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April 3, 2017

Interview with David Cohen on the Review Panel Phildelphia

About the Author
Arielle Kessler

See the exhibition here

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The Review Panel Philadelphia is an annual event hosted by Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts. In association with, the Panel is led by The Review Panel founder, New York art critic and writer David Cohen. The Review Panel, consisting of Karen E. Jones, Sid Sachs, Didier William and of course, David Cohen, discussed the following exhibitions:
Shawn Theodore’s Church of Broken Pieces
Andre Bradley and Paul Anthony Smith’s Interference
InLiquid Artist Jessica Doyle’s We Fearless Ones
And Dave Carrow’s DC→3D
During our discussion, we covered the Review Panel Philadelphia, the importance of critical approach, the discussion of the different exhibitions and what it’s like curating a panel.
Q: Looking at the Review Panel members, what’s your process for curating a panel for discussion? Is it similar to curating an exhibition? What kind of chemistry do you look for with the members of the panel?
A: The Philadelphia Review Panel is an outgrowth of The Review in, the New York panel being something I’ve done for 12 years and the Philadelphia for four or five. In Philadelphia , I look for a lively mix and to get some diversity in various kinds of ways and to mix established voices and emerging voices and make sure that people respect each other and their own intellectual plane but at the same time leaving room for controversy and genuine debate. In New York, where I have a broader spectrum, I usually go with one big name that will draw a crowd, one solid mid-career critic, and one emerging voice. But I do have a strong insistence that everyone on the New York Panel is a published critic whose actual critical responses to artists, exhibitions, etc. is on public record.
In Philadelphia, I try to stick to similar rules, but there is a smaller palette of people to choose from. As they so far have been hosted by the Pennsylvania Academy, I realized during the annual student exhibition reviews, I found that the level of discourse was so high that it was completely crazy not to use faculty members. I also hoped that it would draw in students from the Academy and other faculty. Now my rule is that I have one PAFA faculty member, one journalist active in Philadelphia, and then one guest from New York or another city, just to get a pair of eyes outside of Philadelphia looking at Philadelphia art.
Q: If there’s a tension between members created, do you find it your responsibility to put the fire out or do you encourage the difference in opinions?
A: I encourage it, and will most likely pour some fuel on the controversy. I do, however, prefer the controversy to be disciplined, but then I like all remarks to be disciplined. If there seems to be a petty quarrel breaking out or semantic difference or presumption of some misunderstanding that sounds like it’s going to get personal, I don’t think that’s constructive so I try to steer the conversation and say “Okay, what’s the real, underlying issue here that relates to the work” rather than superficial remarks that seem to be more about personalities. That doesn’t happen often enough though for me to have a consistent policy. Hypothetically, I would say, I’m looking for intelligent differences of substance.  
Q: How did The Review Panel this time compare with previous panels? Successful?
A: It was successful to my mind because there were quite feisty and lively differences of opinion. The tensions showed the audience that art can excite passion and that’s a good thing. I feel a lot of the controversy was coming from one particular panelist—Sid Sachs—I think he was generating a lot of heat not because of a polemical position but because of a curmudgeonly position, so probably it had a little more to do with his personality and a little less to do with his arguments. I definitely sensed that if you have a debate where people have to defend their position it can put them on their toes in a very lively sort of way. What’s not so good is if somebody is so abrasive that the others kind of shut down and give up, but I’m pleased to say that didn’t happen the other night, but I think it was a little close to happening, and that can be counterproductive. You can sometimes have panelists who express critical reservations they have about an artist that they basically respect and understand and then along comes a third panelist who has something very dismissive to say not just about this individual artist but to the whole genre or discipline to which this artist belongs.
