The difficulty of being a local critic (with an emphasis on the local) is that it is hard to be negative. You tend to know most of the people about whom you're writing. People have long memories, too. Artists will talk with disgust about bad reviews they got ten years ago, and how the critic didn't understand their work, wrote in bad faith, had a bias against the artist that has nothing to do with the quality of the art, etc. Some gallery owners are likewise pretty thin-skinned (I once got a note from a gallerist asking me why I was "so mean.")
Given this, it is easier (but still not totally easy) for a critic to follow a Boris Groys strategy, so to speak. Groys said that criticism doesn't matter except in a binary way: what was important was whether or not you were written about. If an artist is found worthy of critical attention, even negative attention, that counts as a plus. All those vitriolic reviews of Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons simply add to their value. So if you are a local critic, you can get around writing negative reviews by writing only about what you like. You can even justify it by saying to yourself, "By not writing about this art I don't like, I am denying it currency in the public sphere." This isn't going to keep lesser artists from bugging you to review their stuff, but you only have so much time, and it's just plain easier to be a booster--a writer of solely positive reviews.
All this is a lead in to Michael Bise. He writes for Glasstire and ...might be good and used to write for Art Lies. (He's also an artist represented by Moody Gallery.) And Bise is fearlessly negative when the occasion calls for it. For example, when he wrote about Quantum Dada, a group exhibit at Gallery Sonja Roesch from 2010.
On entering the gallery, the first work to catch my eye was the numerical notation 10–34 affixed to the wall in adhesive vinyl. Below the numbers was a framed receipt from Texas Art Supply for the purchase of the vinyl. 10–34 is Planck’s constant, which describes the size of the minimum unit of energy involved in an interaction between two physical entities. I have as firm a grasp on this concept as a non-physicist with access to Wikipedia can, but I don’t understand the many intricacies involved. What I was able to piece together was the notion that taking a numerical value out of its scientific context and playing a tired Duchampian trick with the receipt for the purchase of the materials is meant to represent a meaningful synthesis of quantum mechanics and Dada. The artist in this case is as careless in his conflation of science and culture as Eisele is in his curation. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the artist was none other than Eisele himself. Not content to harness other artists’ work to his questionable theme, Eisele creates what might be described as the signature piece in his own exhibition.Brutal.
According to didactic materials provided by the gallery, Susanne Ackermann’s colored-pencil drawings of curving, looping lines apparently “emulate the rhythm of subatomic strings.” Sure. They might also evoke the paths of racecars, wind patterns or the various trajectories of postwar abstraction. Suggesting that Ackermann’s rather anemic drawings illustrate string theory—one of theoretical physics’ attempts to reconcile inconsistencies between quantum mechanics and traditional physics—simply because her lines look kind of stringlike seems lazy, if not dishonest. ["Quantum Dada," Michael Bise, Art Lies 66, 2010]Double brutal. And substantial. He's not tapping the work with a twig of snark, he's beating it soundly with a hammer.
His takedown of Josephine Meckseper was truly classic.
I thought Meckseper’s exhibition at the Blaffer Gallery was one of the worst shows I’ve seen there. A hipster pastiche of Hans Haacke and Haim Steinbach, Meckseper situates various images and objects that have to do with politics, advertising and the capitalist economy’s strategic conflation of the two, on shelves and in display cases that reference museum vitrines and department store windows. In addition to her exhibition at the Blaffer, Meckseper also created a razor-sharp critique of capitalism by designing a window display for the Houston Galleria’s Neiman Marcus. ["Good Theory Can't Save Bad Art," Michael Bise, Glasstire](Of course, maybe I approve of this because I agree so strongly with it.) I guess the bottom line is that I like critics who are sourpusses, dyspeptic, vitriolic, and mean--and Michael Bise is the closest to that ideal we have. But he is thoughtful--his reviews aren't critical tourette's, spewed out regardless of subject. He can praise when praise is called for. Nonetheless, he doesn't worry about hurting feelings or burning bridges. A healthy art ecology needs critics willing to call a spade a spade. I try to be that kind of art writer, but the lure of boosterism is always tugging at me. Bise is my role-model.
And now he is waiting for a heart transplant, while racking up medical bills. He has a webpage for donations to help him through this. If you like his criticism like I do, think about giving him a little money so he can keep swinging that hammer.