Who am I to judge?
Just got back from the Plein Air event in Bath County, VA where I was invited to judge the week's efforts of a host of talented artists. The theme for this event was "Pushing the boundaries," which, if you think about it, raises the difficulty level of judging such a competition by a factor of 2 or 3. I mean, if one is assessing the works of a portrait competition there is at least one omnipresent feature among the entries, all the paintings have to have an accurate representation of a human face.
But for this event, the idea was to push out either conceptually or through technique or both. It's like comparing apples to seahorses. I was honored that Barbara Buhr, owner of Warm Springs Gallery, invited me to do it and, at first, I thought, "I got this, no problem" but once handed the task, it went Herculean real quick.
In case you are ever faced with such a charge, here's how I went about it.
First, I had a responsibility to the artists to consider the work without the subjective frame of what I like and don't like, that is, to assess the merit of each work objectively. For that to happen, I must consider the intent of the art on a one-by-one basis and then within the context of the body of work making sure it's not just a lucky shot.
To judge a piece this way, I must consider what I believe to be the intent of the work; the level of abstraction, whether it is a colorist effort, more about mark making, a stylistic effort, a realist interpretation or some combination of processes. Then I look for the things that make a good painting tick: strong hierarchy, delicate color harmonies, deft handling of paint and brushwork.
To make things more complicated, there was only first, second and third place awards to consider, four unique categories (like best nocturne, best water, best sheep, best architectural), and two special awards, visionary and high-realism. Also, there was a rather short time of two hours to judge and rank approximately 150 wonderful paintings.
The artists indicated their to-be-judged piece which sometimes worked against them because what they thought were their best works and what I thought was best didn't always jive. I didn't mind the constraint, but it did affect the judging somewhat.
The specific categories were the easiest, so I started there, writing down up to three names/titles for each. Next up were the top three awards where I did the same thing, going back and forth, crossing out and adding in names. At about an hour in I asked the gallery owner if we could pretty please add in some honorable mentions because there were too many good paintings that were getting cut and she, thankfully, said yes.
The top three went to artists who not only knocked it out of the park but had a body of work that was also out of the park: Patrick Lee, Christine Lashley and Charles Newman.
Another consideration was whether or not to award prizes to close friends because there could be a whiff of nepotism or favoritism if I gave a ribbon to a buddy. My very good friend Mark Horton, with whom I share studio space, and I already talked about it and I he was okay with not receiving an award. But, he did such a knock-out painting, a nocturne the likes of which I haven't seen since Whistler, that I had to give him his due and take a bullet should anyone bitch. But no one did. At least not in ear-shot.
And lastly, there is the specter of the Easton Plein Air debacle in which the referee of aesthetics awarded one painting 4 or 5 awards, giving a disproportionate amount of award money to one artist, what is now known as Fraziering. It was a great painting but still, spread the love dude. That smacks heavily of ego, but then, who am I to judge?