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Slammed by a New York Art Critic

The lecture hall of the art museum was standing room only for what was sure to be a lively discussion. Despite over 1,000 entries from 12 states the juror of the 20th Joslyn Biennial was not impressed. She thought of us as uneducated and our art unacceptable in the world of art she lived in.

Her Juror’s Statement read: “it is apparent to me that these talented artists have little or no reference to the vocabulary associated with contemporary art and therefore very little possibility of achieving work which would be considered acceptable in an art historical reference. It is a great hope that this community, both the financial and intellectual, will support this institution and its staff in order to further educate the intellectual/artistic community”

The university art professors and Bemis Foundation artists in attendance quickly challenged her opinion. In the ensuing dialog I sensed that she was genuinely interested in helping us understand her point of view. And her point of view needed to be carefully considered. She was Holly Solomon, a collector of contemporary art and founder of the Solomon Gallery in New York City. And New York City was where art was sold, made, defined, and legitimized.

It became personal when she spoke specifically about my painting: “Don't get me wrong the work in the show is very well done, but my god, someone painted a cornfield”. I had been used as an example of someone who was uneducated and whose art was not acceptable in her contemporary art world. Didn't she realize the object in my painting, a cornfield, was not my subject? Evidently not.

A New Direction

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Rather than defend myself with my credentials, artist's statement, and artwork, I challenged myself to re-examine everything I thought I knew. I studied what the artist’s and art critics wrote both past and present. I was determined not to be a “Sunday Painter” having no clue as to the meaning of fine art in a contemporary world. I discovered that the art world had become increasingly obsessed with their theories, their message, and seemed to have fully adopted Kandinsky's concept of the "artist as prophet". The artist-prophet saw things that the general populace would not see for years, and it was the duty of the artist to lead and enlighten.

Maybe it was my youth, maybe my ego, but whatever my motivation I was all-in because if anyone was a prophet, I was. I decided that it was my technique of depicting regional scenes in a "realistic" manner that was the problem. How could the art world in New York City take an oil painter from fly-over country seriously with the subject matter and style I painted in. My message was not even being heard. "Only when the technique matched the world view being presented could it be considered great art" ran through my mind over and over. If I was going to create art, it had to be great art.

Armed with a new technique to wrap my theory in, my new work was a hit and attracted an art representative with connections. I was even accepted into a Minneapolis Art Gallery without them even looking at my work. It did not take long for me to understand that the more outlandish my work and self-promotion the more successful I became. Showing locally and regionally was a good start, but the "Big Show" was in New York City and that was my goal. And that was where I was headed... until... well, that is another story which I am working on.

Steve Bendykowski

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