Home » Should VoCA be More Critical?

Should VoCA be More Critical?

Dear VoCA readers,

Should VoCA be more critical?

I’m starting to feel (again) that Toronto is one big artistic love-in, when the fact is that a lot of art being made today is just not very good. (Thank you Jerry Saltz for backing me up on this.) The danger is that really good work is being sidelined at the expense of ‘hip’, ‘young’ ‘witty’ conceptual work that is neither important nor well-executed.

I went to Sitting Pretty, the new show at Red Bull Projects in Toronto last night.

Some oil paintings by Stephen Appleby Barr. Image: narwhalartprojects.com

There was work by Stephen Appleby-Barr, Paul Butler, The Collecting Collective, Tibi Tibi Neuspiel, and Kara Uzelman. I think Nicholas Brown is a talented curator, but the work left me cold. Sure, it was neat to see pieces of moldy toast made from beeswax with images of everyone from Hitler to Mother Teresa (seriously) burned into them. But is this work that really matters? Did the artist Tibi Tibi Neuspiel make the work with any kind of emotional involvement? If so, there was none left by the time it went on display.

The photograph by Vancouver’s Collecting Collective was far less interesting than the wall label, which described the collective as consisting of a number of Vancouver-based artists (including Cedric Bomford and Arabella Campbell) and the Toronto-based artist Mark Dudiak, “who also perform the roles of collector-patrons, financing projects and building a private collection of work by other artists, while maintaining a corporate-minded approach to the means of production and expression.” I realize that that’s the point, but then why have the photograph there at all?

Thank goodness for Stephen Appleby-Barr’s small, intricately painted Royal Art Lodge-esque oils, which were a welcome relief.

VoCA believes in the importance of criticism and tries to recommend the best (and only the best) work being made in Canada. We must all learn to support the art scene while celebrating the best, and exposing the worst. That’s a critic’s job.  Of course, that’s only possible if you have confidence in what is good and what’s not.

For more info on the exhibition, which opened last night and runs until 5 December, please click HERE.

45 Responses to “Should VoCA be More Critical?”

  1. Zeke says:


    Short answer: Yes!

  2. Jayne says:

    I would say that while you may or may not see any emotional involvement in Tibi Tibi Neuspiel’s work, his work is extremely well-executed. I’m not sure if you are referring to him when you talk about these young hip conceptual artists whose work is neither important nor well executed, but it should be acknowledged that Neuspiel pays enormous attention to every detail of his work. Those books in the sandwiches are hand-made miniatures, and the toasts are highly realistic wax sculptures hand-painted to look burnt and moldy, even the cheese is a dyed wax sculpture. It seems to me that Tibi’s work is in fact TOO well executed, causing people to miss the high amount of skill that goes into the execution of each element.

  3. AC says:

    That’s interesting, Jayne. I did admire the handiwork of the beeswax toast, but hadn’t realized that the books were also handmade!

  4. “VoCA believes in the importance of criticism and tries to recommend the best (and only the best) work being made in Canada. We must all learn to support the art scene while celebrating the best, and exposing the worst.”

    It seems to me that discussing only the best and worst might be good for the art scene, but isn’t discussing the points of interest in between those two extremes better for art? Sticking to these two limits of either superlatively genius art and complete shit is, in itself, critically limiting when criticism could be doing a better job of explaining both the strengths and weaknesses in any given work. Celebrating art is part of a critic’s role, but I think if the only voice is a celebratory one, then there’s a risk of falling back into the love-in that you’re clearly wary of perpetuating.

    So I say yes to more criticism, and accept that while you might not always be ‘right’ you’ll at least be explaining the reasons for your opinion.

  5. AC says:

    Yes, thanks for your comment Stephanie. Nuanced, informed criticism is better. I try to balance the blogging format (quick, snappy, daily postings) while fleshing out works at least a bit. I do, however think it’s useless to be overly democratic in art criticism. In art, not everything goes.

  6. Nicholas Brown & Julia Lum says:

    Dear Andrea,

    Thank you for considering our exhibition, and for being so direct with your feelings. Goodness knows there is a dearth of honesty in Canadian art writing, so it was refreshing in that regard.

