Irritable Crocodiles and Burnt Onions: Writing a Great Artist Statement

Cura­tor George Vasey reflects on avoid­ing some of the com­mon pit­falls and tips for writ­ing a great artist statement.

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When I was an art student, my tutor, Roxy Walsh, took one look at my artist statement and told me to throw the title of a painting, ‘Irritable Crocodiles,’ into the opening sentence. It was fantastic advice. Roxy reminded me of reader fatigue: that my statement would be read among hundreds of others, and a curveball would grab the reader’s attention better than “my practice explores…”

Over the intervening years, I have sat on the other side of the application process, reading through thousands of artist statements hamstrung by the same problems. What follows is a brief reflection on avoiding some of these common pitfalls and tips for writing a great artist statement. It’s not a rulebook, but I hope it offers valuable advice.

So, let us start with the bad stuff. Terrible artist statements tend to waffle on using jargon, cliche, and abstraction. They are generic, using equivocal phrasing that isn’t grounded in process, materials, and feelings. They assume prior knowledge.

They showboat with niche terminology. They use redundant tautology (a mass of words that mean the same thing). They’re too broad. They’re either over-long or too short. Ideas float free of intention and lose themselves in a thicket of adverbs and adjectives. Bad statements assume a universal reader: uninterested in marrying tone to context.

Now for the good stuff. Let’s start with some basics. A short statement is typically 100-200 words; a longer statement can be up to 500 words. A statement has one job: contextualise your work to someone who doesn’t know you. It’s an explaining text. Press releases persuade. Reviews evaluate. Statements orientate. Stay away from hyperbole. Describe the work and your ideas. What does it look, feel, smell, or sound like? What are your processes? What are the issues that you’re passionate about? What are your influences? Describe what, how, where, and why of your art. Start from the concrete and write on the specific; bring the work to life through its materiality and processes. You never finish a statement. It is continually tweaked and adjusted depending on the readership.

Follow the logic of the work. Do you make abstract paintings inspired by nature? Use words drawn from the natural world. Is the work maximal and messy? A word like sloppy could help conjure this. The artist Mathew Parkin brilliantly describes themselves as a “sodden artist” whose work is “armpit-like.” These phrases jolt. You might want to dial this down for a funding application, but in the right context, a neat phrase grabs attention and captures the tone of the work. Words create pictures in a reader’s mind.

A great artist’s statement paints a concise, unexpected, and vivid picture of an artist’s body of work. It introduces the practice and orientates the reader with key concepts. A good piece of writing is like making tasty soup; don’t throw endless herbs into burnt onions. Get the basics right and build from there.

If you still find writing difficult, take another approach. Solicit descriptions of your work from friends and peers. Keep word lists and unique phrases that you can swipe. Create word clouds in your studio that you expand as you go. Get someone to interview you and record it. Read Gilda Williams’ ‘How to Write About Contemporary Art’ (2014), which offers a fantastic introduction to the topic. Software such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid can help pick up redundant phrasing and illogical grammar. It’s a fallacy that writing is a private endeavour, seek other opinions and editorial input. As the writer John Gould states: “Write with the door closed, edit with the door open.” Writing is 90% editing and redrafting.

Writing is about generosity. Think about what the reader needs and keep an eye on access. I’ve seen artist statements written phonetically LYK THS and supplemented with easy-read versions, audio, and audio description. You might want to use video. Artists often ask me whether they should write in the first or third person. It depends on the context. I am a curator sounds more informal and intimate than George Vasey is a curator, which feels more authoritative.

Of course, give an artist a rule, and they’ll often ignore it. Artist statements have taken many forms, frequently breaking with convention. Claes Oldenburg’s ‘I am for an Art’ (1961) is a personal favourite but a 20-page lyrical manifesto is unlikely to get you far with a funder. You might want to finesse your 500-word introduction as well.

My key point is that writing can be a space of generative thinking. Artistic practice is often intuited and then articulated retrospectively in writing and conversation. An artist statement is a valuable public tool, but it is also a place to craft the perimeters of a practice. Embrace it. It can even sometimes be fun. It is, though, often challenging, but all good things are. As Susan Sontag said: “Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.” Happy writing.

George Vasey is a Curator and Writer. He is Senior Lecturer in Curating at Teesside University where he works on the uk’s first and only Degree Apprenticeship in Curating. He has curated over 50 projects for a wide range of museums and galleries across the public and commercial sector. His writing on art and curating is regularly published in magazines, journals and books. He is currently Writer in Residence at Intoart, London. He mentors, coaches and teaches across higher education and non-accredited contexts and is currently a Trustee for New Contemporaries www.georgevasey.com.

This resource is part of a series of writing workshops that was part of the West of England Visual Arts Alliance (WEVAA), a three year programme that includes professional development, commissioning, and support and resources. Find out more here https://vasw.org.uk/wevaa.

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