Jen Graves is an American original. I mean that on many different levels, including a very literal one: She's the only full-time art critic employed by any weekly newspaper in the United States. But I also mean that, of all the writers I know and work with, Jen has the most unique voice. You can always tell a Jen Graves sentence by the way it twangs, like a tightly-wound guitar string. A Jen Graves sentence has its own drama to it. Sometimes you can't tell where it's going to end up. Other times, she'll drop a fact into the middle of the sentence that changes the way you think about something important. Still other times, she'll say something so perfect that you'll covet the brain that could conceive of an observation so simple, so obvious, that it's always seemed to exist. As someone who's been edited by her on many occasions, I can tell you that she's relentless in the way she hunts and strips cliches and unnecessary words from a text. A piece that's been edited by Jen is always better than it began, because she brings the same rigor and clarity to other pieces of writing that she always brings to her own. (Unrelated to her writing, but somehow also relevant: she's a great karaoke singer, too.)
None of us at The Stranger were surprised to hear that Jen was named a Pulitzer finalist in the field of criticism this afternoon. She's the rare kind of critic who improves a field just by writing about it. She's been doing incredible work for years, and she's just had her best year yet. I want to share with you the nine pieces that convinced the Pulitzer judges that Jen's work was especially worthy of praise in 2013.
Get a load of this lede, from Jen's piece about Mark Mitchell's burial clothing:
It started out as a funeral procession at the museum on a blustery September night. There was a hush in the gallery, even as a thousand people streamed through. No one had died, but people were still crying, and, exiting through the same door they'd gone in, acting like they'd seen ghosts.
Or how about this moment, when Jen realized that an artist who swore up and down that she was new to the art world turned out to be lying to her face:
The next morning, preparing to write, I did what I always do: Google. I typed in the horse-farm artist's name to find any last bits that might be useful. The story was mostly written in my head.
Google scrambled everything. I kept seeing references to earlier shows she'd had. She had shown lots of times. She had shown in Seattle. She had shown in spots whose names I knew. Her work from the past looked nothing like these vernacular paintings. It was neo-pop. It was Warholian with bright streaks. She'd exhibited text paintings on canvas, silk screens with acrylic on canvas, and pen-and-ink drawings on paper. Multiple writers had interviewed her. In 2008, she name-checked Henry Darger, the legendary late outsider artist, whose traveling exhibition she'd seen—and loved—at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle in 2006.
And then there's this beauty:
All people fight when they hear a statement that begins, "All art."
Jen brings nuance and surprising humor to a discussion about the proper way to photograph a horse:
The horse's ass, it turns out, is too small from this perspective. More of the horse's body should have been turned toward the wide-angle lens, he says. The horse looks like a mule, Yellowtail thinks.
She addresses the injustice of a family's personal history auctioned off like any other commodity:
Connie Young Yu had no more than $11,000 to buy back her late mother's favorite red robe. The robe came up early in the sale, rising like a flame at the front of a room at Bonhams auction house in San Francisco last December. Embroidered with sprays of peonies, patterned butterflies, and gold medallions, the robe dates back to the Qing dynasty, in the 19th century. Bidding started, and Connie jumped in, but buyers whizzed past Bonhams's low estimate of $8,000, then past Connie's budget. A Chinese businessman bid $15,000. Sold. Just like that, the robe was gone, a half-century after Connie's parents rescued it and sent it to the Tacoma Art Museum to be enshrined as a symbol of reconciliation in the city where the mayor once called Chinese people a "curse" and a "filthy horde."
Lots of heads turned when Jen discussed the way the Seattle art world treated Charles Krafft's Holocaust-denial as a kind of open secret.
The question is hard to get your head around: If Charles Krafft is a Holocaust denier, what does that say about his revered artwork? What exactly does he believe happened, and didn't happen, during the Holocaust? How should collectors and curators—or anyone who sees his work— reassess his art in light of what he's been saying lately?
Even artists who have been creating work in Seattle for decades experience a rebirth, a kind of debut, when Jen profiles them:
Every version of the story he tells is true. The art is a protest. It's a decorative banner of simple human activity. It's an experiment in tying together the rich and the poor. It's a revelation of the context, of economic disparity at close range. There are many Buster Simpsons all at once.
Jen frequently examines the limits of art, especially when it comes to the way humans mistreat humans:
At the Henry Art Gallery, there are four photographs in one small gallery and a video installation in another. The four photographs are large and concerned with the usual two-dimensional variables: framing, focus, decisions about what's in the center versus on the margins. A map is implicitly drawn with crisscrossing roads between territories of oppression, prosperity, and the act of archiving, of saving something more than memory or story. Photography and video are flimsy substitutes for the things they depict.
Jen's secret weapon is her enthusiasm for art, which shines through in every story. Some stories, though, are more enthusiastic than others:
On top of this, for anyone who visits her solo show this month at Shift Studio in Pioneer Square, she'll do an on-the-spot portrait painting, or snap a picture if you'd rather pick up your painting later: She'll be your caricaturist-on-the-fly, like a boothie at a street fair. Furthermore, she's giving them away for free. For free. Does she not value herself? My god!
We at The Stranger are so thrilled to see the rest of the world acknowledge Jen's unique gifts in such a meaningful way. It's not the first recognition she's received, and it certainly won't be her last. But it's a great opportunity for those of us who work with Jen to take a step back, to marvel at the body of work she's constructed one day at a time, and to just take it all in. We're awed by her skill, we're inspired by her dedication, and we're so unspeakably grateful that she decides to share space in this filthy little fishwrapper with us, week in and week out. Congratulations, Jen! We love you, and we couldn't be prouder.