Reality Check: Judgement Calls

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

Slogans abound when we attempt to explain what we like in art and what we don’t. We know we like something, but we can’t always explain why we do, so we may turn to the clichéd “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or the self-referential “I like what I like.” If we truly want to get away without explaining ourselves though, we might say: “All art is subjective.”

Sure, we enjoy a particular color palette, style, medium, or anything floral, for example. These attributes are what I’d call the “facts” of art. That is, one with enough information could reasonably agree with another that the painting they are looking at is a watercolor of a vase of flowers. Easy enough. But what are we to say when we take the position that that watercolor is no good? Or, how might we defend our opinion if we believe that particular watercolor to be the finest example of the medium in the last 100 years? This is the moment when many of us might go blank and fall back on the “I like what I like” response.

Now, I must concede that life will move forward for most everyone in relative peace no matter our skillset in articulating what it is about a creative work that really moves us. Most of us will never have to argue for or against a particular work of art in a situation of great consequence, though we’ll likely enjoy lively conversation with friends on this topic along the way. But if you make your living in a museum, gallery, or the art academy, you’ll frequently be called upon to judge a work of art on its merits and should therefore be prepared to explain the reasons for your judgement to anyone who inquires. Let this moment be my unsolicited public explanation for the award winners I selected at the Kekionga Plein Air Paint Out at the Taste of the Arts Festival on August 24 at Arts Campus Fort Wayne.

For those who may be unfamiliar, a “plein air paint out” is an event in which artists who paint outdoors choose sites to paint (or draw) in a particular geographic region. The term en plein air is French that translates to “outside.” This method of artmaking is ruled by weather, changing light, moving subjects, environmental anomalies, and a particular artist’s skills in harnessing these unpredictable variables to their advantage. An artist who works en plein air must be prepared but flexible, skilled but not married to perfection, and spry but patient. I’ve always held plein air artists in high esteem for their ability to move comfortably throughout these paradoxical sets of skills.

Having explored what a plein air artist is up against, I use this knowledge as one of my first objective rubrics with which to judge their work. Next, I’ll look at how skillfully they’ve handled their chosen medium. My BFA in Painting comes in handy when I’m looking at an artist’s control of fast-moving (and drying) watercolor, their ability to tame the dense and stubborn body of oil, or their sensitivity to the looser substance of acrylic that can lead to muddy colors and hazy forms. If an artist is drawing with pastels, I’m looking for a sophisticated, thoughtful use of color and detail with this more controllable medium.

Next, I’ll consider the composition and perspective. Has the artist carefully placed each element of his or her chosen subject with respect to a balanced, pleasing picture? Does my eye move around the composition at a lively but comfortable pace, finally resting on a captivating focal point? Does the size of the work create adequate space to illustrate the artist’s chosen subject? Has the artist shown me a fresh perspective on our everyday surroundings? Though I can usually answer these questions quickly, we’re starting to move into subjective territory, and that’s when I rely on both my education and my experience to help me make decisions.

There is indeed a moment, however, when I simply like something. Usually I’ve come to positive conclusions about the criteria described above, but there is always that final leap of faith I must take to make a choice. Sometimes, I’m beguiled by a sparkle in the water, or I’m moved by the dramatic color gradation of a sunset. Other times, a painting conveys a mood with such depth that I can’t fight its magnetic power. These are the intuitive reactions many of us have when we are taken with a work of art, often eluding definition.

I’ll share now how and why I chose the purchase award winners of the Paint Out, starting with the top prizes in the general competition.

Alan Larkin’s Bridge Over the St. Joe oil painting is a remarkable example of perspective in architecture that exemplifies Larkin’s skill in accurate proportion. Many artists would wither under these demands of accuracy, failing to obey the laws of perspective and thus robbing us of the exciting visual illusion of depth on a flat surface. Larkin also chose a subject of rather uninteresting color, and yet he finds rust, umber, chocolate, and slate in a concrete bridge. Our eye is led across the bridge to what might be a quiet blue home, which corresponds vertically to the reflection and ripples of the river. I love that Larkin continues to move me across the bridge, deep into the composition, down to the moving water, and up again to enjoy the architecture.

