How to Write and Artist Statement for Critical Mass; In Focus with Peter M. Krask

Today, I’m speaking with Peter M. Krask, a Photolucida board member, CM prescreener/juror, and writer/photographer whose work has been published, produced, and exhibited nationally. Peter is also a creative coach for private clients and a Mentor at the New Museum in NYC for New Inc, the only museum-led incubator for art, design, and tech. And if that’s not enough, he’s an Expert Coach at Columbia University for CU Grow program.  Peter’s career is rooted in storytelling in all of its forms.

PG: Thank you for joining us today to discuss writing an artist statement for Critical Mass. I know it’s a daunting process, and now that we have a 250-word limit, we’re hoping you can give everybody some tips. How does one begin?

PMK: Well, the first place I want to begin is here: let’s all be honest – nobody likes writing artist statements. They can be very artificial. I don’t think when we sit down and begin a project, we write a statement and then go to work on the project. So, usually, you’re describing something after the fact, which can get confusing and complicated. My hope, today, for our conversation is that we can take some of that away and simplify it. I think there’s one point of confusion, and I want to clarify that: the artist’s statement isn’t to tell the meaning of the work. The artist’s statement is there for me as a viewer, juror, or pre-screener to find a way in, find our footing, and be grounded in the images.

You’re not there to explain everything, which is why people get so confused and why it seems so difficult. And if you’re looking at your statement more as an invitation and a way of saying, “Hey, this is what I’m trying to do, and here’s your point of entry,” and then let the images do the work for you, that can make things much simpler. I’ve been a pre-screener and juror for two iterations of Critical Mass. So, I’ve read approximately 1500, 1600 artists’ statements. The point of this is not to make it easier for the jurors or the pre-screeners (which we certainly appreciate!). It’s actually the point — for you to represent your work as well as you can. Having read many artists’ statements, and worked with other artists on their statements, we want you to feel supported, that you’re representing your work and your entry as well as you can, so that your entry can stand out.

PG: Well, it sounds like you’re an expert, having read that many artists’ statements. It takes a long time to determine whether the imagery equates to the statement — whether it reflects the work. So, what’s the first paragraph, Peter?

PMK: There are three simple questions I would encourage you to focus on in your artist statement. And it’s a good way to organize it. The first question is:

So, if the title of your project is “Polly’s Photo Project” that’s the title you’re going to start out with. [An example.]  “Polly’s Photo Project is a documentary work exploring X . . . or Polly’s Photo Project is a fine art series of still lives photographed in South Carolina or New York.” But keep it very simple and factual. Stating what the project is grounds the viewer in what those 10 images are and their context. The next question is:

Tell us a little bit about your process. We get a lot of alternative processes in Critical Mass. Are your images chemigrams? Are they black-and-white prints? Is it digital work printed on a certain kind of paper? Fairly often, we receive mixed media submissions. So tell us how you made it. Then, the third question:

So that’s where we find out more about who you are and what drew you to that project, subject matter, and that form of expression. Why did you choose to represent these images via a cyanotype, or why did you choose to present them as a print? 

If you keep your statement focused on these three questions, you’ll tell us everything we need to know about the project and give us a clear entry point into those ten images.

PG: When discussing why you made it — can that be a personal statement?

PMK: Yes, it can really encompass a whole variety of meanings. What I would like to see, or what I would encourage people to think about, is what was the thing that first got you excited about that project? We all have that moment on a project where you’re casting about for an idea or trying different things, and you start noticing something that really captures your interest, and then that light bulb goes on. You think, “Aha, this is what I want to pursue, and I feel like I’m hot on the trail of something.” So if we can learn more about that point of attraction, that point of curiosity, that point of excitement, if you can give us information about that, that’ll give us a chance to get excited about it too or to develop curiosity. 

One of the exciting things about Critical Mass is the wide range of work and subject matter, and everyone’s coming at it with something very personal. Nobody will invest time in a project unless it is something they care about or are deeply passionate about, so tell us about that. But again, think of that point, that initial moment when the switch flipped, when you’re like, “Ah, I know I’m onto something.”

PG: Does a juror read the statement before they look at the work or after they’ve seen the work or at what point in the process?

