“JOY FIELDS 2”
Whitney Wood Bailey
The Art of Looking at Art: Suggestions On How to Approach Abstract Art
Instead of interpreting a piece from our collection for you to understand and appreciate more fully, I am going to step back a bit further; to the space that exists before interpretation. This is the space that involves the viewer’s stance; how to come to the art at the very beginning.
Before you even look at a piece of art, be aware that you will bring to it such complex layers and projections. Writers refer to this as, “what the reader brings to the page." I can’t even begin to address all of that; you most likely can’t either- so much subconscious bias, so many years of seeing images heaped on you, so many images dear to you hoarded like special markers of your past. What you bring and what the artist brings gets a chance to "shake hands" (or not).
If you can remember to adjust yourself and wake yourself up a little as you walk in the door at a museum or gallery; if you can take a couple of deep parasympathetic vagus nerve stimulating breaths as you pay for your ticket, or before you lift your plastic wine cup from a silver-coated plastic wine tray; if you can blink your eyes several times to warm them up as you spear your frill pick into a cube of orange cheese, you can find the space of awareness to partake in the experience of viewing art at a gallery or museum show opening.
I don’t really suggest you try to experience the art at the opening, though. I recommend that you be by yourself, or with a partner who understands the solitude and introspection that is necessary to take in art. The thing about art for me is, when I experience the beauty of it with such magnitude, I want someone nearby to share the joy explosion with, or help spread the tension out because some art is laden with meaning and not always happy. I can experience intense loneliness if my reaction is strong in either direction and a caring thoughtful companion is not with me to share. Sharing just multiplies the satisfaction of your experience.
Viewing art requires space; it requires quiet.
The first step, perhaps, is to get into the best possible mental space; aiming towards being open and receptive. Maybe even tune the brain/ocular nerves and aural nerves if an installation is involved. You can even oxygenate your brain through breathing. Relax. What you are about to engage in is very special; it’s the sacred space between you and another person who created the art. The interaction is between you and them, and it is also between you and yourself and all that you bring. There is the influence of the institution itself- the curators and registrars, the installation crew who made it easy and beautiful to see by hanging it and lighting it; the front staff who get you inside, and the artists’ agents who spread the good word about an artist- they are all involved; even the drivers of the trucks who deliver it.
Ok; now you are faced with the pieces themselves. Here are some rudimentary suggestions: take the art in from varying lengths; long view, mid view, up close, and then obliquely. As you move to the next piece, shoot a sideways glance to the one you’re leaving attention to- let it catch you off-guard.
Now, let’s make an imaginary scenario. You are in a gallery; it’s quiet, you are alone, and you’re feeling open-minded. You’re doing this. You enter the space and a giant canvas, 14’ x 10’ faces you about 35 feet away. It’s three tones of grey. It has some texture, some spatters, and drips. The only major color you see on it is a big red splat that is off-center; that’s it.
Sheesh, you think, what am I supposed to get from this? I could do this. In fact, this is what it looked like when I painted my barn with white shutters and black hardware. I knocked the cup of red over on the drop cloth.
This is ART?
This scene is what I call the ELEPHANT in the room. It’s the art albatross that so many of us come into a museum with, wrapped around our neck. The question arises from exasperation; of feeling duped, of sensing pretense. They are all valid suspicions. This is part of the process of your viewing art. The artist, Maurizio Cattelan, who sold his banana/duct-taped paintings at Art Basal in Miami in 2019 for $75,000- $120,000, made a legit stir in the art world.
I want to be clear that reactions against the validity of such art are valid themselves. I'm not judging the judgment; I'm urging further inquiry.
I’m not sure how to connect you with a piece of art; that’s a personal domain. It happens or it doesn’t. What I can do is point out that there is a worthwhile reason to try and connect with art. New types of art can threaten a long-held idea or construct; a core belief which feels uncomfortable. Why would anyone suggest one be uncomfortable around art?
If we stay with only what we know, we do not grow. Algorithms feed us more of what we already know all day long. It feels familiar and reinforcing (supportive, even) to see and read things we already know and with which we agree. It feels good, but, maybe there is merit in considering something you don’t understand. Just for the exercise of considering something you don’t understand. Even just for the sake of it.
