Friday, March 26, 2010

Mailbag: Was my Sullivan Review Justified?

At the Bring It panel in December, I urged people who had concerns about art coverage in any publication to write a letter to the editor. Without reader feedback, editors, publishers and writers have little indication that art coverage is being read, let alone engaged with.

So I'm appreciative of the following letter that appeared in this week's NOW, referring to my March 4 Francoise Sullivan review:

Sullivan overlooked

Leah Sandals’s research on the Fran├žoise Sullivan exhibition at the AGO (NOW, March 4-10) somehow managed to completely overlook the dance performance of Sullivan’s work at Walker Court.

This performance was well advertised and put on in partnership with Women’s Art Resource Centre, where there is currently an exhibition of Sullivan’s most recent paintings.

I curated this show. NOW had a listing in the must-see shows for the opening. So this begs me to ask: do your art critics look at their own magazine while doing research for their reviews?

Natalie Olanick

I'm heartened by this letter because Olanick clearly cares about Francoise Sullivan's art and how it is represented--something I care about too. She's also willing to put her point of view out there, and I appreciate the time and effort it took to do that.

Looking over my review for how I might have contributed to Olanick's dismay, I see I could've summarized my main point more clearly, rather than just implying it. That point would be: while Sullivan's legacy is indeed long and admirable, the AGO failed to do it justice in this show.

However, that poor writing decision aside, I still stand by my original 2-N review. Here's why:

First, I was genuinely disappointed by this AGO show.

When I first learned the gallery was planning a Sullivan exhibition, I was excited. Sullivan is an influential, prolific and longstanding Canadian artist, so I was anticipating that a museum show pitched as a celebration of her career would demonstrate that legacy to the public by (a) being of significant/appropriate installation size, (b) including work from a variety of eras, particularly historical ones and (c) perhaps even including work by a few of the many artists she had influenced.

As a result, I was crestfallen to visit the show and see just one smallish room allotted, exhibiting works from just two points in Sullivan's long and varied career. Sullivan deserves much better than this as a major-museum celebration of her successes, as do visitors.

Second, in a brief, current-show review, the writer's main obligation is to assess a months-long exhibition as most members of the public might actually see it (ie. sans one-night performance) and let them know whether the exhibition is worth their time and money (which in this case would involve forking over an $18 admission fee).

In this type of short article, it is not the reviewer's job to include information about related events (particularly long-past ones, like the single February 10 performance) and thematically akin shows which the exhibition itself doesn't bother to reference. In an interview, feature or long, post-show review, sure, these other types of events or shows might be up for inclusion. But they're far from compulsory in a briefer, more user-oriented context.

Third, it is crucial for a vital criticism that writers review not just artists but exhibitions. Again, we can all agree that Sullivan is a terrific artist. But did this show deliver on what it promised? A museum-level celebration of a career? Hell, no. It was like paying for a Springsteen tribute concert and getting just two or three songs performed. Or ordering a hardcover Atwood biography only to discover, when the order is delivered, that it's a 16-page leaflet.

This said, Olanick's letter did prompt a few questions that were new and relevant to me: why didn't the AGO make footage from the February 10 Sullivan performance available to exhibition visitors? In the age of digital video, it seems like this is would be somewhat doable, and extend the benefit of these types of one-night events over a run of several months.

Also, why didn't the AGO refer visitors to the concurrent WARC exhibition? Or at least provide a couple of perfunctory reference texts in the exhibition space for people who wanted to find out more? If Olanick is concerned about how the public is going to experience Sullivan through this exhibition, I urge her to craft another cogent letter—this one addressed to 317 Dundas Street West.

Image from Cartoonists with Attitude


nolanick said...

Hello,I was just browsing the net to see what was up and come across your blog. Thanks for your reply. I am much more informed about your critique of the AGO show. I think in the end you have a great idea to have the dance performance playing during the exhibit.I must say working with the AGO had some drawback- which I do think comes across in the exhibition of Sullivan's works.
My main objective was to see this amazing artist in a couple of different venues and how her work stands strong regardless of different institutional facades.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Natalie,

Thanks for your comment.

I can see your point too, and your desire to have Sullivan's work recognize.

I guess my expectations are lowered now for these Iskowitz prize shows... maybe that's what it comes down to.

There were commenters on the original review who did like the show, so there you go!

Leah Sandals said...

Oops sorry that should be "recognized."