    That said, we feel compelled to respond to your article, and your characterizations of several of the works in particular.

    You wonder if VoCA should be more critical, and yet your account contains nothing that really merits the status of criticism. Basically, you think the work sucks, which is fine by us, but your reasoning is spurious. Maybe the Collecting Collective ‘leaves you cold’, but for you to question the necessity of the photograph shows that you didn’t take the time to actually consider it. The photograph is a highly visible (at six feet tall!) gesture of status and legacy-building that is critical to their roles as artist-patrons. Maybe that’s not your thing, but it appears that in rehashing the didactic panel you missed the point. The quote you chose from the panel explains that the collective maintain “a corporate-minded approach to the means of production and expression.” Their self-portrait was an attempt to manufacture themselves as a corporate entity, attempting to donate the work to the VAG (and thus fulfilling their roles as “patrons”). The VAG rejected the work because it didn’t have an exhibition record, so the exhibition of the work is actually central to the function of the collective.

    Your assessment of Tibi Tibi Neuspiel’s Book Sandwiches is more puzzling. What about this work compels you to find evidence of the artist’s emotional involvement? This seems ill-fitting for work of this nature, which, in the tradition of pop art, doesn’t purport to act as a register of the artist’s inner feelings. Would you ask the same questions of a Warhol or a Lichtenstein? It’s a very romantic sensibility, but a tad off the mark. To continue the pop art parallels, Neuspiel’s choice of Hitler and Mother Teresa were quite intentional – to be read as instantly commodified distillations of the book that they “sandwich” but cannot contain – a “Coles Notes” version of the Diary of Anne Frank.

    We realize this is a blog, but this nevertheless cannot pass for crticism. By invoking Jerry Saltz, you do yourself a disservice by highlighting what your own review lacks– depth, rigour, and a sense of humour. If we can do better, surely so can you.

    We write this not to be sour grapes, but to put to you that if, as you say, bad art must be called out then so too must bad criticism. We’re sure Saltz would agree (though we wouldn’t presume to say that he has our backs).

    In response to your question, our answer is a wholehearted yes. Yes, to more critical reviews and to critical dialogue surrounding Toronto’s art scene. We invite criticism that has a depth of reasoning based on a sound understanding of artwork, and we hope that there will be more of this in the future.

    Nicholas Brown and Julia Lum

  7. phil taylor says:

    ‘VoCA believes in the importance of criticism and tries to recommend the best (and only the best) work being made in Canada.’
    I am sure you are sincere here, but it needs to be said that it is the best in your opinion. The fact is that I seldom agree with what you think is good (tho I do agree on occasion.)
    And of course I defend your right to express your opinion.

  8. Andrea says:

    Of course! It goes without saying that it is only my opinion.

  9. Lee says:

    Critical art review is life-blood for aesthetic vampires!

    Dr Lee, PhD (after one too many Guinness)

  10. MW says:

    It is limiting as a critic to dismiss all art that may have a conceptual base. Instead it would be much more productive to approach each work with an open and informed mind. The familiarity of the “Royal Art Lodge-esque oils” should actually be fodder for criticism because of that obvious connection, not a welcomed relief because you already know how to look at it.

  11. Dan Hudson says:

    A blog is a great forum for criticism because it allows for counter arguments. Perfect examples above. Let’s not forget that a blog is for the dissemination of opinion. You (VoCA) seem to form your own opinion (good, bad or indifferent) about art and the art world. I find this refreshing and vote for you to continue being who you are. As it is, you don’t shy away from being critical but having an agenda of being more critical might taint the way you reflect on art.

  12. Bill says:

    Yes, Andrea! Let’s get critical! Already, we are seeing the benefits of critical criticism just with this one posting! Positive reviews don’t generate this kind of conversation, debate or reaction.

    And, you are right. It is only one person’s opinion. Long gone are the days of Clement Greenberg, when one critic’s opinion could make or break an artist’s career.

