Through the Juror's Eyes at Guild Hall
By now the winners of Guild Hall’s 81st annual Artist Members Exhibition have been recorded in the books and committed to history. The toasts have been made and the glad-handing long Purelled from the palms. What lingers for those overlooked, and maybe even more for those chosen, is the question “Why?”
For anyone who has ever wondered how the judges make their choices and what they are looking for, Jocelyn Miller, this year’s juror for the show and an assistant curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 facility in Queens, offered her approach and what guided her selections for this year’s show on Friday.
After about three hours of looking, relooking, placing Post-its, and making her determinations from the final cuts, she sat down, drained but seemingly exhilarated by the exercise. “It was very difficult to figure it out,” she admitted, and she used all eight honorable mentions available to acknowledge what she said was the quality and ambitiousness of the work on view.
“I am not surprised about the ambitiousness of the work, knowing the rich history of the artistic community here,” she said. “But I think it was notable how ambitious it was. The artists were not just trying to do new things with the material, but trying to take on subject matter that is really relevant to contemporary discourse, things people really care about today.”
She did not know the work of any of the artists, although a couple of names did sound familiar to her. Christina Strassfield, the director of the Guild Hall’s museum, said that it was important to them that jurors not have preconceived notions before they come into the galleries.
Ms. Miller’s approach to looking at art is intuitive. “When I walked in today, I walked through two times, wanting to give each work some study and consideration. Then I began marking off work that to me felt like they were trying to find a distinctive language to communicate something.”
She found “a lot of work contending with contemporary femininity and the stakes there, and race, but also really sensitive work that was figure or landscape driven. It was interesting to see the ways people were responding in different formats.” She also noted the role the setting and environment appears to play in what she saw. “It’s hard to avoid as an artist when you are surrounded by a beautiful landscape.”
Representational or not, she said, “I was trying to find artists who were articulating their own vocabulary and trying to use whatever medium they chose to express something new or think about an idea.”
In the case of Mary Boochever’s shaped canvas abstraction, which received top honors, “I thought it was an elegant and beautiful look at color fields and the sculptural qualities in something we typically think of as wall-mounted or two-dimensional.” Ms. Miller correctly assumed the artist had a body of work (a show of her shaped canvases recently closed at Harper’s Apartment in Manhattan), something to consider in bestowing top honors, which includes a future solo exhibition at Guild Hall. “There was a sophistication in the language she was deploying in her work.”
A finalist for top honors, Amanda Church’s painting “Purple Sleeve” was given the best abstract distinction. Ms. Miller also sensed that she, too, had a large body of work. “There was something Pop-y, something humorous in its honing in on small moments. . . . The canvas features a few different limbs from different social interactions, but you never see the faces or who they belong to.” This kind of approach gives the viewer “little moments that you can take much delight in extrapolating upon and imagining what it is that purple sleeve is doing and who does it belong to — a lot of fun.”
In Jeanette Martone’s pencil drawing, which won best representational work, it was about both her skill level and the subject matter. Capturing a moment between two young girls on a sidewalk, it has a similar evocative presentation and also elevates the everyday. “The work represents the high level of skill in this community,” she said.
A drawing by Marsha Gold Gayer won best work on paper. It’s a figurative drawing, one where “it felt like she was emphasizing various parts of the figure with her line quality, where you could feel the weight of that body part and then she didn’t really care to render the rest of the figure. So you got a sense of physicality and space and weight and movement of the body.”
Stephanie Powell’s image, which won best photograph, is a picture of someone wearing a white-face theatrical mask. “It’s a striking image, there’s something interesting going on in the black-and-white scale and something about race.” The image does not reveal much about who is wearing the mask, which could be from the Japanese Noh theater tradition, but the subject appears to be a person of color.
The best sculpture distinction went to Monica Banks’s glazed ceramic cake on which two dead bird sculptures are placed. Ms. Miller said she found it “very poetic. . . . It was evocative to mix the confectionary lustful quality associated with something so sweet with something that is more elegiac, a fallen corpse. It made me think she was interested in discussions of climate, the environment, or the natural world in some way.”
In Barbara Dayton’s best mixed-media work, “Woods I,” Ms. Miller thought her painting on a silver plate “was an elegant use of that object as a substrate but also playing with the patina that happens over time naturally with silver and allowing us to think about it as a painting.”
Julie Spain won again for her pastel, which Ms. Miller said had “command over color and composition in a really elegant way. . . . It’s just so clear, her feel for that medium and color. She’s allowing that medium to sing.”
Ms. Miller chose Daniel Jones’s photograph of rooftops in Chinatown for the best landscape award. She described it as very bright and colorful, noting that it worked as both documentary photography and a well done large-format landscape. “There are lots of points of visual interest. He did a good job of transporting the viewer to that place and transmitting a mood.”
Taking the new member prize was Beth Lee’s ceramic sculpture, which Ms. Miller said seemed “interested in articulating something about femininity and the material — ceramic — being like skin. She took note of the imagery on the surface, which could function as tattoos, and the “Me Too” banner that was both prominently and subtly placed. “It’s nice when a work allows you to go in so many directions that way. That’s a rich experience for a viewer. Works like those really stand out for me as a viewer, and help me to gravitate toward something.”
Ms. Miller’s honorable mentions went to Check Baker, Darlene Charneco, Marilyn Church, Linda Capello, Hilary Helfant, Geoff Kuzara, Lindsay Morris, and Joan Santos.