Blog / 2008 / Everybody’s a Critic

March 19, 2008

I believe that I can learn from anyone and everyone about my work. If I listen, people will tell me what it is that I am saying. I can (and should!) know what I mean to say, but it’s only in listening to a viewer’s response to the work that I actually know what I conveyed with the work. And if art is about communication, knowing what I’m saying is invaluable.

painted portrait of Charles Froelick by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Charles Froelick (Froelick Gallery)
acrylic on canvas
48 x 34 inches

“When I was in art school, they always told me to ask myself ‘so what?’ as I made a work. You might try that.”

An artist-curator told me this in late 2003 when I was applying to show in her space. I had sent her images from my Critics Critiqued series, including the one above. They were all paintings of local art dealers. At the time, I felt like she was responding to my portraits purely as portraits—as fluffy no-content art.

To begin with, I faulted her for not looking at the gesture of the work, what it meant for a young upstart artist to paint the portraits of what could be the artist’s gatekeepers and gods. Eventually, I came to realize that it was my responsibility to show the gesture more obviously within the composition itself, not hers to make the connection. Though I continued to work in straight portraiture for a few years, I ruminated about my miscommunication, and eventually produced Swollen in 2007.

painted portrait of Matt Zaffino
Gwenn Seemel
Matt Zaffino (KGW)
acrylic on canvas
36 x 24 inches

“Are all those lines electricity running over their faces? Are they in pain?”

A rather tipsy viewer at my Snow Days opening in 2004 asked me these questions, looking at works like the one above. I was so surprised by the interpretation that I didn’t know what to say to him, but I did try to see my lines his way. In the works I created soon after this encounter, I toned down the so-called electricity and favored swathes of color more.

painted portrait of Laurie Monnes Anderson
Gwenn Seemel
Laurie Monnes Anderson (Oregon State Senator)
acrylic on canvas
36 x 24 inches

“It looks plaid!”

This was a compliment—I think! I took it as such and decided that this moment represented a culmination of sorts. I had worked the straight portrait until I was sure I could create a captivating likeness: it was time to make the changes I had been thinking about since 2003.

before and after portraits of puberty
Gwenn Seemel
Before and After: Puberty
2006 and 2007
acrylic on bird’s eye piqué
30 x 54 inches (combined dimensions)

“Puberty IS like an explosion!”

A high school exchange student from Korea said this when she came to Swollen. She also asked me if I thought marriage was “stormy” referring to this diptych. I told her that I thought marriage could be rainy sometimes, but maybe life-giving as well. She confided in me that “stormy” described her parents’ relationship!

This particular exchange was one of my happiest moments. When I came out with Swollen, I wasn’t certain that people would connect with or even understand my earth change metaphors. As it turned out, they did—even across cultures.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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