HALLOWELL — My position requires that I see a lot of art exhibitions. It’s the part of the job that I enjoy more than any other.
I love meeting artists in their studios and seeing where and how they work. But the point of their existence is to produce work, so viewing finished work in a gallery setting is the object of most of my writing.
Until a few weeks ago, I’d never had the chance to be involved in the process of selecting work for a show. I’ve always just looked.
The Harlow Gallery, 160 Water St., Hallowell, invited me and Maine Sunday Telegram art critic Dan Kany to serve as jurors for its annual juried show, now in its 18th year. The gallery is home to the Kennebec Valley Art Association, which has been around since 1957, and is one of the oldest art collectives in the state.
I felt honored to be asked – and overwhelmed. I know what I like when it comes to art, thanks largely to my mother and grandmother. My mother hauled me off to the Museum of Fine Arts when I was growing up outside of Boston, and I remember wandering the galleries in awe of paintings such as John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark.”
And my grandmother, God bless her, used flash cards to quiz me about the names of painters and their masterpieces. I was probably one of few 10-year-olds who knew who John Marin was, or cared.
But I have no art education other than a lifetime of looking. I depend on curators who are trained in the field to tell me why a particular painting works or is important. Artists tell me how they make them.
So when Dan and I began sifting through 334 works submitted by 123 artists for “Art2013,” I felt out-matched.
Who am I to judge?
We began the process online, making independent preliminary judgments about works we knew we liked, works we felt would not make the cut and a bunch of others that fell somewhere in between.
The first thing I learned is that judging work on the computer is seriously frustrating, and probably not fair. There is no substitute for seeing work in person, and this is particularly true in this digital age, where iPhones and their equivalent have turned all of us into photographers.
My first bit of advice for artists submitting work for consideration in a juried show is to take the time to make sure the photographs of that work do justice to the work itself. Many photos I looked at appeared flat, dull and lacking dynamism.
It’s not necessary to spend a lot of money for studio-quality photographs, but it is worth taking the time to ensure the photographs are well lit and show a range of texture and detail.
After we each spent a weekend looking online and making our preliminary cuts, Dan and I met at the Harlow a few weeks later to see in person the works that we had not eliminated.
We spent about two hours looking, and reached consensus on most works pretty easily.
Dan is educated in this field; he has professional qualifications that enable him to be a critic. For me, I simply trusted the instincts that have been instilled in me over my lifetime of going to museums and galleries. I know what I like, even if I do not always know why.
If I liked the work – if it moved me in some way, drew me in or kept me coming back – it made the cut. Which is not to say that works I eliminated did not excite some of those or similar emotions.
But it was clear to us that we had to eliminate not just most of the work, but the vast majority of it. The Harlow is only so big, and can accommodate only so much work.
In the end, we chose 60 works by 48 artists. That means less than 20 percent of the work submitted made it into the show.
The emotion I felt that morning was one of regret and guilt. I did not enjoy cutting work that I liked, and I felt badly for the artists who did not make the cut for the message that we might be sending.
But Dan and the good folks who run the gallery, who have experience in this endeavor, kept reminding me that we were doing a favor to the artists by making tough choices. As a mentor once told me, “If you think it’s good enough, then it probably isn’t.”
In my opinion, the result is an exhibition that looks and feels truly great. “Art2013” includes exceptional works of art by many artists who have achieved greatness.
In our statement, Dan and I wrote, “What struck us most squarely was the high level of the work: More than anything else, the body of submissions as a whole was conceptually sophisticated and professionally finished.
“This is ideal from the host’s and jurors’ standpoint, but it adds the bittersweet process of passing over work we like, respect and often already know. We took the work piece by piece, and chose the strongest until there was no more exhibition space and we could select no more.”
Most likely, the show has a theme shaped by our unique personal tastes and sensibilities. But Dan and I both agree that “Art2013” defines itself by its inherent strengths.
So it goes without saying that I think you should take the time to see this exhibition. It is on view through June 1.
You’re going to love it. I promise. If not, you have me to blame.
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: