflected upon through published writing, nor are they often archived beyond a press release or the existence of documentation online, limiting their future dissection and understanding. We thought about how the best part of a gallery opening can be meeting everyone at the bar afterwards, where we talk about what’s really working (or not) in the show we just saw. This kind of candid, post-opening feedback rarely reaches those who need it most, namely the artists and exhibition organizers, and floats away into the ether. We thought, if we found a way for these conversations to become more accessible, available to those organizers and to anyone who wanted to read it, we could help create a generative and reflexive context for these exhibitions.

Despite the presence of these informal, eager, critical discussions, outlets for published criticism with wide readership are few in Chicago. Since the death of New Art Examiner in 2002, one can find art criticism in Newcity, FNews Magazine (SAIC), Bad at Sports (blog and podcast), the Chicago Tribune, and on handful of smaller online entities; but these platforms typically cover established, commercial art spaces, and usually art criticism is only one facet of their operations. They do not even begin to cover the amount of artistic activities that take here in Chicago, especially what happens in alternative and artist-run spaces like The Hills.

Published critical analysis is instrumental not just to an artist and exhibition space, but also to the visibility of larger critical conversation in Chicago. Criticism is essential to the health of our city’s arts ecology. As both active participants in Chicago’s art scene and administrators/teachers (in Jason’s case), we are invested in the artistic production in our city, and especially how it is archived.

We were lucky to workshop the project (then called Young Artist Writers) at an early stage with thirty writers, artists and thinkers last summer in New Harmony, Indiana at Summer Forum for Inquiry and Exchange, a residency dedicated to discussions and exchange of ideas related to texts focused on themes of Utopia, Community, and the Individual. We presented our ideas to an eager and diverse group of peers, many of whom later became collaborators in the project. Reading through many historical examples of intentional communities and discussing them in reading groups was energizing; we started to think of a community as a thing to be built carefully, a construction that enables mutual learning, esteem, and collectivity in addressing a problem. Inspired, we founded a website for art criticism, renaming it Chicago Artist Writers (CAW). After this fruitful week at the residency, we built a modest blog structure for posting content, drew up a manifesto and sent out our first call for reviews, targeting students in BFA and MFA programs. We also started to consider an exit strategy, not in a cynical way, but as a preemptive way to consider how the project might survive beyond our availability.  In late September of last year, we christened the project with champagne at the threewalls booth at the art fair EXPO Chicago, and have been strategizing and pushing ever since.

CAW’s model is to invite artists to submit traditional and experimental criticism of exhibitions at alternative, non-profit, or temporary spaces that are then edited by a rotating cast of guest editors, namely recognized and established artists, thinkers, or one of us. We also collaborate with regional institutions like Newcity and Bad at Sports, and hope to serve as a corollary to the published criticism that is available in the city of Chicago.

It is artists we hope to most mobilize and educate in review-writing – we aim to grow a new pool of writers within our city and increase the amount of criticism it produces. This idea grew organically out of our immediate social environments, in which we witnessed artists delivering the most pointed, if casual, critical feedback but not publishing it. It makes so much sense for artists to be involved in writing criticism; the class critique model of many art programs involves slow, thorough viewings and questioning of everything. And artist-authored criticism is certainly not unheard of, as readers of Donald Judd, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Robert Smithson, Gerard Richter, Hannah Higgins, Chris Kraus, and many others know. The act of formalizing critical thoughts regarding the work of others develops a reflexive muscle if you will – artists become better observers of their own practice. And over time, CAW can act as an archive and resource for other kinds of analysis of Chicago’s under-represented cultural output.

Artists are not de facto trained as critics: while curricula in MFA and BFA programs often involves writing, it is less likely to involve writing reviews. But another place this “art critical” conversation does occur is in the class critique: students, to varying levels of success, have the opportunity to pay close attention to artwork and unpack it, collectively and singularly, and, depending on the dynamic of the class, may feel empowered to take a more earnest and informal tone than if they knew their comments were to be published; same with the bar chatter. As many people know who have been participants in critiques or in after-opening conversations, this “chatter” can be enormously energizing and productive.

We also decided to introduce some pedagogical aspects to the project. One strategy is that we have guest editors – who have experience writing criticism or have attained some success in their artistic practices – edit the reviews on a rotating basis. Reviews often go through a number of edits before they are posted. We also host quarterly workshops led by established critics/artists/thinkers to provide tools and entry points into critical writing. The workshops are important for a number of reasons: they help us gain a footing into our roles in the constantly changing trajectory of our project, they are a public forum for discussing criticism as an evolving form, and they create a micro community of bodies being together – reminding us we indeed are all here and very much interested in what’s happening. If we’re not thinking deeply about the exhibitions and events passing us by every month, we’re missing a chance to orient our individual practices within a contemporary historical, regional, and global context. It’s important that Chicago learn from its ongoing cultural production, rather than simply watching it pass from season to season.