    And, I agree that the Appleby-Barr pieces in the Sitting Pretty show are terrific! Beautifully painted, rich and oddly compelling imagery. They really drew me in. I also like Paul Butler’s work in the show, though I’d seen it before. Regarding the Collecting Collective’s portrait, though, I had a similar reaction. It is what it is; the artists are crystal clear about the point of this project, so coming up with any differing takes on it seems pointless. So, for that reason, I didn’t feel the need to spend a lot of time with it. I do like the overall idea of their project, though, and I’m sure we can all agree that they most definitely are a photogenic bunch!

  13. mmm says:

    Be more critical. Le Art Fag was the best thing to happen to Canadian art journalism, and he was a bitchy motherfucker. Get in touch with your evil side, pretty please.

  14. mmm says:

    Can I start us off? I am sick of fucking animal heads on people. Collage, painting, digital, whatever. It’s old! It’s been done! It wasn’t that great the first thousand times! Stop putting animal heads on people or Andrea will humiliate you on her blog in front of the entore nation.

  15. Earl Miller says:

    I am not sure why post-Expressionism that there need be “emotional involvement” with subject matter. Surely there are better ways to critique the work of so-called hip, witty, young artists. For the record, outside of Sarah Milroy, and the occasional show at the Power Plant and the AGYU, Toronto never has had a “love-in” with Vancouver conceptual art, which figures prominently in the show. The last time I saw Arabella Campbell’s work (Campbell is part of the Vancouver Collecting Collective featured in the show) was in South America. Yet she is one of Canada’s more promising artists. Kudos to Nicholas Brown for trying to open up Toronto to the important art in this country being produced outside of Parkdale, emotionally-involved or otherwise.

  16. Nick Brown says:

    Anyone reading this blog that simply must know more about the Collecting Collective photo (which, love it or hate it, is a whopping 6×7-foot framed portrait!), we are hosting an artist talk with Mark Dudiak, Arabella Campbell, Verena Kaminiarz and Andrew Kent (the latter three via videoconferencing), along with Paul Butler. It’s Thursday, November 12 at 7pm in the Red Bull conference room.

    Andrea, come out and tell the gang what you think!

  17. Derek says:

    As someone who writes art reviews in a pared down, blog format, I can sympathize with the difficulties one faces in being truly critical — whether that be in a positive or negative capacity. Although short posts are excellent for drawing attention to work, it’s always a struggle to do the artist justice in around 250-300 words.

    A decent example of this is, of course, the fact that Brown and Lum’s (excellent) comment exceeds the length of the original post.

    I suppose it’s a matter of format and expectations. For me, VoCA acts in a curatorial capacity rather than a critical one (and I would say the same of my Art Agenda). I look to more academic sources for full-scale criticism, while blog posts act as a starting point for dialogue and further engagement.

  18. AC says:

    Yes, Derek it’s a challenge because the nature of blogging is fast and furious. But I love how it creates dialogue! I think we all find the comments fascinating.

  19. Earl Miller says:

    you have a good point, Derek, that blogs lead to further dialogue and engagement. I think the reason why, aside from the length, is that the “fast and furious” approach ?Andrea? notes, grants writers a chance NOT to be afraid to evaluate as opposed to analyze. Consequently, opinions are more apt to appear. They are, indeed, lacking in print publications.

  20. Z says:

    I think it’s interesting that a sort of blame is being placed on blogging now as opposed to the producer of said blog. Writers, like artists, have to be held accountable for what they put out into the world. It would never hold up in argument for an artist to blame his or her materials for a poor artwork, so the same accountability should be placed on the critics who are reviewing their work. There are plenty of great art criticism blogs, particularly coming out of Toronto – though fast and furious, these writers produce eloquent and flushed out opinions making very critical statements that they stand behind. True, there is a dialogue created by good and bad blogging – but I believe that the dialogue created by certain blogs is more about the artwork and less about the blogging.

  21. Derek says:

    I don’t think “blame” is an accurate interpretation of what’s going on here. Rather, it seems to me that there’s a critical awareness of the medium in which criticism is delivered.

  22. craig says:

    Andrea, you’re touched a nerve, eh?

