Visiting a Gallery

By Barry Willis

Imagine that you are a newbie art critic about to launch yourself into the reviewing game. You want to cover a new exhibit at the Serpentine Gallery, a startup in your city’s trendiest district. Perhaps you discovered it through a mass email, or accidentally when walking by. What prompted you to visit? Was it an intriguing press release or a couple of baffling photos? Or was it the bustling, serious business of installing the show that you witnessed as you strolled by?

You might be tempted to visit the Serpentine on the exhibit’s opening night when the featured artist will be there. That might provide an opportunity to grab a couple of pithy quotes from artist, gallerist, and a few attendees, but it won’t give you a chance to really view the art because the place will be crowded to the point of inducing panic attacks. If the crowd doesn’t bother you, enjoy the cheap wine, cheese, crackers, and baby carrots. Just keep it all close to the vest—jostling and spills are likely.

Opening night lets you rub elbows, literally, with dozens of artists and art lovers, but to really absorb what this exhibit is all about, you’ll need to come back during the day, when the gallery is more or less empty and you can spend as much time as you wish with each piece. Newcomers may feel more confident having done some research before venturing in, but the opposite tack is equally effective: Go in knowing as little as possible so that you can have an unsullied experience both intellectually and emotionally. Your reactions are valid regardless of your expertise or credentials. You can always read up on your subject later—and if you are so motivated, go back and revisit the art with new knowledge.

Your review might run 500-700 words, about one page in an “alternative” newspaper, with room for a couple of good photos, or 1,200 words if it’s a more in-depth piece. It might also be much shorter, even a single paragraph, such as the capsule reviews of gallery exhibits, movies, plays, etc., that appear in the front pages of The New Yorker.

Reading and writing capsule reviews are excellent training, because they force you to condense as much information as possible into a tight space. If you’re writing for an online outlet—almost everyone is today—remember that even though there is no practical length limit, the internet is a short-attention-span medium, and your work will be better received if it is concise.

Regardless of the length of your piece, essential info includes tidbits about the gallery and its owner, about the neighborhood, and obviously, about the artist and his/her work. Thus:

Recently opened in a former shoe-repair shop on East River Street, the Serpentine Gallery has launched its inaugural exhibit with new works by painter Savanna Maguire, whose promising career was interrupted by the necessities of attending to her two young children, now old enough to spend their days in school. Enforced inactivity hasn’t diminished Maguire’s considerable talents—in fact, her return to the studio has proven to be quite a revelation. Her political posturing and pent-up need to paint have been leavened by motherhood and by the imagination-fueled kinetics of her son and daughter.

Formerly known for sharp, bitter imagery, Maguire has acquired a gentler tone in the new series, many of which are figurative abstracts inspired by her children and their friends and activities. The stark reds and blacks and jagged angles of her earlier work have yielded to a warmer palette of sunny gardens and romping children. Many of Maguire’s pieces at the Serpentine are both roughly and expertly rendered, with imagery and texture that combine to pull you into the scene and invite you back. Most would play well long-term in a wide variety of environments. Her “Day at the Beach #5” is both a riot of color and a dose of familial reassurance; her “Saturnalia” is a delightfully out-of-focus depiction of a backyard birthday party run wild.

“Savanna’s artistic evolution has been quite startling,” says Serpentine owner Samantha Baxter. “She’s gone from angry and indignant to a benevolent fountain of love and understanding. I would never have thought that kids could have that effect—they certainly wouldn’t for me—but for Savanna they’ve been life-altering.” Her paintings could prove life-altering for some Serpentine visitors, too.


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