A painting of bridge crossing over a lake.
Alan Larkin. Bridge over the St. Joe, Fort Wayne. Oil on canvas, 2019.

John Kelty was awarded second prize for the general competition. His watercolor of Eagle Marsh is one of the paintings that I fell in love with before I did my general assessment of skills, etc. —though his skill in watercolor is highly competent. He confidently allows the sky to become an abstract field of color, relying on the horizon line, shoreline, and birds to tell us we’re looking at a landscape. With a mere three inches from the bottom of the painting to the horizon line, my eye moves from the heart of the water to its vanishing point at the horizon, allowing me to be in Eagle Marsh myself. Some of the colors of the sky he allows to create a gray cloud, while soft indigo and nearly imperceptible magenta pulse in the background. Kelty balances this more muddled upper section with decisive white highlights in the water below, cobalt shadows along the bank, and rich brown vegetation for texture. The peace of this painting captured me.

A painting of Eagle Marsh, a state park in Indiana. It shows the marsh, with two ducks in the background, against a cloudy, dark sky.
John Kelty. Eagle Marsh. Watercolor on board, 2019.

Next, I chose two subject-specific purchase prizes. The first was St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in the ’07 neighborhood, and the second was Lindi’s Eatery in downtown Fort Wayne.

Once again, architecture would be a challenge for these artists competing in these categories. The soaring bell tower of St. John’s would prove a compositional challenge, and its bulky presence on a city block might look cramped on a canvas. The artist whose work I chose solved these problems by painting from a distance, not attempting to paint the church in its entirety nor head on. Fran Mangino’s watercolor seizes a moment in a rainy day when the golden light pierced the mist and bathed the spire in warm, peachy light. The purplish blue shadows of the tower create a contrast with the copper brick, allowing our eye to enjoy both cool and warm tones. She’s treated the trees in the foreground with less attention to detail than the church, telling us to move on quickly from the trees to focus on the main subject. Once there, we spot the blue of the American flag and then the pencil marks that guided her strokes for the church, permitting us a glimpse at this most fundamental of processes. She’s made a conscious decision to include the everyday in her work, unapologetically painting cars and homes that endear us to the life of this neighborhood.

A cathedral surrounded by houses and trees with a sunny sky.
Fran Mangino. St. John the Baptist. Watercolor on paper, 2019.

Kerry Shaw’s delightful oil painting of Lindi’s Eatery has a graphic quality that we don’t often see in plein air painting. Though plein air painting dictates neither urban nor rural settings, many artists choose the peace and grandeur of the country and avoid the hard lines of the city. Shaw’s work embraces these lines, painting with enough speed and texture to suggest the bustle of the city without falling back on the literal speed of a car or busy worker. His strokes are varied, causing light to reflect off of the tiny grooves from his brush, giving us the impression of daytime sun without many shadows. Further, Shaw shows us the eatery from a head-on perspective, using neither the angles of buildings nor the depth of streets to distract us from the main subject. Shaw instead uses color as the means of our movement, guiding us from the subdued red of the adjacent building to the turquoise of the window reflection to the bright lemon of the eatery’s front entrance. This bold color takes the place of a complex perspective and creates a refreshing, no-nonsense view of this unassuming downtown building.

Lindi's Eatery, a downtown Fort Wayne restaurant, is shown. A grey building with large windows.
Kerry Shaw. Lindi’s Eatery. Oil on board, 2019.

It goes without saying that the winners presented herein are masters of their craft, and a qualified judge will know the difference between a master’s work and a novice’s. And yet even a master can fail to win us over, relying only on skills and sharing little of the deeper realm that gives art any meaning at all. At the paint out, I was honored to have been given the opportunity to enjoy dozens of very well done paintings, many of them disturbing that inner realm that refuses objective criteria. But to make a choice, I had to listen intently to the quiet, wordless voice of that realm that urged me toward some and not others, finally assenting to the unique relationship that is born of the soul of a work and that of its beholder.

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