Salient Interview

Simon Gennard interviewed me for the Salient art column. 

When reviewing, or trying to unpack, a work of art, where do you start? Do you read about the work beforehand, consider respective artist statements, go in blind?

I start by describing what I have seen or experienced. This isn’t easy. Description is a joy and a pain in the arse. A writer has the responsibility to be concrete, rather than abstract, even when writing about abstraction. What kind of abstraction: Malevich’s white on white? Rothko’s fluffy ducks, his mauve haze, his fuzz balls? Or Mondrian’s primary-coloured checkerboards and parallel lines?  I once bought some Mondrian placemats from a garage sale in Rotorua. In the midst of description, I always reveal myself…a metaphor or simile about the art unravels and I chase after it, claws in or out.

I regard each artist’s statement with suspicion like a rusty sheriff’s badge.

What’s the most art has made you feel? Have you ever cried at an artwork? Laughed out loud?

I have cried in the company of artworks. Art increases my capacity for wonder, or perhaps it simply matches the human capacity for wonder. From the overfriendly face of the Mona Lisa to Tretchikoff’s beguiling Miss Wong. I’m not afraid to get it wrong. I covet stuff I will never own: Christo’s gift-wrapped islands; Jeff Koons totally wacko photos of himself bonking porn star, Cicciolina; Hannah Wilke’s chewed-up pieces of chewing gum. Art is as abundant and corrupt as the world. I often laugh.

Do you feel that people, when they talk about art, are guarded for fear of interpreting it wrong?

Fuck, nose.

An old acquaintance attended the opening of The Chapman Brothers Retrospective at Saatchi Gallery in London. I adored this friend for his glamorous life and celebrity stories. On this occasion, he was in the company of Kylie Minogue. Kylie and my friend strolled the perimeter of Zygotic Acceleration a sculpture of a cluster of nude children conjoined in the manner of Siamese twins. The pre-pubescent mannequins are all smooth and sexless apart from their faces. Some sport penises instead of noses.

My friend leaned over and said to Kylie; “What do you think. Is it art? Fuck, knows?”

Kylie remained earnest and open-minded. “I think it is art…”

They stood in front of a mannequin that had a Pinocchio-size hard-on.

My friend tried again. “Fuck, nose.”

Who do you think you write reviews for? Do you feel you’re supposed to make a conscious effort to broaden the appeal of art – or do you feel that doing so is passé, that art critics write for a niche audience?

Each publication has its own audience. The piece must be pitched to that audience while remaining sincere to the reviewer’s experience of the art. So sometimes writing with a broader appeal is a factor. This doesn’t necessarily equate to dumbing the work down, it might mean dispensing with insider jokes, trade secrets and relying on assumptions of shared knowledge; a common history.

Readers often appreciate facts and information. I write to enrich their experience of the work and my own.  I write to entertain. (I start with myself.) I write to meet deadlines. Criticism is a form of opinion; I aim for informed opinion. Each reader has a mind of their own.

When speaking to someone who also shares an interest in art, do you find yourself talking in a particular dialect? Do you make noticeable adjustments in the language you use when talking to different people?

Yes and no. When I was a teenager, a picture of Van Gogh’s sunflowers hung above the kitchen table at home. My uncle, a shearer, arrived one day from out of town. He challenged me about the sunflowers. “Why is it a good picture?” I looked at the bulbous heads through his eyes. He was right. Van Gogh had not managed a photo-realist rendering of the image. I struggled to explain why Van Gogh’s sunflowers were worthy of attention that day. I’m still struggling, but I believe in Van Gogh’s turbulent sunflowers and the power of art’s tawdry, turpentine-drenched past.

image: The Chapman Brothers, Zygotic Acceleration, 2008.