Home » Thoughts on Art Criticism: Gopnik and Jungen

Thoughts on Art Criticism: Gopnik and Jungen

The Washington Post’s influential art critic, the Canadian Blake Gopnik, offers some thoughts on critical opinion. He is “quite certain that the works of…Canadian Brian Jungen are about as good as it gets in contemporary art,” he says. “I’m sure I must have been right. My memory and instincts tell me I was.

Brian Jungen, Prototype for New Understanding #1, 1998. Image: curatedobject.us

But then he questions himself: “What if I wasn’t? What if I…(now) reach whole other conclusions?

He concludes that part of being a critic is being open and strong enough to change your mind.


Brian Jungen, 2 works from the Prototypes for New Understanding series, 2005 and 1999.
Image: endicottstudio.com

VoCA thinks that, since some shows and bodies of work by an artist will be better than others, the danger is in calling an artist’s work great when in fact he or she may have had one, or only two great ideas. Whether that will translate into a career of great ideas is another question.

Also, a critic must have a clear understanding of what is greatness in art, by which he or she judges new work. This will allow the critic to be more confident in his or her opinions. Of course, that understanding has to be flexible and open to change as the very nature of art changes. Nonetheless, this understanding makes it less likely that the critic will have to backtrack on his or her opinions, because they are always relative to an understanding – at that time – of what great art is.

Read Gopnik’s full article HERE

Brian Jungen, Prototype for New Understanding #14, 2003. Image: catrionajeffriesgallery.com

In a 2006 issue of Fillip, Kimberly Phillips writes: “Far from a simple comment on the commercialization of First Nations culture, Jungen’s work reveals the production and circulation, aestheticization, and politicization of native objects as a complex and unstable field of negotiation.”

VoCA would argue that she should have said as well as, instead of far from being a simple comment on the commercialization of First Nations culture. Because like it or not, one thing about Jungen’s work is that it is easy for people – museum-goers, art collectors – to understand.

This doesn’t stop writers from complicating things, though, shrouding this work – which is, let’s face it, not all that complicated – in mystery. In the catalogue for Jungen’s 2005 show at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005, his pieces are described as “games that mobilize aesthetic and cultural misunderstandings to explore ways to politicize cultural stereotypes in the age of global capitalism.


3 Responses to “Thoughts on Art Criticism: Gopnik and Jungen”

  1. Steve "economic downturn" Jobs says:

    as a member of the peanut gallery, I think one can and should reconsider Jungen’s work, especially the more recent pieces. Some of it is amazingly terrible. The golf bag totem pole’s demonstrate how the “critique” is back-firing into exactly this bad faith “party-line” that Gopnik sees as problematic to the critic’s missteps. These more recent works are totally formulaic, predictable and devoid of any nuance which could be found in the Prototypes for a new understanding and lawn furniture whale skeleton pieces.

    I would like to be surprised and stimulated by him again, but it feels to me like the current work is more about the symptom of a vampiric art market.

  2. Andrea says:

    The market puts a lot of pressure on artists who attain ‘star’ status. It will be interesting to follow Jungen’s career. But his dealer will protect him, as will the fact that his work is so well-written about and has been in so many museum shows.

  3. sally says:

    The other issue is time&place. An artist will go through their career following their own path, some of which may be influenced by market pressure a some of which may not. It’s really hard for anyone to predict if and when the artist’s line of inquiry will coincide with a broader public taste or desire.

    Gopnik doesn’t have to change his mind about his past comments. He could say, “I liked Jungen’s work back then for valid reasons, but now things have changed and I don’t like it so much anymore.”

    When Jungen first hit the scene there was absolutely a need for a recontextualization of native artifact in contemporary culture, a big big need to establish that native artists workiing today are contemporary artists. Now that the concept has become more familiar we general public people may not have the same sense of relief and satisfaction at seeing Jungen’s work. But that doesn’t in any way invalidate it’s past importance. And it might be that the urgencies of that issue are not worked out for Jungen yet. Maybe he’s still chewing on it, not because it sells but because it isn’t finished for him. And maybe there’ll be another convergence moment when his ongoing project coincides with a broadly felt public need.

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