If you can sit with and experience a work or a painting that you don’t like, don’t get, or don’t even really care about, then isn’t this the perfect segueway to transferring this exercise to people? Could we transfer this gracious practice of inclination towards understanding to other human relationships and their POVs? By the wholesale dismissing of genres of art or people that you don’t “get,” you are cutting yourself off from something valuable.
Humans are built for connection. If we stay in our groove too long, we won’t know each other at all. We can faction off into like-minded groups with no compassion or care to understand another’s POV. There are 7 billion of us walking the earth; I think it behooves us to at least spend some time beyond the tolerance of each other. Art, and the brave ones who make themselves vulnerable to the creation of it- especially in the wordless and imageless realm of abstraction, is the ground we can meet. The poet Rumi said, “out beyond right and wrong, there’s a field, I’ll meet you there." Think of art as that field.
To me, a painting is inseparable from the artist who created it, so it isn’t a great leap to think in terms of people and art as one. In an abstract painting, you get to see tangible and visual evidence of thousands of decisions a person made. Each mark is from the hand of a beating heart and surging brain. Effects are watched with a living eye. There is a keen observer, a witness on the other end of the color splats and textures. You get to see something mysterious- the spirit of imagination and expression, of inspiration - the very world “to inspire” is derived from the word “spirit”. You get to stand there, in this holy space of another to witness what happened when another human gave way to the creative process. I think of philosopher Martin Buber and his beautiful book I and Thou.
Resistance to this process will hinder growth; it won’t be as deep and broad as if you open your heart and mind and take the works in your inner world. All of my suggestions require the precept that you are open to growth in the first place. Perhaps asking these questions of the work helps:
“What can I get from this? What do I like without hesitation.?”
“How does this make me feel? And why?”
“What elements are there that I can name: LIne, color, texture, composition, perspective, pattern, etc?” “How does this piece spark my curiosity?”
“Does this piece allude to something else?”
These concrete questions are ropes to hold onto as you cross the swaying footbridge over the ravine of art experiences.
You may get through the whole experience and hate the piece entirely; that’s completely valid. No one is forcing anyone to believe in, accept, or like anything. What is required, however, is a receptivity towards something new. Viewing and understanding art is about cultivating sensitivity; sensitivity that is not only emotional but is related to attention.
Attention and consciousness are powerful in the evolution of humans- just read a little about the power of consciousness in quantum mechanics.
I know that not understanding things can feel powerless; that’s what is really happening when you judge art as unworthy. Some art might just make you mad or confused (I know Jeff Koons’ art does that for me sometimes). But I allow this; it’s my internal stuff that’s triggered. I still think it’s valid. In fact, I'm grateful for the chance to know this by the art. There’s room for all our reactions. We must allow for them; like shadow work in psychology, that what we resist, persists. Anytime I have a visceral dislike or feel threatened by a work of art, I am curious as to why that is.
The two current shows at the MAS, Emerging National IX and Emerging Voices, have some excellent pieces of abstract art- nonbinary things; more intuitive, often more emotional, and more sensuous than realism could capture. Realism with all of its bells and whistles is often limited. I learned this in my conversation with skilled painter, Rocio Rodriguez, that images can limit. Abstraction, though, like spirituality is open-ended. Consider this idea. I believe it to have truth to it. Rocio Rodriguez's piece, Round City Baghdad is on display in the Emerging Voices show now.
The artists represented this year in our Emerging National IX are as follows: Katherine Sandoz, Will Penny, Whitney Wood Bailey, and Kristina Larson. You may access their websites by pressing the name. Their works deserve in-person viewing because they are captivating. The show officially opens tomorrow. There will be no Night With The Artists this year because of Covid-19.
Please come see us. I’ll be giving gallery tours at 3:30 every day next week. Ask for me at the front desk if you come at any other time, and if I am free, I’ll come up and meet you. We will go through the process together of how best to approach viewing art as I have outlined above.
Make art. Look at it. Buy it.
Enjoy your afternoon.
Curator of Art