Lori Waxman was both my professor and my thesis advisor. I once babysat her son (well, kind of. She was just in the other room). Though I did not interview her about her work or practice specifically, we have had long conversations in and out of class. She has bought me cookies and coffee on more than one occasion.
Art critic and historian Lori Waxman married an artist. She told us so. Her essay “So I Married an Artist,” included in threewall’s Talking with Your Mouth Full: New Language for Socially Engaged Art, discusses the sticky (or at least, “taboo”) relationship between art, artist, critic, and what is “appropriate proximity”—in this case, discussing husband Michael Rakowitz’s Return (2006), a relational project in the form of a small import-and-export shop of Iraqi dates (as in the fruit) in Brooklyn.
The shop was open six days a week from 1 October to 10 December, and she is candid in her intimacy with the project just in terms of being there, working in the shop before it opened, after it closed, discussing it over the dinner table, absorbing these details she would argue contain the most meaning. And it is precisely this relationship, this unusual closeness that gives her more understanding of the subtlety and nuance Return encompassed.
Her unique position both to the project and the artist lead her to question, then answer, whether a critic can pass “unbiased judgment” on a piece from such close proximity, with particular regard to relational artwork. The short answer is: how the Hell else are you going to get it? To elaborate on this, Waxman discusses FOOD, a 1971 SoHo restaurant founded by artists Gordon Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden and Tina Girouard, Waxman admits no amount of research, no matter how thorough, could compensate for being there.
“This realization, by no means a comfortable one for a critic-historian to have,” she writes, “jolts me into questioning the kind of presence both possible and necessary for the reviewer of today’s relational artwork.”
When the relationship is the art, how does this shift the critic’s position? Where do you stand? With regard to Return, Waxman might be the only person to speak with authority about the meaning of the piece, as a whole, other than Michael Rakowitz himself. This does not necessarily invalidate whatever other reviews about this project exist. But more than needing time, relationships are time, and cannot be researched, simulated, sped along, or experienced vicariously. Sometimes, you just have to be there.
About a year ago, I had a conversation with a gallery attendant at Alderman Exhibitions in West Loop. I was there to critique Joel Dean’s The Real Problem, full of bright, flat, candid landscapes and awkward freestanding sculptures. It was fun but it felt a bit—I don’t know, gaudy, a bit forced. There was a lot of okay, but what I am actually looking at here in the first 30 minutes I spent in the space, “hmming” dutifully and touching my chin, trying to give each piece its due.
After a while, the gallery assistant asked me what I thought.
“I don’t know, it’s kind of funky, kind of weird. My thoughts haven’t gelled.” I grinned. “Do you like it?”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with the artist…and I’ve spent a lot of time with the work being here, so I think—well, my opinion’s changed a lot—and I think I’m at peace with it now.”
These relationships, between viewer and art, become both part of the aesthetic experience and a critical practice in and of themselves. If we reframe criticism as an exploration of relationships, not only between the critic and the work, but the relationship between the work, the artist, and the larger framework of culture, then a close relationship has the potential to build layers of comprehension, to add dimension and complexity. In the case of relational artwork, this is a tool to use rather than a handicap to overcome.
But even in the case of The Real Problem and the gallery attendant, why is allowing a relationship time to develop necessarily “uncritical?” Obviously, journalistic timeliness and opportunity play a factor in whether it’s possible—we can assume, in Lori Waxman’s case, she is Rakowitz’s only wife, so the chance to cohabitate with his work to such a degree is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And at this moment of technological connectivity, the demands for new media are increasingly urgent. Output is rapid and continuous. Intake is immediate, indiscriminate and, because of the sheer quantity of information, superficial. Intimacy is then the antithesis of this consumption; time-necessitated, personal, private rather than public, close, and familiar. We see it less and less, especially with regard to arts writing as it succumbs to the demands of the 24-hour news cycle.
Why shouldn’t those critics then with the means and opportunity be encouraged to take it slow? Why shouldn’t there be more room for accidents, chance, subtlety, nuance? More room for details, for surprises and changes, for layers to develop? Why should we expect art, and our understanding of it, to remain static? Why shouldn’t we make more room for confusion? For changes of heart, changes of mind? More room for contradiction? More room for clouds?
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This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.