"Hovering at the threshold of recognition, Brewer's work teases the mind's impulse to identify recognizable shapes and discern hierarchies of information," read one gallery label this year. I remember standing in the museum for several seconds, unable to understand what "Hovering at the threshold of recognition" meant, much less what it had to do with delicate, fabric sculptures. That, mates, is artspeak.
Artspeak is slippery and often uses big words or ideas that sound smart but easily confuse. Adverbs are common in these descriptions, which frequently have multiple or contradictory meanings. Usually, the sentences contain numerous clauses, each of them precariously progressing until the whole paragraph collapses.
David Levine, co-creator of International Art English, described artspeak as being a language fundamentally rooted in power, signaling a type of insider status or education to a discerning reader. "You can't speak in simple sentences as a museum and be taken seriously," he told the Guardian in 2013.
The whole art field engages in artspeak, including me, even though it pisses us all off. With this in mind, I've rounded up some of my favorite instances of artspeak that I encountered in Seattle this year.
Be gentle as you read this list. I write it as a playful tease. This collection just demonstrates how difficult it is to talk about art, to get at its thingy-ness that makes us want to keep looking. Writing—readers must remember—fucking blows.
"Works spanning a spectrum of digital collage, adornment, sculpture, and installation act as a conduit to ideas of home, which probe the queer ways individuals inhabit different locations."—SOIL
"Appearing together in the exhibition as a field of forms on supports of unusual dimensions and composition, the works in Subspontaneous shift our attention from the singular, autonomous object toward phenomena, processes, and sites of contact—the places where disparate types of matter meet, give way, or remain in tension."—Frye Art Museum
"Not limited to geological exploration nor tied to longitudinal exactness, the exhibition will be an exploration of the vastness of a concept rich in interpretations; a Venn diagram of possibilities, pinioned only by the return in each artwork to its point of origin; the idea of Earth, interpreted by each artist in their own way."—Foster/White Gallery
"A monument, once by definition immobile, site-specific, unchangeable, and inert, can now perhaps be a meme, a metaphor, a performance, a reenactment, a temporary intervention — mobile, roving, resistant to dominant histories and hegemonic modes of storytelling."—Jacob Lawrence Gallery
"In surrendering to the luxury of these images, we are invited to take a new look at the universally accepted conventions that underpin our reality, and wonder, not for the first time, whether the greatest artists need not paint what is real, but only what is true."—Bellevue Arts Museum
"Eager for balance, the work finds kinship as both the memory and the masked landscape that was once clearly identified. The origin is combatively filtered, challenging the presented visuals to perform in clarity as they’ve been altered."—Specialist
"Site becomes a material through which what we have heretofore considered the complete, authoritative story is expanded and retold."—Henry Art Gallery
"To me, some look like fragile fossils of extinct deep sea creatures. Others look like the microscopic guts of a cell, suspended in animation for our viewing pleasure. But, above all, there's a deep sense of movement to her work that animates her pieces beyond the two-dimensional surface of the paper."—The Stranger
"Made of found scenes from the past to explore this immediate present, works in the exhibition consider the change which has already befallen the places imaged, and asks viewers to consider the repercussions of our actions yet to come."—J.Rinehart Gallery
"Hovering at the threshold of recognition, Brewer’s work teases the mind’s impulse to identify recognizable shapes and discern hierarchies of information."—Frye Art Museum
"One can sense the presence of the artist’s hand, adding a performative quality to the completed exhibition and an appreciation for the labor that is essential to realizing such monumental sculptures." —MadArt
"Operating under the context of skin being the utmost layer of everything, in this group exhibition, each artist will examine, stretch, reveal, indulge on, and synthesize the notion of skin through a variety of mediums from latex to glaze and clay, surfaces from under and above, materials from raw to petrified, socio-cultural perspectives from stereotype to authentic, exploring the surface of a skin-deep space."—SOIL
"Their intricacy resides in the mutable qualities that occupy them inherently: shadow, reflection, chromatic overlay, transparency, opacity, and light."—Traver Gallery
"The rich paintings use an emotive palette that responds to the lighting design and activates the pervasive loneliness buzzing between the roomscapes."—Museum of Museums
"The project considers how works are shaped by the devices that produce them and by the networks by which they are circulated and consumed, raising timely questions about origination and ownership. How is media shaped by biases and limitations inherent to today’s media platforms and global networks? Dynamics like these have profound implications on the interplay between our aesthetic preferences and how we understand our own mutable sensory experiences."—Jacob Lawrence Gallery