Writing a Review by Peter Stiles

There are many different kinds of reviews. Most reviews will be written for a publication which will have a house style and a particular audience. Sometimes  a review is combined with an interview,  with an artist or a curator. Other reviews use an exhibition as the starting point for a wider discussion. I am going to describe a widely used template:

The review is like a mini visit – you enter with expectations and preconceptions, look around and take in your surroundings, describe your feelings and the ideas that you have about the work, and then leave. You come to the show with some knowledge of either the context, the venue, the artist or subject matter. You have some preconceptions. Begin with something overarching, an abstract generalisation or a general observation.

Examples of openings:

  1. If asked to pick three great cultural works inspired by the Battle of Waterloo, which would you choose? I’d be hard pressed to look beyond Vanity Fair, The Charterhouse of Parma and “that” song by ABBA. (The Waterloo Cartoon – R.A.)
  2. The days of sticking works of art in a room and letting them speak for themselves are long gone. Interpretation has been the key issue in gallery display for a good couple of decades – with  screeds of wall text, audio-guides and interpretive tours the norm. (Sensorium – Tate)
  3. As with food, there is fast art and slow art. (Fred Sandback – Kettle’s Yard)
  4. Walking into Phyllida Barlow’s new exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, one of the highlights of the city’s hit-and miss art festival this summer, is a disconcerting experience.

In the case of the Plymouth Art Weekender, shows are taking place as part of a wider event, so your opening remarks might refer to this context – as in example 4.

In the next paragraph, move onto specifics. You have entered the particular show that you are going to review, describe it and include details about  the venue, dates and and people involved. In the case of the weekender, although some of the shows are taking place in well known venues many are taking place in unfamiliar places. So a reaction to the venue might be more important than is usually the case. Then give your own reaction to the show – how it makes you feel and any ideas that the it generates.  You don’t have to accept the premise on which the show is constructed but a refusal to view the work on its own terms can be counter productive.

It seems pointless to discuss work that has been made to be seen only within a specific space – and nowhere else – as if it were located in an anonymous white cube. And if a work is obviously coming from a specific area of  practice, it is helpful, even if you end up rejecting what it is trying to say, to try and see it initially within that  context. A painting that is a resolved composition and achieves its effect through form and colour is different to a collection of found objects which works via reference and  association.

The summing up can confirm the preconceptions you stated in your opening paragraph but  often states how the exhibition has altered your original viewpoint.  You can use your summing up to  answer questions that you have asked yourself  in course of the review. There can be a feeling of walking out of the show and leaving it behind.  These are the four endings of the reviews whose beginnings I quoted:

  1. Whatever your artistic taste, its restoration to public view – and to its former glory – is now welcome. It remains a fascinating historical document.
  2. From these I deduce that I was alarmed at the prospect of being deafened in the first instance, and that I like looking at Francis Bacon paintings while eating  good chocolate in the second. I don’t think I needed to go all the way to Tate Britain to learn that.
  3. This is work of soft heft, lasting burn.
  4. Only messy and anti-monumental art could hope to articulate our times – the more so when it’s as exhilarating as the sculpture on display here.

The sentiments expressed are that the work remains (implying the visitor has left), a lesson has been learned (or not) and a judgement has been made.