OPP Art Critics Series: Four Tips from a Critic to Artists

By Abraham Ritchie

Viewing art through the internet has fundamentally changed the way we experience it. This OPP Art Critics Series challenge, which asks a collection of critics to look at art through the "lens" of a website, recognizes that reality and places a premium on the art rather than a geographic location. The OPP challenge felt similar to a typical anonymous online web encounter of artwork. After looking at a number of artists’ websites,  I found the site of Patrick D. Wilson, an artist I’ve never met and who lives and works literally on the other side of the world from me in China. There’s no replacement for experiencing artwork in person, but there’s also no escaping exploring the online experience of artwork, either. The artist should not try to deny this reality but rather embrace the possibilities and make the most out of it they can. This essay will give a broader view of what makes for a successful and effective online viewing experience, especially for those seeking more information about an artist and their work.

Patrick D. Wilson. House Crisis (2010). Wood and laminated photographs, 33" x 33" x 28"

When it comes to a critic looking for more information on an artist they’ve just encountered, my first recourse is almost always to do a quick Google Search to find their professional website, then maybe seeing if the artist is on Facebook (if they have a Facebook Page or a publicly viewable profile) or Twitter. It's hard to overstate the importance of this tenuous first encounter, which is completely passive from the side of the artist, and intensely active from the side of the critic. When I'm researching more about an artist, I delve into what the artist has set up on their website, exploring an artist’s oeuvre, academic career, exhibition history, personal history and social media accounts in order to have a more informed opinion about the work.

Incomplete or unsatisfactory websites hinder a critic’s work and in some cases even causes them to skip writing about an artist altogether. During one panel I recall a colleague being asked how he decided which works to write about. Given the choice between works of similar quality, his very honest answer was simple: "Usually the ones with the best images online." Without a complete, well-maintained web presence that successfully makes that first connection to someone seeking information, artists may be losing crucial coverage of their work—without even being aware of it.

Wilson made that first connection, immediately drawing me in with the single work on his landing page. House Crisis immediately struck me as Buckminster Fuller-esque with hints of dystopian elements as a polyhedral, skyscraper-like object burst through and over a more traditional wooden house. As an image, the photo communicates the artwork clearly. It’s a straightforward, high-resolution (consider making your images suitable for print publishing with 300 dpi resolution at least), well-lit documentation of a compelling sculpture that lets the artwork stand alone as the center of attention. Here are four tips for artists who want to create compelling websites.

This encounter on the artist’s homepage illustrates my first word of advice: Lead with your best work. You wouldn't apply for a grant using an artwork you were unsatisfied by, so why put anything less than that on your homepage? I wanted to learn more about the artwork on Wilson’s landing page, since the title was nowhere to be found (hint, hint). I clicked on the image but it was not linked to another page.  

Here’s a second suggestion: Follow up on a successful first encounter by making it easy to access more information or other artworks. Fortunately, websites are easily organized by the artist and easily navigable by the visitor to the page via tabs up top. This made it easier to view more of Patrick Wilson’s artwork. 

That’s my third piece of advice: Keep your site organized by eliminating page redundancies, encouraging exploration within your site, and keeping navigation options simple. Since the work itself hinted at something domestic and ominous, I wasn’t surprised to see that the work that interested me from the homepage was titled House Crisis, and dated 2010, a significant year in the global Great Recession and attendant global housing bubble crises. Wilson’s other work intrigued me and I kept exploring his ideas and art. I particularly liked the polyhedral motif that recurred in many artworks, but in ways that seemed fresh each time, not like a crutch or a “brand.” Infinity Crate (2009) struck me as a creative, not to mention alluring, response to the way science tries to understand massive concepts—like how a simple equation can explain the mind-boggling relationship between mass and energy.

Patrick D. Wilson. Subdivision (2013). Work in progress, laminated C-prints.

Letting visitors know what you are currently working on is essential, too. We can track the development of ideas from an array of past work into the new works that are in-progress. You let us know that you are actively creating something, which is a good time to inform the visitor of your upcoming exhibition where we could see the piece in its completed form. Showing your newest work and the creative process behind it starts a virtual relationship between critic and artist. I was able to see the new work that Wilson was making. I learned through his website that he was working in his studio on the piece Subdivision (2013), which again employed a polyhedral structure creating a sprawling construction of housing construction. Through its rubble, this piece creates close-up views of angles depicting both detritus and new construction scaffolding. Leaving the geometric approach, Solar Storm (2005) took basic and familiar materials like track lights and light filtering scrims and transformed them into an indoor Aurora Borealis. Similar to Wilson’s other works, this concept was aided by the aesthetic appeal of the piece that came through in the photos online.

Patrick D. Wilson. Solar Storm, 2005. Aluminum, acrylic, computer controlled LEDs. 300" x 84" x 84.

Properly interested in these works and more besides, I attempted to find information about the artworks and the artist himself; if the pieces had been exhibited before, if Wilson shows with a gallery, his CV all of which are unfortunately absent from his page. 

That’s my fourth and final word of advice: Tell your history. Most people online don’t know you, so introduce yourself through your work and don’t forget to include exhibition and educational history. Tell people about your artistic interests with a brief artist’s statement; don’t worry about including the latest trendy theoretical terms, just tell it like you’d tell me in a bar. Cheers!

Abraham Ritchie is the Social Media Manager for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. He writes for Chicago’s Newcity Newspaper  and Bad at Sports. He has written for the National Endowment for the Arts, the United Kingdom's Spectator and Madison Newspapers, Inc. His opinions and commentary have been featured on Chicago Tonight, Chicago's WBEZ 91.5 FM, WGN 720 AM, Chicago Tribune and Art21. Abraham Ritchie is the former Senior Editor for ArtSlant and former Deputy Editor for FlavorPill Chicago. He holds a BA in Art History from University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA in New Arts Journalism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Follow his adventures on Twitter: @AbrahamRitchie.

This is the fifth essay in the  OPP Art Critics SeriesRead the previous essays: "Get Back (to the present moment)" by Claudine Isé; "Look at Them, Please" by Danny Orendorff; "Autobiography and Its Documentation" by Jason Foumberg; and "The Child is (Un)dead: Taxidermy Art as Victorian Post-Mortem Photography" by OPP Art Critics Series' Managing Editor Alicia Eler.