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The Critic, The Artist, and Personal Choices

by Gary John Gresl

Dear Reader,

The following is based upon an email I sent to a friend over a year ago. While it does deal with a personal communication, the subject may relate to experiences you have shared, when even our friends become critics of our art. Hopefully you will find some part of it entertaining, and perhaps share in some observations.

An acquaintance, after viewing my work in an exhibit (in which it had been given an award) emailed me with his ideas for improving my work...this had been an uninvited criticism. Of course, I less than generously thought how rude this person was. He was another artist, and for that moment at least, he became a self appointed critic, believing he could set me straight about my personal choices. He then became the surrogate for all the critics worldwide, and I mentally sought to somehow retaliate (knowing that he was already locked into his opinions).
He reminded me of a definition I like to repeat concerning "The Know It All." Here I retell that definition, followed by an edited enlarged copy of my email response to him.


There are four types of Know-It-Alls in the world:
A. The Congenital Know-It-All, fortunate to have been born knowing everything.
B. The Self Made Know-It-All, having gained vast knowledge during a period of several minutes.
C. The Closet Know-It-All, who doesn't tell you he knows it until you tell him something, and he replies, ìI Know!! I Know!!"
D. The perfect, tactful and humble Know-It-All, ME

- - - - - - - - - -

Now, with your indulgence, here is the edited and enlarged letter I returned to my acquaintance:

Friend, Fellow Artist and Critic:
First, may I comment that what I will say here in no way diminishes my admiration for you and your personal choices in what you make and appreciate? You are unique, and your ideas are valuable. Indeed, it is very good to find more ideas, even about my own work. But, consider this, you and I create very different things because we've chosen from different experiences, and we probably have some very different reasons to make art objects.

Because I use found objects, you have referred to figures like Rauschenberg and Schnabel. You know, I have seen their work for some years. Indeed, if I could afford it, one of Robert Raushenberg's "combines" would be on my list of items to live with. I recall seeing some of his work during a New York visit way back in 1963/64, when they were fresh and motivating, when I was fresh and inexperienced, and they still do stir my blood. I knew I liked them, without anyone telling me what was right or wrong about them. I probably donít know as much about that subject as I should, so I thank you for your observations. As far as Julian Schnabel goes, his work is big.
You made another statement that you didnít like the twine I used in one of the pieces, and that you would have used a different type of rope. Not only does this suggest you might have only given my art objects cursory observation, but it may hint at the differences in our approaches and our differing reasons to make art objects. You did not realize that I have been using the same ball of farm-found binder twine for over 10 years, with conscious purpose. You might say it is my twine of choice, a material which I make even more coarse and crude when so motivated. But, how could you see the connections to my past, my uncles and cousins and haylofts and granaries? There were my trees and dead foxes and musty attics and sexual awakening...and there is my personal life today, different than yours.

For me, what each of us puts into our creations includes what we individually experience, what we know from our personal lives and interpretations, what is in our peculiar latent memories. We can step away from established models and standardized methods and imposed rules and tired ways of looking, and outlined school curricula. And, importantly, we need not satisfy each other in order to make significant works of art. I cannot see from your eye sockets any more than you can from mine, and the gray matter you possess holds different mysteries than mine.

Then you bring up the notion that I should have used patterns and repetition, which you apparently believe I neglected, and of which you seem to think I might not even be aware? Have you considered that my experiences, and the life experience of others, include studies and observations concerning art making with conclusions/decisions that are different than yours? Some of the first elements one discusses in Art 101 are line, textures, color, repetition, patterns. I, and others out there, might have had a few studies in art and its history, not to mention other possibilities like the history of textiles, design, costume, Museum Studies and Connoisseurship, and more. But, how much formal education does one need to understand patterns and other art fundamentals? Yes! Nature is filled with pattern, repetition, and all of Natureís aesthetics, wherever organic and mineral forms proliferate. (And, you must know that some of us might even have had some formal instruction in Natural History.)
But, consider only needs hands, coordination, memory and personal motivation to create objects that are personally meaningful. Do we need to be concerned about the rigid preformed ideas, other peoplesí standards and limited understandings of others?

I am not interested in creating decorative units for lawns or living rooms, though I am happy to place such objects on my lawn and interior, enjoying their interesting form, color, textures, light and shadow, historical antecedents and design ramifications. As for my own work, perhaps it isn't enough in your eyes, but I am interested in being privately and uniquely myself when producing items that arise from personal experience, without need for criticism from others who have their own agendas, who think that they might better know what elements are required to make good art. Everyone is a critic, but sometimes those critics forget they operate with one point of view.

Along those lines, I have been asked several times to act as a juror for some art shows. This was flattering, but I said, ìNo! Thank youî. It didnít fee that I needed the ego enhancement, nor did I need to exert power or engage my subjective judgment to make "better" choices. It would have been simple to become the juror, picking things that I liked. However, a question arises about the attitudes and judgments of those who have a sense of self importance which may delude them into believing that they have greater insights than anyone else. Aside from those who do it because they need the money, there must be those who relish being ìjurorsî so they can employ their own agendas, exert their will, and cull the unworthy.

The important choices I make in my production and collecting are not dependent upon others and their ideas. My limitations are there for all to see, but I ask that observers look thoughtfully. When I create, the choices are mine, based upon my own very personal you must make your own choices. Because we all have a limited point of view, not sharing in all the same experiences and resultant conclusions, it seems likely that we have to find greater empathy when commenting about the art made by others. What do you think?

Your friend,

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