What is a good critical review?

By United States

“The frustration of Show and Tell: Calder Jewelry and Mobiles was that the works by such clever artists, for the most part, served as props. When Calder fabricated the masks to display his jewels, he perceived them solely as display apparatus, not necessarily artistic statements, while the members of this exhibition, working within their own theoretical frameworks, emerged conceptually hamstrung. When they viewed the jewelry simply as add-ons, the results were lackluster associations that didn’t lead one to view either the jewelry or artworks in alternative ways, revitalizing one another, or offering new awareness. With some exceptions, the pairings came across as superficial gestures. Calder’s jewelry might have been better served presented alone, leaving the other artists free to contribute more dynamic work.”  

Toni Greenbaum, Show and Tell: Calder Jewelry and Mobiles, published 2 April 2014


“As I walked through the passages, I was aware of the force they exerted on my body. Perhaps the ebb and flow of the walls created a lunar affect that caused feelings of discomfort in resonance with the title of the show. Parts of the passageways were small, and the haphazard distribution of the pedestals suggested that things could move around behind the fabric. All of this produced two reactions. First, my fascination with the space itself distracted me from looking at the jewelry, and second, the stretched fabric was an equivocal but convincing surrogate for the clothed body and therefore a perfect space in which to display jewelry.”

Susan Cummins, The Space Speaks: Lunatic Swing and Neuer Schmuck für Götter, published 13 May 2013


“The show consists of a rather brutal bestiary of monochromatic necklaces featuring burnt animal extremities strung on matted Andean alpacas, and earlier, pinker variants of the same in photographs. Whether or not you manage to connect with the subtexts of Chilean craft tradition and material culture, dictatorship, or our increasingly uneasy position at the top of the food chain, this is strong stuff. I am not convinced, however, that the work’s sphere of inspiration or its explicit references to sexuality were best enjoyed over latte.”

Benjamin Lignel, Takeover Strategies: Vintage Violence and Matadero, published 13 May 2013


“Ultimately, I’m disappointed that this exhibition doesn’t have the same ambition and rigor as the work that is its subject. And that, I think, is a real missed opportunity, especially in a moment when some really interesting discussions are taking place about what contemporary jewelry is going to become, and particularly, what options are available to move beyond putting all the emphasis on contemporary jewelry as autonomous objects of artistic expression.”

Damian Skinner, A Künzli for our Time?, published 21 May 2013


In the course of the last few years, AJF has increased the publication tempo of what can undoubtedly be called “critical reviews.” The excerpts above are lifted from these texts, published in reaction to exhibitions we have seen, books we have read. 

Our rationale for doing so is that uncritical laudatory reviews written to boost that maker or this exhibition—and through them, the field’s legitimacy—actually do the field a disservice. They suppose the field too vulnerable to stand on its own two legs, and confuse toothlessness with encouragement. They suppose that because we like the work of this or that crafter, that artist is necessarily going to get the next exhibition right. They suppose that failure is not an option, and that patting one another on the back is a useful sort of contribution to our development: I like!

Well, sometimes we do like, but we also know that occasions to analyze an exhibition (or a work, or a publication) in depth are quite rare once makers leave the academic or professional environment in which they were taught, and set up on their own. It certainly does not happen during exhibition openings (nor should it), and it rarely ever happens in the company of the crafter whose work is on show. 

A critical review, in our mind, should tick a few boxes: It should provide factual and visual information about the exhibition at hand, identify its ambition, and assess its success in the context of both that crafter’s previous work and the field at large. It should be written in a clear language and get the facts right. It should supply the reader with a complete picture of the event, and a clear statement of the reviewer’s opinion of it.

To some extent, the criteria for judging a new body of work will be provided by the work itself (if it is innovative and singular, that is), but not only: A new body of work necessarily dialogues with current practice, and finding how this relationship articulates itself is part of the reviewer’s job as well. So we hope that by discussing the one, we may be of service to the many, and that criticizing specific shows is a way to whet everyone’s critical weapons.

We encourage criticality in our writers, but we also invite it. Every letter ever written to the editor to correct or debate an article we published has led to a correction, or a publication of that letter. (We rarely receive letters, and we would like to get more…)

The reaction from the community to our critical reviews has been mixed; while most people agree in theory that criticality is a good thing, it becomes a little less obvious when theory turns into practice. 

So we decided to turn this into a discussion, and we would like to hear your opinion: What do you think “being critical” is about? Who are critical reviews useful for? Do you think that the benefits of making an articulated case that an exhibition is badly put together, or fails the work of the maker, outweighs the displeasure of reading something negative about one’s work? What are my duties as a reviewer? What are your duties as a reader?

Please use the comment box below to send your opinion. If your opinion is 500 words or more, maybe drop me a line, and we can discuss publishing it in an article format.

Abusive comments and personal attacks will not be tolerated, but everything else will.

Thank you!

Benjamin Lignel, editor


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