    I hope your question is more rhetorical than it is indicative of any creeping self-doubt you might be feeling about keeping a blog or your writing in general. Yes, criticism is vital to the exchange of ideas and an informed opinion, like yours, goes far toward encouraging VoCA readers to question their own reactions to the work they see. Just maintaining a blog like VoCA is essential to fostering this kind of dialogue and based on these comments I think it’s safe for you to assume that you’re doing things right. More criticism — yes, please — but keep your constructive tone; it’s what makes VoCA a site I return to regularly.

  23. mmm says:

    @Earl Miller

    Arabella Campbell’s art is a nightmare. Tedious, outdated, dead. Hey Andrea, Ad Reinhardt called, he wants his lame ideas back!

  24. Nicholas Brown says:

    Wow, that’s some big talk from someone who won’t leave their real name!

    While we’re all talking about what blogs should exist for and how they ought to be run, can we all agree that, unless you’re going to set up a truly committed project a la artfag that is predicated on anonymity, your opinion simply doesn’t count if you won’t leave your name. It’s childish and cowardly. Identify yourself, mmm, or kindly move along.

  25. Bill says:

    I agree with Nicholas!

  26. Dr Lee, PhD says:

    Moldy toast made from beeswax? Methinks Toronto needs real art instead – old-fashioned, dull and borderline factual. Like moldy toast.

  27. Earl Miller says:

    re. MMM Interesting – I have never experienced a “nightmare” that is “tedious” and “outdated.” More often, I wake up sweating. Consequently, I am having a hard time grasping your take on A. Campbell’s work. Might I suggest brushing up on your figurative language so that it falls within the context of literacy prior to launching what appear to be bitter attacks.

  28. mmm says:


    @ Nicholas Brown

    1- It is “Le Artfag” not “La Artfag”.

    2- I seem to go through this “leave your name!” meat grinder a lot here. Why won’t my opinion count? (COMMENT REMOVED BY EDITOR) I look at lots of art, my opinion counts, I hate Arabella Campbell’s art. Walk it off.

    3- Please attack my little joke in a creative way. Say something like “Ad Reinhardt is a giant and he wrote Art-as-Art with emotional, fussy little figurative-lovers like you in mind. Arabella Campbell is a cool diamond of intellectual rigour while…you regress into the primordial swamp of gauche instinct-driven drivel of Marlene Dumas” next time, please.

  29. mmm says:

    @ Bill

    See above.

  30. mmm says:


    @Earl Miller

    You know exactly what I’m saying and we both know it.

    I find it enjoyable that a AC fan would defend her work … then demand that I work on my “language so that it falls withing the context of literacy”. You see, I was reading the new Artfag post on criticsm just before I popped over here. It is a wonderful read:


    Near the end he comments on the Vancouver school, saying it produced “academically indulgent, anaesthetic work”. Right up your alley, am I right?

  31. Gabby says:


    Just a clarification (somewhat along the lines of Earl’s call for literacy in these comments): Nick wasn’t calling Artfag “la Artfag”, but using the phrase “à la”, from the French, to say that if you were not operating in the mode of/along the same lines as Artfag, then it did not make sense to post comments anonymously. I couldn’t agree more.

  32. AC says:

    Thanks Gabby – Also, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to Gabby’s own reflections on the issue, on her blog: http://gabriellemoser.blogspot.com/2009/11/art-criticism-andasvs-judgment.html

    Maybe I’ll re-post it up at the top.

  33. Gabby says:

    Thanks, Andrea. Simpleposie has responded in kind and posted her thoughts about my post (and made some interesting clarifications as well): http://www.jennifermcmackon.com/simpleposie/index.blog/1967115/simpleposie-question-for-the-day-5002a/

    This conversation seems to have legs – thanks for starting it, Andrea.

  34. mmm says:


    Location: The art scene. “In the thick.”

