Friday, May 21, 2010

Contact Reviews and Ratings Blues

Victoria Day signals the home stretch of the Contact festival, and there's still plenty of good stuff to see.

The National Post (online today, in print tomorrow) has three of my Queen's Park-area reviews: The Brothel Without Walls and Probing McLuhan at UTAC and Creative Commons at the ROM. An excerpt:

The Brothel Without Walls at University of Toronto Art Centre
15 King’s College Circ.
Philosopher Alan Watts said “trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.” Sometimes, this limitation also applies to art that tries to define itself through art. Fortunately, Contact’s keynote exhibition The Brothel Without Walls overcomes these challenges — it’s a photo show that capably shows how photography has altered our relationships, both to each other and to ourselves. Stefan Ruiz’s pics of Spanish soap-opera sets unfold like a grown-up hall of mirrors, while Evan Baden’s prints of online sex acts — a different form of fantasy — are backdropped by the mundane: reams of gold gymnastics medals and Scotch-taped collages of friends. Christopher Wahl’s photos of journalists at work hint at the information industry’s frantic dependence on image collection, while Marina Gadonneix’s pictures of TV news sets complement the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” vibe. Susan Anderson’s portraits of tiny, heavily made-up Barbie wannabes at child beauty pageants resonate in a fresh way, particularly because Anderson asked each girl to create her own pose. (Their choices reflect how deeply ideas of photographic glamour are ingrained at a young age.) Each artist’s insights build upon the others and result in a critical picture of the way photos affect us — a difficult and admirable achievement for a celebration-toned fest. To May 29.

Yesterday, NOW also published my capsule reviews of three public installations at the festival: David LaChappelle at MOCCA, Barbara Kruger at the AGO and Hank Willis Thomas at Front and Spadina.

I think I realized more than ever in writing these NOW reviews that I'm pretty bad at rating art on an "out of 5" scale, unless it's indubitably great or indubitably awful. I envy the Entertainment Weekly folks with their letter grades, which are a little more nuanced. At the same time, I realize if I took that approach I would give the LaChappelle an A/A-, the Kruger and Thomas a B+ at least. But 3/5, which I ended up with on the latter two reviews in NOW, is more like a 60% C/D, much lower than reflects my views. Getting these ratings right (at least in terms of the reviewer's perspective) is part of a reviewer's job, though, and I basically just wanted to admit that I haven't been doing a great job on it of late. That's my long-weekend truthiness, folks.

If you have any views on these shows or others--or commentary/advice on the business of rating art by stars, Ns, grades or what have you--feel free to share in the comments.

Christopher Wahl's image Jennifer Lopez, 2009, © Christopher Wahl, from the National Post


Anonymous said...

Hey Leah don't get so down on yourself!

Maybe I can cut you slack because I work in theatre and will likely never be reviewed by you - but I think most communities of artists just want to know their critics take their jobs seriously and are thinking hard about these things.

I also happen to think assigning a numeric, quantifiable value to success of a piece of art (visual, theatrical or otherwise) is a laughable enterprise. Somewhere at the core of something being art is a position that not all things on this planet are made up of and can be understood by logic and mathematical or scientific analysis.

Anyways, there is hope: in the North American theatre world the biggest review you can get is from the NY Times, which does not assign numerical values and also seems to be coy at times regarding the meaning of the title they assign piece. Bottom line is if you want to know what a critic wrote about a play you have to actually read what they wrote about the play.

Michael Wheeler said...

I left the last comment, but didn't mean to make it anonymous.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Michael!

No worries, I just have been busy and didn't get to respond to the comment yet. I appreciate the reality check that you offer. One part of being a critic is also, perhaps, being critical about one's own practice -- at least for me, that's part of it. But I hear you... you really need to read reviews these days to figure out what people mean by their ratings.

I'm also a person who loves standards and systems, so maybe it just perturbs me on some level when (as is natural) different critics use different systems and standards for their ratings. But that's a me thing, not a world-of-criticism thing.