In accepting the distinguished lifetime achievement award for writing on art at the College Art Association’s annual conference in New York last month, longtime critic and curator Lucy Lippard repudiated the term art criticism.
For Lippard, the words art writing more faithfully encapsulate what writers do when they discuss things pertaining to art. After nearly five decades of art writing, she acknowledges: “[It’s] an odd profession. I suspect many of us thought we were on our way somewhere else — journalism, poetry, or fiction in my case.”
Indeed, many of us see art writing as a side project from the larger journey set before us as artists, collectors, historians or poets. We catalog it as just one more thing within a bag of creative tricks. Writing itself is a luxury. The time it takes to mull over, step away from, return to, or completely scrap ideas. Likewise, it’s hard. Uncritical essays are easy to find, especially as a support structure to the enormously long arm of the onward-marching art market. But art writing is necessary.
After leaving her position as associate director in November, Amy Ritchie Johnson’s closing exhibition at Candela Books and Gallery elevates art writing as a starting point for “Peripheral Vision,” which opens March 6. She wrote the essay first and then chose photographs by Burt Ritchie, Justin James Reed and William W. Douglas III. Johnson subverts what art writing usually does — looking and responding — thereby making the essay into something more didactic than interpretive. While the works are integral, emphasis is placed on the ideas.
“Peripheral Vision” centers on a problem: 20th-century photography’s “weapon of aggression” against its subjects. As an anecdote, Johnson offers “perceptual photography,” an alternative approach closely tied to a vision that privileges the subconscious. Looking to the historical precedent of Japanese photographer Takuma Nakahira’s “Circulation: Date, Place, Events” (1971), Johnson advocates the random, the everyday, the overlooked and the underexamined. Intended for an audience of photographers, Johnson’s show aims to reintroduce spirituality and self-awareness as a solution to “the exploitation aesthetic.”
“I think the biggest value of art is its ability to relate and experience the inner life we ignore to live in the real world,” Johnson says. “Spirituality has remained a taboo subject, but [earlier] artists like [Ad] Reinhardt and Agnes Martin actually talked about it a lot. I want to spark a conversation.”
Burt Ritchie’s “Walks with Burt” offer a series of still frames that record Ritchie’s walks through Chicago, Paris and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Even without the indicative titles, the starkly contrasting subject matter is immediately visible.
“While the process is the same, the cities are different,” Johnson says. “I purposely chose very different places. I wanted to know, how do the photographs test or confirm our stereotypes about a certain site?”
In many ways, Johnson’s foray into the periphery seems appropriate given her next project. With co-founder Sally Kemp, Johnson has started Milk River Arts, an art training and employment space for adults with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. It’s tentatively set to begin next year.
“We modeled our concept on several [San Francisco] Bay-area examples,” Johnson says. “Judith Scott, an Oakland artist born deaf and with Down syndrome, is having her work exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. We want to train special needs adults to do the same.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, who founded the Richmond Arts Review, continues to advocate for writing about art. “Richmond needs more avenues for good, critically minded art writing,” she says.
Often fueled by Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, Richmond’s art initiatives continue to accelerate at a breakneck pace. While warmly welcomed, there’s a need for a writing support system to come alongside the larger infrastructure. It should provide a dialogue that asks the difficult questions, motivates experimental exploration and advocates for work that excels on new levels. Art travels as a series of ideas that fluidly move through coffee shops, gallery openings, in classrooms, and within the conversations of creative-minded individuals. Art writing provides another landscape of thinking, an attempt to pin down those ideas for dissemination, debate, and most important, history. S
“Peripheral Vision,” curated by Amy Ritchie Johnson at Candela Books and Gallery, 214 W. Broad St., runs March 6 to April 18. Call 225-5527 or visit candelabooks.com.