Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Portrait of an Art Critic ~ Michael Weinstein

Every Chicago photographer is familiar with Michael Weinstein, the photo critic for the NewCity weekly. He is one of the city's treasures...always present at art openings,  lending a critical eye to the work  and always generous with his insights and time. Michael has an uncanny ability to contextualize work for an artist way before the artist has articulated it for themselves. He sees deeply. In a time of diminishing resources, when there are fewer and fewer critics, Chicago is very lucky to have Michael in our midst!

I asked Michael if he would be willing to be interviewed for this blog post, and he cheerfully agreed.
Here is the interview....

JFA: What is your concept of the role of an art critic?

My practice as an art critic is what the Italian philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, Benedetto Croce, called "immanent criticism." By that he meant that the critic should not come to a work or body of work with a set of standards or values that would then be applied to judge the work, but, instead, should seek to get inside the work and re-live it as the artist intended it to be experienced, if at all possible. Having followed that procedure to the best of his or her ability, the critic would then seek to express the experience of that work in words. The way I put it is that the work is a gift given to the viewer from the artist, and I want to honor that gift by experiencing it as much as possible as the artist wants me to appreciate it. I would not have any interest in art if it did not provide me with access to the vision of another person, not my own vision or a vision that I personally prefer. Immanent criticism allows one to grow, and my reviews are meant to help readers to grow and to provide a bridge that the readers can cross to the work so that they can experience it for themselves.

Immanent criticism stands for appreciation and against "gatekeeping," the personal preferences of the critic, judgments based on pre-ordained theories, the attempt to push one kind of art at the expense of others, trendiness, making art subserve political or moral positions, criticism as an excuse for the critic to express his or her own ideas about this or that, and helping out friends at the expense of other artists. All of those have no interest for me; I am in front of the work so that I can receive an infusion of visual intelligence. The great photography theorist Rudolf Arnheim said that photography embodies visual "form at a primary level," and is an independent object of intelligence, that is, visual intelligence (which is not my strong suit). I am grateful to photographers, who have visual intelligence, for expanding my experience. To repeat, I would not want to be a critic on any other terms. I do not favor one genre over another, one technique over another, one form of representation over another in my reviewing - I take each on its own terms. Certainly, I have my own personal preferences, but what possible good could it do for readers or artists if I paraded my personal preferences in print? After all, they are simply personal preferences and everyone has personal preferences; mine have no higher standing than anyone else's. What I can do is to use my accumulating knowledge of photography to gain access to a work and then dwell within it as intensely as I can.

JFA : When did you first know you were going to become an art critic?

In 1989 I began a sabbatical, which meant that I was not teaching in my specialty, which is/was political philosophy. At that time I felt that I had accomplished everything I had set out to do in philosophy, which was to figure out and put into writing and have published a philosophy of life that was true to the way I was living. I was at what I call a "zero point" at which "everything is possible and nothing is necessary" with "nowhere to go and anything to do." So, what to do? I hit upon the idea of learning about something that was mildly distasteful to me just to see what would happen - and I chose photography. So, through the summer and fall of 1989, I took pictures, read about photography, and visited galleries. I read an essay by Edward Weston in which he said that he kept a journal of every photographic encounter that he had, and I decided to do the same. One day in February, 1990 I was sitting in the old Houk Gallery in River North writing my journal after viewing an exhibit by Alexandr Rodchenko, and when I read it over I realized that I had written a review. I decided to walk it over to NewCity, my favorite newspaper at that time and now, and met the editor and owner, Brian Hieggelke, who was stationed right in the front room. He looked over my review, said he would publish it, and offered to let me write reviews for NewCity every issue. I've been doing so ever since with a few absences due to illness. My relationship with NewCity has been a highlight of my life; without NewCity, I would never have become a photography critic. That's Chicago - a place where you don't have to be in a clique and don't have to have connections to strike off in a new direction and get encouragement.

JFA: What were the experiences and influences that led to your being an art critic?

As I just explained, there were no conscious influences that led me to become an art critic. Leaving out my psycho-history, through which I have made sense of what happened in retrospect (but that again is personal), the big influence was philosophy. I had read all of Croce's major works before I made my photography experiment, so it wasn't difficult for me to see that immanent criticism was the way that I would go.

JFA: What have been the more challenging aspects of being an art critic?

