A few years ago I had the opportunity to install a work titled “he was turned to steel” in front of the Grimsby Public Art Gallery. The work consisted of a ten foot tall, monumental rendering of the Marvel Comics character the Invincible Iron Man. The work received both criticism and praise from art professionals and art lovers, but the most fulfilling experience of the exhibition was when I returned to dismantle and remove the work. Approaching the site from the parking lot, I saw two ten years old circling the sculpture on their BMX bikes belting out the Black Sabbath tune “I am Ironman” at the top of their lungs. I sat and watched them do this until they stopped.
Having worked as a professional artist for over a decade and a half, I am no stranger to criticism or praise. In the earliest days of art school, emerging artists are subjected to the crucible of criticism and hostility known as ‘the crit.’ The crit is a forum where all must offer their latest creation, a work that is fresh and tender, to the cruel evaluation and verbal inquisition of their peers and instructors. After six years of this near-weekly onslaught of opinions, praise, and occasional barbs, artists tend to develop a calloused surface. Artists love when our work is talked about, written about, and discussed, but we tend to approach criticism and praise with reserve and detachment – an approach that is a product of the early days of art school critiques.
When working in the public realm an artist is subject to much wider criticism than in a gallery based practice. When showing in galleries it is mainly art professionals and art lovers who will experience the work, and choose to provide feedback or commentary. When working in the public realm, the audience expands to include the wider public and artists need to develop an ability to speak to non-art professionals about their work, its value, why they made it, and the ideas that drive it.
Of course there will always be trolls who slam the work (online and in person) because they would rather see their money going towards hockey rinks or health care, but for the most part the general public has a desire to engage the work. Working in the public, I have experienced a weird phenomenon where the critique coming from non-art professionals has a way of bypassing the usual wall that I erect to deflect criticism. The questions and comments have an earnestness that cut right to the point. When a random senior citizen on the street asks, “Why did you make this?” it is a humbling experience. No amount of evasive kung-fu art speak will allow you to sidestep the question; an honest and direct response is required.
In my last blog post I wrote about a set of bronze sculptures that I installed in Thunder Bay last August. Commissioned by the City of Thunder Bay and titled WildLife, the sculptures consist of two bronze figures appearing to be citizens leisurely going about their day. However, upon inspection the figures reveal themselves to be composed of squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, owls, and other animals working together to appear human. The work elicited a lot of support and positive response from the community, as well as some criticism, mostly manifesting in the comment sections of online news pieces about the project.
One of the most fulfilling moments came when a random Thunder Bay resident forwarded me images of a number of individuals dressed as my sculpture for Halloween, one of which won first place in a local costume competition. I am taking their costume choice as a compliment; more importantly it demonstrates something more important than approval of the work. By dressing as my sculpture it signals that the work has a cultural significance in the city, that it is recognizable, and like them or hate them they are part of the cultural fabric of the city. Personally I think this is the best one can hope for when making public art.