Say hypothetically, you have a video artist and the first speaker says ‘I quite like this artist, I like the show, and I’ve seen other shows by this artist and have liked them all, the problem was this show was blah, blah, blah.’ Then the second speaker says, ‘I wasn’t so happy with the show because as much as I admire video artists, this artist doesn’t quite use the medium well.’ And then the third panelist goes on to say, ‘Video does not have any place in a museum; it’s garbage. Video is for TV games and for pop songs, artists should paint and sculpt.’ So assuming that the third panelist is that dismissive and reactionary, the first two panelists abandon the reservations they had about the artist and they’re no longer really criticizing that artist, they’re just defending the medium. And so the debate is suddenly moved into a different sphere. So there you are trying to have a discussion about Joe Blow and his video and suddenly you’re having instead a discussion on video, period. While that could be fun and exciting for the audience, it’s unfair to Joe Blow and it’s not the subject people gathered there to discuss. It should be a discussion on this particular artist and exhibition and not on every video artist who ever lived.
Q: Let’s look at the exhibitions discussed. Going to Theodore’s exhibition, Church of Broken Pieces, you said during the discussion that “there’s a tension between Shawn Theodore’s state of intentions; it puts pressure on one (exhibiting at the AAM) to be making a social and political statement, whereas his work is a very theatrical and commercial aesthetic.” Do you want to talk more about that? Do you believe the theatrical and commercial aesthetic of his work took away from the concept and statement he was making?
A: …With Theodore, I think that his statement was intelligent and noble, and well written. However, I think the work didn’t match the intentions. I think the work appealed in a very different way and I think the work is bigger than the ‘intentions’ that I think were written after the fact. I think because the African American Museum is not an art venue, it’s a museum of history, it’s a museum of a community and a phenomenon that is involved with crucial issues of sociology, their curators and PR department are all set up to understand everything they do through the filter of the museum’s mission, which is not aesthetic. I think they (the intentions) were more politically and sociologically revved up.
Q: Bradley and Smith’s work, “deal with relationships between personal experience and the social forces that shape our perceptions of self, others, and the world around us. In the discussion, the Panel discussed how Bradley’s work was seen as very exposed and personal, revealing to us the different archival layers of his life with textual and found imagery. Whereas Smith’s work was seen as more generic and arbitrary, with very Warholian and Rauschenberg influences. How successful do you think each artist was in conveying that sociological statement? Do you think Bradley’s work overshadowed Smith’s work, the intimacy of it making it seemingly more generic and contrived?
A: Yes, I think that’s a fair reading. I think, intellectually, these two artists worked very well together, and that it’s good that they offered contrasting experiences. I disagree with my co-panelists who were arguing that it would’ve looked better if the curators had found some way to integrate the two artist’s work. I think as somebody who has curated exhibitions before, I generally approve of that ambition. I think with Smith and Bradley’s work that simply couldn’t work because Bradley’s work is a mixture of image and text, and that texts—if his work was interspersed with Smith’s work—his texts would begin to look like curatorial interventions reflecting Smith’s work as well; which were neither Smith’s or Bradley’s intentions. Being that they’re both African American males mining personal experience and filtering that through a broader spectrum of imagery, that’s more than enough to bring them together in an exhibition. I thought it was a perfectly excellent curatorial decision to bring them together and that it was nicely exhibited. Yes, I thought that Bradley’s text made Smith’s imagery more generic, but I think Smith knew that his imagery would come off as generic—more so universal—and was kind of purposeful in that. I think where Bradley’s strategy was to break up what would seem like banal imagery with text, Smith’s was more structural in terms of the collage element. I think his formal strategies had a similar effect with universal or generic imagery that Bradley’s verbal interventions had.  
Q: Looking at all three artists, each one talks about their sociological experience on a personal, formal, and theatrical level. There was a moment in the discussion where the Panel talked about the contrived sociological roles Black American’s take in the contemporary art world and how they stand as one universal experience. Do you believe that’s taking away their personal voices and the intimacy of their work? Which artist did you find to break the furthest away from that role?
A: Well I hope they aren’t viewed as one universal experience… if you’ve met one black photographer, you’ve only met one black photographer. I just had the feeling that Shawn Theodore felt like a photographer who worked well in photo-journalism or advertising, and that the other two work well in a book or an art institution. And that’s not a reflection of their accomplishment or usefulness, it’s just that photography hasn’t yet shaken the constraints of placement, that other mediums tend to be able to do.
