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Writing Great Reviews: Exhibitions

In this series we ask professional critics for their guide to writing, editing, and pitching reviews. This time - writing about exhibitions and installations.

Shyama Laxman is a London based writer with an MA in Creative Writing. She writes mainly about LGBTQ+ theory and has had work in Huffington Post, Defenestration, Gaysi, The Quint, and Muse India.

What do you keep in mind while you’re experiencing the exhibition you’ll be writing about?

I read up on the artist and the exhibition beforehand so as to give me some context. Once I am at the gallery, I look at the layout of the exhibition: where in the gallery are the images placed? Are they placed next to an existing collection from another era, and if so, is there a deliberate intent behind that?

While looking at the individual pieces on display, I try to think about a narrative arc. What is the theme and/or story that is being told? Is there a pattern behind grouping certain works together? For example, I recently went to a James Barnor retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery. This exhibition was as much about the transformation of Accra and London between the fifties and eighties, as it was about Barnor’s career trajectory as a photographer.

I also think about what emotions the exhibition evokes. Does the work make me sad, happy, angry or even confused?

How do you get started writing your review?

While at the exhibition I take down notes and observations, and take photos if I’m allowed to do so. Almost all exhibitions will have a brochure summing up key facts and dates. It’s good to have those on hand to refer back to.

Before writing, I do more research on the artist, any relevant interviews they may have given or essays by other critics. Researching the artist’s life and practice is helpful as it can ground the body of work you are reviewing within the context of their career.

I write a first draft in a ‘free writing’ style wherein you write whatever comes to mind without stopping to edit your work. The second draft consists of revisions and padding the piece up with relevant facts, quotes from interviews, drawing connections with current topics etc. Once the full draft is ready, I leave it and go back to it the next day. At this stage I also edit for grammar and punctuation.

What’s the best way to structure a review?

Most editors specify a word count so that helps in formulating a structure. Reviews tend not to be more than 300 –700 words long. If I am writing a 300 word review, the first 100 words would introduce the artist, the work and establish a context. The next 100 words would be spent in briefly talking about the artist’s creative practice, analysing a few pieces, discussing the themes, giving interesting facts or quotes. The last 100 words would talk about why the exhibition is relevant for the time it's being shown.

To put it simply -

Introduction: Talk about the artist, dates, name of the gallery and establish the context

Main Body: Give an overview of the artist’s creative practice, analyse the pieces, find any historical relevance or connection, quote from their interviews etc

Conclusion: Talk about why the exhibition is relevant now, and connect it with larger/ongoing socio-political or cultural debates.

What are your top tips for new critics? Or is there anything they should try and avoid?

As with any kind of writing, it is important to be a voracious reader. Read other critics’ works to keep abreast with what is happening. But whilst you’re at it it is also important to find your own voice and style. This won’t happen with the first piece you review. With practice, you will automatically become confident and find your natural flow.

My own practice is a combination of two tips I received from my mentors at arts charity, Hundred Heroines. Dr Del Barrett taught me the need to be authoritative while reviewing and Gabrielle Kynoch said that while it’s a good practice to read what other critics have said about an exhibition, it’s important to put your views down first so as not to let your ideas be influenced by prevailing views. ‘Trust your own opinion first, read others second.’

I tend to avoid using the personal pronoun ‘I/me/myself’ in my reviews. But that does not mean I cannot be creative with how I interpret a piece of art because art speaks differently to each of us and there are no right or wrong answers.

Keep your language simple and let go of jargon. Your review should inform the average reader. While you don’t have to love every exhibition you attend, I would advise against writing an extremely scathing review. You can talk about what didn’t work for you but it’s good to highlight the bits that did so that people can make an informed decision for themselves.

Lastly, enjoy the process. The more you do it, the stronger your voice and style will become.