    A gentle mumur of polite conversation fills the area. Some guy enters and promptly disturbs a work of art on the floor, causing a small ruckus. The crowd turns and begins to boo and jeer him, upset at the lack of respect shown for their hallowed space. Maybe the guy did not realize that the piece would be so delicate that a gentle push would cause it to come apart? Nadja (who sometimes expresses her dislike of certain people! What a rulebreaker!!!) is delighted.

    Some Guy: That was me.
    Nadja: You ruined the art!
    Some Guy: Oh well. It sucked anyway.

  35. mmm says:

    @Gabby re: Art Fag

    Yeah, that was pretty lame on my part.
    PS You have some typos in your most recent post. But why get petty? :)

    Your recent post also asked what is needed in order for writers to be brave and take on critical stances, which is a cool question.

    You are probably in the scene because of your passion for art, because the objects seen in galleries and museums can lead to insight otherwise unavailable from conventional day-to-day activities. If you are in it for the money, you are probably in for a disappointment whether or not you sell-out, so stick with passion.

    So if it’s about passion, go for broke. Instead of pondering “Will Richard Rhodes get pissed at lost ad revenue if I say that the work at the latest Mulherin show was a bit of a muddle and left me cold?” just find out by doing it. Find an artist whose work you despise (not that you are indifferent to) and write about it. You’ll learn something about yourself because you will have to unpack the reasons why something irritates you. You will create a new group of constituents because suddenly people with whom you may have nothing in common will appear out of the woodwork and say “Me too! I also think Kris Knight’s work is little more than sad masturbatory fantasies on par with Heavy Metal pin-up art and it frustrates me in the same way as the hype around Elizabeth Peyton’s limited oeuvre does!” You may be poor but you’ll be honest.

    Step on toes. Offend people. The only thing that is going to get hurt are people’s feelings. The people you offend will either shore up their idealogical defenses (learning more about their own points of references and cultural leanings) or will come around to your point of view (more learning!). Some people will get PERSONALLY offended that you are not their clone and do not share their exact worldview. These are usually the ones who will not defend work but will try and undermine your credibility by trying to attack you personally. Keep it about the art and those people go away, usually because they don’t have much to say.

    The whole point of the scene is about the exchange ideas, so you should let loose. Start with identifying 5 Toronto artists whose work you don’t respect and try and convince us why we shouldn’t like it either. Thrush Holmes doesn’t count.

  36. mmm says:


    In your last post you also defend Canadian Art by saying that the writing isn’t watered down at the editorial level. I remember when everybody lost it on RM Vaughn for including a negative comment from a curator (?) regarding the Vancouver show in Europe. That is pretty much the only controversy Canadian Art has stirred up in the past few years that I can recall. I would love to be corrected on this point.

    So while I will believe you when you say there is no editorial intent on watering down criticism, I also think it’s fair to say that there is very little effort spent on deeping the level of criticism.

  37. Hey mmm – that was a good moment at that opening, a minor calamity, only a matter of time kind of thing. I’ve seen a lot of people walk into the art at Diaz – a lot of sculpture at that gallery. Maybe Torontonians aren’t accustomed to sculpture. That thought has occurred to me. OT, I know.

  38. Gabby says:

    Hi mmm, I would love to have this conversation, about my blog post, on my blog. I’m not sure why these comments are here rather than there (maybe because I “started” things by commenting on you here…?). In any case, I think you have some interesting points and the challenge of writing about work one finds irritating or offensive I think is a good one. Analyzing why a work is bad or inflammatory is definitely productive.

    I’m not sure that I see the purpose of criticism as “convincing” others that they should or should not “like” an artwork or artist, however. That was mostly where my post on this issue of criticism and judgment came from. To convince through criticism seems to imply that the critic’s job is a didactic one, when I’m not sure that’s the case. I know simpleposie has some (diverging) thoughts on this, but I’d love to know yours as well.

    I also find it interesting that you advocate for writers to offend people and hurt their feelings, yet you do not position yourself in your comments by posting anonymously. Isn’t offending someone (or their work) cowardly if you aren’t willing to leave your name?

    As for Canadian Art, I agree with you: I don’t think it’s “deepening the level of criticism”. I also don’t think that’s its goal. Maybe that’s a point that should be revisited.