There have been no challenging aspects of being an art critic from the get-go until now. To me, it's pure enjoyment. What's not to enjoy about receiving and appreciating gifts from people with visual intelligence, and then putting the experience I have into words? I have the freedom to engage the work on its own terms - it's always new and exciting. That's why I'm into my twenty-fourth year of doing it.

JFA: Can you identify any shifts in your perspective as an art critic over the years?

My perspective as an art critic has not changed a bit. Why should it? Immanent criticism always remains the same; it shifts on its own accord from one work and one genre to the next, always open to fresh developments and artists, always alert to the nuances in new manifestations of an extant genre and an established artist.

JFA: How has being an art critic influenced your own photography?

In order to get into taking pictures in 1989, I chose the simplest photographic problem that I could think of - the recording of a two-dimensional still subject in daylight. Aaron Siskind's wall abstractions were crucial for me in showing me how that simple problem could be worked on to get intense (at least for me) results. It led me to graffiti, distressed sides of railroad cars, peeling posters, and so on. I won't claim to be an accomplished photographer in the slightest, but I can say that shooting flat subjects in open-air seclusion has led me to powerful zenlike experiences in which vision narrows to what is in the view finder and one's consciousness is consumed by it. At times the subject seems to become animated and to "dance." It's a "natural high," for sure.

JFA : How would you characterize the current Chicago photographic art scene?

I have been a great lover of the Chicago photographic art scene through all the years I've been part of it. It has always been vibrant. Grassroots galleries continue to pop up, there are always commercial galleries showing a variety of work from local photographers and from the four corners of the earth, there are big and little museums, galleries in businesses, galleries in community centers, university and college galleries - you name it. There are great people to meet if you go to openings. There is that welcoming and open Chicago spirit. There are independent centers of creation rather than a single establishment. When it comes to the Chicago photographic art scene, it's "sweet home Chicago." 

JFA : Now you know why Michael is such a gem. He is one of the few people I know who really sees clearly AND lives in "sweet home Chicago!"

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Multiple Exposures Exhibition at Bridgeport Art Center

"The privilege of a life time is becoming more of who you are."
                                                                                         Joseph Campbell

This quote guides the focus of a photographic critique group that  I began 5 years ago....
I envisioned the group  as a way of providing a forum for sharing work with the goal of helping each photographer further refine their personal vision... Once the work is  fully realized, suggestions are offered up on how to send it out into the world. 

I am happy to announce that the group will be have an exhibition on May 17th at the Bridgeport Art Center. The artists included in the show are  Ilze Arajs, Nelson Armour, Susan Annable, Art Fox, Alan Leder, Janet Mesic - Mackie, Yvette Meltzer,  Mary Rafferty, Neil Spinner and Jessica Tampas and yours truly.

The exhibit is going to be very exciting. The show focuses on nature and humanity. The work spans psychological renderings of complete strangers, roller derby life, discarded dolls, in addition to abstractions from nature and architecture.  This compelling exhibition  will be shown in the beautiful exhibition space at the Bridgeport Art Center.
Here is a sampling...

Alan Leder ~ Architectural Elements
Ilze Arajs ~ Holding fast in ebb and flow
Janet Mesic-Mackie ~ Horses
Jane Fulton Alt ~ The Burn
Nelson Armour ~ Park Avenue Beach

Jessica Tampas ~ Unbroken

Yvette Meltzer ~ Revolutions

Mary Rafferty ~ Derby Life
Neil Spinner ~ I Am The Other

Susan Annable ~ Memento Mori
Art Fox ~ Facing the Homeless

There will also be a presentation on Thursday,  May 30th from  7-9pm on the life and work of Vivian Maier, presented by Author Rich Cahan and master printer Ron Gordon. 

I have personally been working on two books that will be released in late September on the burn. The "trade" book will be published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany.

I have also collaborated with Chicago book artist, Teresa Pankratz, on a limited edition artist made book titled


fire /smoke

I am thrilled that the artist book will be available for viewing at the Bridgeport Art Center show. We have been working all winter on the structure and design and are currently going into full production. The "book" (more like an object) will be available in a limited edition of 18. All pre-orders will include a signed copy of the trade book.

Hope to see you at the Bridgeport Art Center on Friday, May 17th from 7 - 10pm....
Refreshments and live music by Raman Hen. Come celebrate the arts with us!

1200 W. 35th Street
Dan Ryan to 35th Street, west about a mile 
(free parking on north side of building)