As we got deeper into the project, we discovered that many people in our field define art criticism narrowly, as a vocation exclusively practiced by the trained writer or observer, and containing a mix of description, interpretation, perhaps judgment, and art historical context. Yet, the definitions of art criticism are rapidly shifting. Lori Waxman, herself an artist and critic, eloquently stated in her workshop we hosted last March that the current popular definition of what “criticism” is, or the role of the “art critic”, can’t keep up with new forms of art. She gave many examples related to this tectonic shift; for example, think of Jerry Saltz’s very purposeful dispersion of his agency as a critic; the proliferation of art-related TV shows with critics as judges; and the general cry of the death/“crisis” of art criticism itself (especially since What’s Wrong With Art Criticism, Jim Elkins’ 2006 roundtable and book and Ben Davis’ writing after Artnet folded). Criticism needs to change as the art world digests a myriad of practices and numerous/shifting centers of gravity by the week. CAW is uniquely oriented to accept, and also encourage, experimental reviews, and reviews by those who may not be as experienced writing “traditional” art criticism. In our minds, a critical review at its best is a creative act analogous to the art production it is analyzing, creating a new set of questions, complexities, and knowledge. CAW doesn’t have formal requirements for a review; this could mean a review leverages unique opportunities that exist online (hyperlinks, videos, images, gifs, supplementary texts elsewhere on the web, crowd sourcing, etc.) or employs more radical formats of prose, text, or is a composition of images, to name a few possibilities. This flexibility allows artists to invent appropriate ways to respond to exhibitions based on their unique aesthetic, technological, and conceptual concerns.

As we try to embrace the seemingly limitless ways the project could evolve, our trajectory so far has not been without its difficulties. A main issue we have faced since CAW’s launch last year has been a lack of steady submissions. One of the reasons for this may be that our ideal pool of contributors is flexible and slippery. One of the goals of CAW is to publish more criticism in general, and to mobilize a model for review-writing rooted in the studio critique. Therefore, we encourage artists/cultural producers who may not consider themselves “critics” to write reviews. However, that doesn’t mean we want to exclude people who may have had experience writing reviews, nor those who do not identify as artists; but we try to publish these contributions less frequently. Luckily, this kind of flexibility is in line with an expanded artists’ practice. In order to solicit reviews, we rely both on receiving submissions by authors who hopefully have taken a look at the manifesto on our website, and also through inviting specific people to write. In the coming months, we hope to assuage some of these concerns by featuring editors who will pick a set of upcoming exhibitions relating to their interests, find artist-writers within their network to respond to each exhibition, and write an introductory or conclusive text about the curated reviews from their editorial perspective.

Just as we hit our one-year anniversary, we were thrilled to learn that we were to receive our first significant grant from the Propeller Fund (a re-granting program sponsored by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and distributed through local art institutions threewalls and Gallery 400) that will enable us to provide modest honorariums to writers, editors, and workshop hosts, and create a professional website. This is important as it provides an incentive beyond cultural capital to participate, and respects the opportunity cost of time spent working on a CAW related initiative.

With this grant, CAW also has several plans to expand our platform to be not simply a website for reviews, but a catalyst for growth in our writers and expansion of what criticism can and should be, as well as further embed the project to the diverse and dynamic Chicago arts community. One of these initiatives is to establish a writer-in-residence program where one artist/thinker is invited to write quarterly pieces about criticism as an evolving form. This would help the project maintain a more aerial perspective on the terrain on which we’re operating and also extend more agency to editors as collaborators and curators in a review process. Likewise, we have decided to start contributing writing ourselves to the project after a year in which we wanted to clearly establish CAW as an ongoing, open, public submission project. In the coming months, we also hope to widen our net of writers to increase coverage, publish more experimental criticism that challenges expectations and more uniquely reflects the content of an exhibition, and develop a criticism reader available for our rotating staff of writers and editors.

On a final note, we are artists first and aspirational critics/editors second; we’re always trying to strike a balance with our individual and collective ambitions. Our commitment to the project means we, like in our own art practices, are constant students of our own goals. A year into the project we now have more experiences to draw on, more complex questions, and an urgency toward higher standards. Ideally, we will continue on as students to a burgeoning community of evolving writers, thinkers, and makers, and hope that CAW’s methodology for producing reflexive, experimental, and artist-authored feedback can serve as a model for artistic ecologies in regions beyond Chicago.


Image courtesy of The Hills Esthetic Center. Photo: Leonardo Kaplan

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