  39. Earl Miller says:

    I find it interesting that there is so much emphasis on art being more critical in recent blogs and talks. Yes, more rigour is needed (i.e, the occasional opinion along with summary). That said, with so much bad art around (Jerry Salz says 85%), it is more of a “story” as an art journalist to find art I actually like or art that is important for its stature, timing or positioning but flawed. When Charlie Pachter, for instance, is included in a group show at a major institution, the MOCCA, staying in critical attack mode in perpetuity is just too damn easy.

  40. Interesting. Saltz says 85% bad art. Hickey says way too many artists.

    Earl Miller makes an interesting point when he says “it is more of a “story” as an art journalist to find art I actually like or art that is important for its stature, timing or positioning but flawed.”

    Charles Pachter is like a Canadian cultural truism. I like his work best at the polymer demonstration at the 1947 CNE:


  41. Earl Miller says:

    Great you-tube piece, Jennifer.

    One more point on criticism needing to be more critical. The consensus I am seeing spreading through blogs and talks alike – including this one – is that much art in Toronto and in Canada is mediocre and people are afraid to voice it. I heard one panelist at the Bring It conference that critics should set to make the art world “better.” I have a problem with such high ambitions for several reasons:

    1. A critical analysis either negative or positive is unlikely to change, let alone better, an artist’s work. They will keep doing the same work and exhibiting it; they just may not speak to the critic for a while.
    2. We should demand more of critics than simply being those with the nerve to voice in public what others are saying in private. I am interested in criticism that has a new angle on things not that expresses, through a “heroic,” exhibitionist critic, a group consensus in public. This, I think was the appeal of Art Fag (outside of its hilarity), and why it has been raised on said blogs and talks: it said (albeit anonymously) out loud what others were thinking but chose to keep quiet about. I think we need to raise the bar here and do more than that.
    3. Before setting out on the lofty goal of making the art world a better place, can some critics please get a copy of Strunk and White, and a writing skills text? I recently read a current issue of a Canadian art magazine that was so filled with grammatical errors, poor sentence construction, passive voice and boring Cultural Studies dissertation diction, that I threw it in a recycling bin. That as a critic, was the best possible contribution I felt I could make to making the Canadian art world a better place.

  42. I’m with you to a great extent on # 2 and #3 but as for #1:

    “A critical analysis either negative or positive is unlikely to change, let alone better, an artist’s work. They will keep doing the same work and exhibiting it; they just may not speak to the critic for a while.”

    I just don’t buy that.

    For one thing, artworks, good artworks are usually subject to critical analysis long before they appear in the form of a four hundred word review in the paper. Artists for the most part are schooled on a critique model, which extends to studio visits with peers, and curators professionally. Artists take criticism to heart – they incorporate it into their work or they reject it (as is their prerogative).

    Criticism is not always comfortable and artists know that. If criticism is going to be so UNcomfortable people aren’t going to be on speaking terms later, then we don’t have a critical arena, only acrimony and nonsense. You have to wonder about the spirit of the critical offering. Obviously it’s not an exchange and everybody misses out on that in this kind of event. On the other hand there ARE artists who just don’t listen to critiques and simply find the sound of their own drumbeat more convincing than whatever anyone else maps onto it. I am grateful to those souls for existing. And for the art they make. If criticism possessed that kind of conviction I would be grateful for that too.

  43. sally says:

    right on, Earl! Also…

    If the critic thinks of the artist as their primary audience then there is a paradox. On the one hand you want to exert influence, on the other hand you don’t want to be unnecessarily cruel. But I think that’s a red herring, because the artist is just one of many (hopefully) readers. If a critic really wants to influence the practice of an artist, why make it public? Why not do a studio visit, or undertake a personal correspondence? If it is understood that the critique is clearly addressed to the readers then the paradox is mitigated and everyone has the opportunity to be adult about it (at least in public), like J. suggests.

  44. Earl Miller says:

    re. #1 – As for critical analysis – let me qualify. I feel a short review is unlikely to change the work an artist makes. Other forms of critique, yes indeedy, in many cases…

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