Explorers: Peer led crit group

Following a Studio 5 Zoom meeting (a bi-monthly catch up for all Level 2 students run by our programme leader where she can give out information and we can discuss anything Level 2 related) in December 2020 I contacted 3 other Exploring Media students to chat about setting up a peer led crit group.

We had a Zoom meeting and decided to meet up on the 10th January (Sunday) at 2pm. I agreed to chair using Emma Drye’s suggested format on self crit groups, and another member of the group offered to organise the tech side, somewhere to share our paintings and a Zoom licence from the OCA.

The crit format is: 1) What do you see. 2) Analyse – How is it working? 3) How do you feel – what do you think the artist is trying to say? 4) Artist evaluates/feeds back useful insights and takes questions.

As we had not done this before and it had 4 sections we decided to allow 5 minutes for each section. This would give us 20 minutes each… so 80 minutes total. With time leakage between each crit this would be 90 minutes… if we had a chat for 30 minutes that would make 2 hours which seemed like a reasonable amount of time for the session.

The session:

Although I initially led the crit group we ended up co-hosting which worked very well. We decided we would carry on with this rather than nominate a chair.

We kept rigidly to the 20 minutes for each artist but found we were merging Description and Analysis… and had some trouble not making value judgements like “I love this”… or “it’s beautiful”. The Interpretation and Evaluation naturally seemed to form separate sections.

Before the crit we had thought that it would take 20 minutes to crit one painting but we found we finished a painting in about 12 minutes so each used the 8 minutes we had left to put forward another painting. However as we were rushing we weren’t as rigid with our structure on the second painting.

What I got out of it:

There were three big takeaways for me:

  1. You have no control over how people see/interpret your work.

Although I knew this intellectually, this brought it home emotionally. The physical/intellectual/emotional/psychological process for the artist is (on one level) irrelevant as all the viewer has is your painting and a title, and they will interpret it in their own terms.

Of course, this is partly dependent on the subject matter… for instance one of my paintings was a figurative painting titled, ‘Father and Son’ and much of the narrative and meaning was picked up by the viewers. However my other painting was an abstract entitled, ‘Golden Kiss’ and although one person ‘saw’ it as it was painted, the others all had different interpretations.

Titles were very interesting as these often steered people into trying to impose an interpretation which was at odds with what they saw, and created a mental noise that was either frustrating or restrictive.

For me this raised the question of who we are painting for and does our intent matter? Our intent (or process) matters to us as it gives the work meaning and coherence… but a painting is not an essay or newspaper article. And although we can have language in a painting we do not read it in the same way we would a newspaper or political pamphlet.

A painting is visual not verbal.

Ultimately, I think we are painting for the viewer (the viewer is the person who buys it or anybody who sees the image in any medium) unless we keep our paintings private. So, we then have to think about how much we want to control (or position) what the viewer sees. Are we painting to change behaviour as in an activist painting? To tell a story? To make a moral point? To make a living? To give pleasure? To offer up a new visual way of seeing the world? Or as a mixture of any of these?

This makes me think that painting to convey our ‘meaning’ is only one way of painting. Given the range of viewer interpretations such paintings would need to be figurative and/or explained by words.

However, there is the whole field of abstract painting, which is where my practice is heading. And although I need to understand my meaning and intent I don’t think it’s important for the viewer to do so.

2) Viewers can see things you can’t

When we talk or paint we give clues about our personality that we are totally unaware of.

For instance, in my ‘Father and Son’ painting I had tried to recapture a moment when I had shared chips and a coke with my son at an away football match when he was 11. My process was to rebuild the event with my senses, make a 3D map in my head, and relive the moment. My whole process and ‘meaning’ was to capture that moment.

However everybody saw a distance between the adult and the child as well as the close relationship. They saw that the child would leave and become an adult. This was quite emotional for some of the viewers. Of course all the viewers were adults (and may have children) so they could be ‘reading’ this into the painting. But I can easily imagine a painting that captured a wonderful moment of intimacy between father and son without any hint of separation, but my painting had a sense of loss built into it.

So, however strong my intent, I was painting much more than I was aware of. Which is another reason to question the weight given to artist intent when ‘understanding’ a painting.

We might want to ‘understand’ how a painting was created and what the artist wanted to say as matters of historical and personal interest. But what the painting means and how it affects us is not solely, or in some cases at all, determined by artist intent.

3. We are always painting ourselves/subconscious

We talked about this at the end… and all agreed… that our subject matter and intent are only a vehicle for painting ourselves.

This is not the same as saying we are consciously painting our subconscious or using art as therapy, but whatever is in our heads or happening in our life comes out in our painting.

Part of a cohort:

After 5 years studying with the OCA I felt that I had finally met my colleagues.

I have been to many tutor led events and (latterly) Zooms but it felt like they were fellow students rather than classmates. As far as having a cohort I had previously felt as if I was in a class of one. This, by contrast, felt like the first day at work when you meet your new colleagues, or the first day at Uni when you meet fellow students.

Group success:

At the end of our session we all agreed we had enjoyed it very much, and found it extremely useful.

Before the meeting we had talked about whether we should meet up every one or two months but there was a strong feeling that we would like to meet up every month.

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