Q: Let’s talk about InLiquid’s artist Jessica Doyle. With an appreciation for the graphic style, the Panel did find discord with her concept and the presented work, stating they “didn’t buy into the domesticity” seeing the work as more intimate than domestic. What did you personally appreciate the most about her work?
A: I am pleased to have discovered her work and I think that the venue is inherently modest because it’s a passageway. I think she is a substantial and decent artist and I am grateful to InLiquid and Crane Hall for discovering her work. I would, however, like to see more of her work because I didn’t feel that what was there was enough to form a definitive opinion. I liked the scale, they commanded and deserved more space than they were given in that setting. I liked the watercolor although I don’t think it was symbiotic with her other work. I would like to see more of her colored and watercolor works.
Q: Panelists believe that her work needed to be compared to Alex Katz’s work. Knowing that you’ve written on Alex Katz, would you agree with that?
A: Totally. I’d almost say her work is impossible without the work of Alex Katz because of that play between intimacy and scale, and simplicity and totality of expression is very Katzian. And the smaller portrait she did looked like the portraits he did of his wife, Ada. Being as how I’m a great lover of his work, to me it’s no bad thing to be Katzian.
Q: Looking at Dave Carrow’s exhibiton DC→3D, Jones saw it as an ode to “obsolescence, industrial production, and collecting.” You particularly noted that as a whole, it was to be seen as a “unitary installation of individual sculptures that have lives of their own.” There’s something to be noted there, on the lives of the sculptures in the exhibition. In Arjun Appadurai’s discussion of commodities and the politics of values[1], he suggests that “…commodities, like persons, have social lives.” And elaborating on that, they are “things with a particular type of social potential.” What kind of social potential did you see in the lives of these sculptures and how did they resonate with you?
A: I really respect the fact that Didier and Karen were energized by the exhibition. I think Carrow works well in Philadelphia, because it’s a post-industrial city with a big attitude towards collage. I’m not saying it’s exclusive to Philadelphia, but it makes sense that Philadelphia critics would appreciate his work. I understand the aesthetic appeal of his work, however, I found the work to be rather scruffy and not very legible. It didn’t take itself seriously enough in its craft. I think the objects he found were inherently more interesting than the overall vision he was trying to communicate. So I applaud him for choosing those objects but I fault him for not having the imagination to do something more interesting with them than simply restore and present them. The pictures had a poetic narrative on hoarding.
Q: In retrospect, which exhibition resonated with you the most and why?
A: Probably Shawn Theodore. The imagery was sumptuous and the focus was noble. The colors are what resonate the most because what was tremendous about the color— and this could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing—was that it’s strange kind of riff on ruin porn. He’s in these ghettos that are on the brink of gentrification. But in fact, he’s helping to gentrify it through his and his sitter’s discovery of pure colored walls, that would be contrived in a studio. To me, that’s not a fault so much as an exciting tension.
Q: In conclusion, why do you believe critical discourse is necessary in a contemporary art community? What’s the importance of these panel discussions ?
A: I’m a critic, I’m not an artist. And I’m wary of speaking too highly of criticism, because I have a humble respect for the creator. I think that without criticism, art is just mayhem. There’s going to be some critical discourse anyway because it’s impossible to treat everything and everyone equally—there’s going to be the invisible hand of the market saying who’s in and who’s not in. There’s going to be curators, dealers and collectors conspiring and effectively making choices anyway. When artists engage with each other, they engage on a more casual form of critical discourse. I think it’s vitally important to have a public discussion where there’s professional and disciplined critical discourse where you have different voices debating and having to defend their positions and trying to come to a consensus. I think the more people involved in the production of art—whether it’s makers of art, consumers of art or processors of art—that are exposed to a higher level of critical augmentation the better. It exposes what are the important ideas in art discourse and what are the old-fashioned ideas that still linger. Seeing issues played out in a properly moderated, civil, intelligently-balanced debate with four voices is instructive. The more real criticism we have, the better.
[1] Appadurai, Arjun. “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value.” Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 3-14. Document.
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