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The art critic will see you now: Lori Waxman offers quick reviews to St. Louis artists

Lori Waxman at work, with artist John Early and his son at the window and local children seated nearby
Susannah Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio
Lori Waxman at work, with artist John Early and his son at the window and local children seated nearby

When does reviewing art become a performance in and of itself? When it’s Chicago Tribune art critic Lori Waxman and her national “60/wrd min art critic” project, which landed in St. Louis last week.

The project is funded by a 2009 Andy Warhol Foundation art-writing grant. In each city, a receptionist, often a gallery intern, checks in the the work, and Waxman completes her 150-to-200-word reviews during 30-minute windows. As she types, her words appear on a screen, visible to everyone in the room.

The receptionist works at her desk, complete with plastic office plant, as artist John Early studies the previous day's reviews on the wall.
Credit Susannah Lohr
The receptionist works at her desk, complete with plastic office plant, as artist John Early studies the previous day's reviews on the wall.

Waxman set up her project at fort gondo compound for the arts on Cherokee Street,in collaboration with the nearby Luminary Center for the Arts. This past Thursday through Saturday, she reviewed about 30 local artists. The Luminary housed Waxman during her stay.

Waxman has taken her "60/wrd min art critic" to Kansas City, Mo.; Columbia, Ohio; and Portland, Maine. The idea is to provide reviews to artwork in places like St. Louis, which does not have a full-time reviewer.

“Cities that have an arts scene but not enough local criticism or any national or international recognition can use the project more meaningfully,” Waxman said.

The reviews are posted on the St. Louis Public Radio website.

Not less critical but less cruel

Many of the participants are emerging artists who haven’t been reviewed. Others include prominent artist and Washington University educator Buzz Spector, as well asIlene Berman andDail Chambers.

The Luminary and fort gondo put out a call for artists, who responded by email to Waxman. Waxman avoided looking at their work beforehand, even if they attached images to their emails. To begin the selection process, she assigned a number to each name.

“I put those numbers into a random number generator, which is like the proverbial hat,” Waxman explained.

Artists were assigned a time to bring in their work or images of their work. They could stay and watch Waxman’s review process if they chose.

Lori Waxman examining Joanna Hoge's work
Credit Susannah Lohr
Lori Waxman examining Joanna Hoge's work

“It continuously reminds me that there is a human being on the other side of that artwork that I’m writing about and I think that’s a healthy thing to be reminded of,” Waxman said.

Her reviews are not always positive. Does an artist reading the review word-by-word as she writes make her less critical?

“Instead of less critical, I would say, ‘less cruel,’” Waxman said. “If done that way, it ought to come out constructive, at worst.”

On the day we were there, several artists brought their work. John Early also brought his 4-year-old son. Three neighborhood children came in, too, and asked for some of the green bubble wrap that fort gondo co-owner Jessica Baran places between the art and the floor. She agreed to give them one piece, which they promptly divided among themselves.

Nine-year-old Jerry Shannon immediately put the bubble wrap to good use, employing it as a tap-dancing surface. (Story continues, below.)

Craving ‘outsider perspective’

With artists and various others watching, Waxman is also performing as an artist. She enjoys the company. It makes her feel less lonely as she works.

For Baran, the activity brings more life to the process.

"I think it's nice, actually, that it's conducive to hanging out," Baran said.

But how does Waxman cope with the sound of popping bubble wrap and other distractions? If you watch the video closely, you can see her point out one of her methods.

“I have earplugs in,” Waxman said.

And the children swirling around?

“It’s all a big blur in the background,” Waxman said. “And I like a big blur in the background.”

Joanna Hoge
Credit Susannah Lohr
Joanna Hoge

Joanna Hoge dropped off several pieces but chose not to watch her review in progress.

Hoge works in printmaking, drawing and embroidery. She’s in her second year of the MFA program at SIUE.

“Being so enmeshed in academia, I really crave sort of an outsider perspective, somebody who’s not in my same sphere,” Hoge said.

Here’s a portion of Waxman’s review of Hoge’s work:

Joanna Hoge wields a needle and thread as well as the roller of a printing press, with results that suggest the movement of substances physical and metaphysical through regions of the body: air and speech through the mouth, blood and lymph through the pelvis, warm touch and defensive protection around the torso. The awkward addition of photographic imagery and a bedroom setting feels unnecessary.

In an email response, Hoge said the review rang true.

"I was really interested, not only in what Lori picked up on thematically, but how she wove these impressions into a response that felt poetic, unfettered, and honest," Hoge said. "It was a valuable experience."

Jessica Baran and Galen Gondolfi
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
File photo of fort gondo co-owners Jessica Baran and Galen Gondolfi

Baron first made contact with Waxman and her project through her own position as an art-writing instructor at Washington University. Baran explained that the “60/wrd min art critic” name has historical and farcical implications.

“She’s referring to the idea of being paid per minute. The idea is there is kind of an absurdist time theme,” Baran said. “In the past, even authors like Charles Dickens were paid by the word so this is this notion almost like how many words per minute can you type and be paid for.”

Baran has for years pointed out the lack of art criticism in St. Louis.For artists, a review is a critical part of growing and sustaining a career, she said.

“They use it to substantiate grant applications, residency applications and teaching opportunities, so it’s truly a really valuable currency for those who are working artists,” Baran said. “This opportunity to be written about, not only by a critic but one as accomplished, and frankly, as brilliant as Lori is, is quite a special opportunity.”

Click hereto see Waxman's reviews.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.