PMK: That is a good question. I don’t know the answer to it. I think we have to ask each juror individually. I tend to read the statement first because we’re only looking at a short edit. I want to understand what I’m looking at and get a sense of what these images are trying to do. Other pre-screeners and jurors do it after evaluating all the photos and then connect back to see how those things link up. Sometimes, you are five images in, then read the artist’s statement to see if you’re on the right track. It’s very personal how the jurors do this,  what their process is to evaluate it individually. But the most important thing is whether the statement supports the image in the best way possible. Can we draw that line? If it’s not clear, that starts setting up all kinds of questions for the juror. And that’s the trap you want to avoid. You don’t want to give the juror that opportunity to be like, “. . .  wait a second.”

PG: What kind of language should a statement be written in? Does it need to be formal language like art theory or what some people would call “art speak”? Where do you fall on that?

PMK: I fall on the side of keeping it simple. Clear and simple is always best; we need two bits of nuance here. If we’re talking about Critical Mass, keep your language simple, as if you are thinking out loud on paper. That said, there may be other things you’re applying for, like grants, where there is an expectation of that kind of art theory language. And if that’s appropriate for what you’re applying for, then I encourage you to be mindful of that and use it. But for Critical Mass purposes, clarity is better. You’re in a vast pool of applicants, so it supports your work to keep your language simplified. 

This is the second bit of nuance I want to add — I often think that language can be kind of bullshit and taking up space and trying to sound more important or more complex than what the work actually is. For example, I was at a gallery show not too long ago where an artist’s statement on the wall was full of very dense language, and the images were cyanotypes of abstract shapes. And somewhere in the artist’s statement, it said that these abstractions created a new moral paradigm for imagery and understanding. I’m all for ambition, which is excellent, but instantly, the statement raised the bar of my expectations of what those images needed to deliver, and that didn’t happen. And I felt that the statement then undercut all of that work because they were saying this work does this thing — it’s invented a new moral paradigm – which is a huge claim and very difficult to achieve.

We all want our work to change the world. We all believe in it deeply. I am an artist myself. I do projects that I’m very driven and passionate about and want them to do things in the world, but it’s important not to oversell it and then have your image evaluated with that expectation, if that makes sense or is clear.

PG: Many artists ask about including biographical information in an artist statement, such as what competitions they’ve won, where they’ve exhibited, etc. Sometimes artists do this to show that their work is out there in the world, but should that be part of an artist’s statement?

PMK: I don’t think that’s as valuable because, particularly with Critical Mass, your website is linked to the entry. I often look at someone’s work on the website while evaluating the images because I’m curious and want to understand. It allows me to learn more about their background. But if that information supports the what, how, and why, then yes, I would include it. But again, if you’re using it to make the work sound extra important, I don’t know that that’s as valuable. The best way to ensure your work has an impact is to describe it clearly and thoughtfully. If the project is included in a book or a documentary, that’s useful, but we don’t need to learn every bit of every prize you’ve won, or where you went to school, because we have other ways of getting that information. So, maximize the short amount of space you have with the most essential information.

PG: Can someone check their artist statement to ensure it reflects their work? How do you do that?

PMK: Oh, that’s an excellent question. I would say yes, definitely. Who is your good colleague? Who’s your good peer who understands what you’re trying to do and has been involved in your project? Run it by them. But, sure, another set of eyes, or another two set of eyes, is really helpful. Also, please have somebody proofread your artist statement because you never want to give anyone the opportunity to discount the work. And if there are errors, misspellings, or things that detract from the quality of the thought, they can put your statement at a disadvantage and then put your work at a disadvantage. Finding a trusted colleague is a good idea, but don’t get too many opinions. We all know that whenever we’re working on a project, if you have too many sets of eyes, everybody has a different opinion, which can be confusing. 

PG: Do you have any other writing insights, Peter? Any other tips?

PMK: Well, I think I would say that writing is hard. I went to school for writing and people say I’m a good writer, but writing’s hard. It’s hard for me when I have to write and when I’ve written artist statements. It’s hard to be objective about your own work. Often, the process is intuitive, and you may not have a clear plan, you may not know quite what you’re doing, and then you have to step back and say, “Oh, this is what the thing is I’m doing.”  And that’s a challenge. So, it’s not you. The assignment itself is difficult. Making work is not easy, and describing your work is not easy, but keep it simple and keep it on these three questions. What is the work? How did I make it, and why did I make it? And that will go along more to get a clear, powerful statement.