Catherine Wagley is an arts and culture writer whose work has appeared in ARTNews, East of Borneo, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Los Angeles Times. Formerly an art critic for LA Weekly, she is a contributing editor for Momus and Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles. Before moderating a Zócalo/LA Commons panel, “How Do Artists See the Next L.A.?,” Wagley spoke in the virtual green room about when critical reviews are justified, her path to becoming an arts writer, and Zoom happy hours.
What is your morning routine?
I'm always trying to have a morning routine. I've been working on a book project for a number of years, and I want to wake up and work on it, even for just 25 to 20 minutes. In the end, I do that maybe three times a week. I try to read, and to keep a dream journal—even if I don't remember my dreams, I try to write something. Because I work from home, it's so easy to just jump right into work in the morning. And then by the end of the day, I feel like a disaster. So my ideal morning routine is to have coffee and read and write a little bit, and then transition into the work day.
Do you remember the first scathing review that you wrote?
I probably didn't write a scathing one for a long time, because I didn't know how. I remember trying to figure out when it's justified to criticize somebody harshly. I've thought a lot about that. What I've decided is [it’s justified] when it's somebody who has some power, when it's a show that's at an institution with a lot of influence, when I think that really criticizing something opens up a conversation that needs to be had beyond that exhibition. I always feel really conflicted about being super critical because you don't have to write it. If you don't like something, or you don't think it should be in the world, you don't have to write about it.
What was the first byline that you were really proud of?
I moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to get an MFA in painting and drawing. When I was still in graduate school, I was writing, mostly to just understand and engage with the city. I had written before, and I'd done some copywriting work, so I at least had the skills I needed to start pitching myself to publications. My second year in graduate school, Art21 reached out, and I started writing a little bit for them. And then, around 2009, another artist who was also a writer, Lily Simonson, and I started a column called “Looking at Los Angeles.” That was the first time it was like, “Oh, we have a thing—we're writing about this city for this publication that’s national.” That felt like the beginning of something for me.
So you were originally planning on becoming not an arts journalist but an artist?
Yeah, I totally was. But then when I graduated, it was hard. It was the recession, and I knew it would be hard to make a living, but I don't think I totally understood that, and I also didn't understand how much I would want to stay in Los Angeles. So then I had to figure out, OK, so if I'm going to stay in this city, how do I do this?
I was already writing and I wasn't making any money on art, at all. I was teaching children in elementary schools and after school programs. Very slowly my energy started going more toward the writing because I had some platforms already; I had a little bit of an income stream. And then I started liking it. I liked the role. I liked the way that writing is about telling stories and bringing attention. And I liked the way I participate in the art world in Los Angeles as a critic and a journalist and an essayist.
Is there an artwork that you feel really articulates the pandemic?
I've enjoyed some of the strategies people have come up with, like the backyard shows or the drive-by exhibitions. There's one gallery that I really like right now that's online called EPOCH gallery. They started during the pandemic and have continued [hosting] digital shows in a virtual environment that is newly created for each exhibition. There's not one work I think of, but it's been interesting to see the way people have adjusted.
Where was your favorite place to go as a child?
I was born in Chicago. My family moved to Eastern Washington, which is where I am now. But we used to visit the Midwest a lot. Visits to the Art Institute of Chicago were formative—I feel like that's why I do what I do in a large part. And my grandmother and my aunt were artists, and they were also in Chicago.
As someone who'd constantly surrounded by art, how do you decide which pieces to buy or acquire?
Mostly I acquire things from friends. My initial collection began with people I knew from grad school who couldn't store their grad school work. I’ve become the borrower of some pieces that I’ve never had to give back. And I’ve bought some things at benefits for Planned Parenthood or for nonprofits that are really affordable because, you know, I’m on a budget.
What is the most fun that you had during quarantine?
Early on, when people were doing the Zoom happy hours, there was one I did with friends. Everybody was kind of destroyed and exhausted, and we just talked and laughed into the wee hours of the morning. It was really singular because we all became fatigued with Zoom soon after that and didn't really enjoy spending all this endless time on video together, but that one night was really special.
Do you have a favorite plant?
I have these obsessions with plants that I kill. Like I kill anthuriums. I can't keep them alive. So for a while I was really obsessed with the anthurium that I would keep alive. And then I kind of stopped trying. But I think my favorites may be prayer plants and variations on the peace lily because they can handle some indirect light. And I have a fiddle fig that's really thriving. I’m very proud of it.