Writing an art review
A guide for assignment #1
Introduction to the Humanities)
Your first assignment is to write a review of an exhibit at the MacLaren Art Centre. Your
review should be 2.5 pages or more in length (excluding coverpage and bibliography) and
written in essay form. It is worth 20 percent of your final grade and is due in hardcopy
form in class (I will not read electronic versions).
Your visit to the MacLaren:
• Bring a pencil (rather than pen) and pad with you so you can take notes.
• Choose a work of art that interests you.
• Stand in front of it for some time.
• Take note of the physical appearance of the work. Think about how it was
executed (e.g., short, painterly strokes that give the work energy and intensity,
• Record your own reaction to it.
• Try to get some literature on the exhibit from the gallery.
• Take note of who curated the exhibit.
Writing the review
This is only a suggested format. You do not have to follow this form exactly, nor do you
have to respond to every question laid out below.
1. Begin by introducing the exhibit you are reviewing.
• Who is the artist?
• What is the exhibit? (Don’t offer too much detail yet.)
• Where is the artist’s work being exhibited?
• What is his or her background?
• Perhaps there is something to say about how the artist’s work has been received.
2. You might also want to have a BRIEF section that describes the venue for the
exhibit (i.e., the MacLaren). Note: this should not take up too much of your review!
• What is its history?
• How does the gallery view the importance of the present exhibit?
• What is the physical space like?
• How does the exhibit space complement the works?
3. After introducing the artist, exhibit and gallery, you can provide a description of
the work or works you are planning to review.
• This isn’t really the place to interpret the work—that comes next. First you need
to offer a more general, physical description of the piece.
• That doesn’t mean that you can’t use some basic interpretive language: (e.g.,
“the artist’s work offers a striking and somewhat troubling representation of the
urban working class in Canada”; “this work exhibits artist x’s longstanding
preoccupation with images of the Canadian north”; “this exhibit provides a
visionary glimpse of a future society transformed by technological change”…etc.)
• Describe how the piece is being exhibited.
4. Next offer your interpretation of the piece. Note: this is the most important section
of the review!
Here are some things you could talk about:
• How does the piece strike you at first appearance?
• What details stand out upon closer inspection?
• How do you react to the piece?
• Do you have any criticisms to make?
But here is something you really should talk about:
• What do you think the artists is trying to say?
• About human experience in general: Does the work have something to
say about perennial themes like love, death, justice, human purpose,
• About his or her personal experience? Are there biographical details
about the artist that help us to understand the work?
• About human relations in general? Or about the artist’s society more
• About social changes that have or need to take place?
• About art and its role in our world? (Can you draw comparisons with
any other artists or works that you know?)
5. Provide some sort of critical reaction to the work.
• How does it succeed or fail esthetically (that is, at the level of appearance and
• How does it succeed in communicating a certain meaning or message?
• Do you think the work or its message is important for us?
• Do you think that the show has been curated well?
• Sum up your reaction to the show.
• Offer any final thoughts you may have. After you have finished writing your
review, write it again.
• Clean up the language. And spice it up! Make it fun to read!
WARNING: Make sure you have provided PROPER REFERENCES for any
secondary sources you use. If you borrow a quote, phrase, or even a conspicuous
adjective from an outside source, CITE IT! For instance, if another critic has
written that the artist’s work “is suffused with an almost unbearable sense of loss,”
and you want to use the phrase “unbearable sense of loss” in your own review, make
sure you enclose the phrase in quotation marks and provide a citation. If you
borrow those words without providing quotes and a citation, you are committing an
act of plagiarism.
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