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How to go to an art gallery

October 14, 2015

Interested in art? Want to go to a gallery? Good. Artists and galleries alike hope for people like you to come in the doors and be entranced, even transformed, by the experience. The problem is that all too often, people like you end up shuffling uncertainly from label to label, glancing at the exhibits but not really understanding what’s going on. The confusion is understandable. The array of possible exhibits- and the ideas behind them- is vast and complex. It’s hard to give concrete advice when the parmaters are so broad, but I’ve compiled here a list of a few small points that should make your next visit to a gallery much more exciting, entertaining and informative.

The first thing you need to know is that works can work differently at different distances, and that some are designed to be seen from far away and some from close up. So take each exhibit separately, and spend some time pacing around, trying to find your ideal viewing position. With a sculpture this might be difficult, but most sculptures have a ‘principal view’- a viewpoint from which the work is intended to present itself.

After a while of this pacing around, start to analyse what makes the painting work. Think about why things are being treated where they are- it might help to superimpose imaginary lines on the piece, thinking about the principal horizontal, diagonal and vertical elements. A point not often appreciated is that empty spaces are significant– no artist will ever leave space on the canvas blank on a whim. Empty spaces do not sell pictures. A good analogy is the use of the rest in music- how the composer uses a pause to help shape his melody. Think about colour and light and shade as well. This sort of analysis gives you a way to look at the art for a longer time- which is important. A lot of paintings demand more time, to let the whole thing soak in. If you have trouble, I recommend ‘how to look at paintings’ by Mary Acton.

In a representational picture, all the items are important. The artists has probably spent a lot of time ‘making it right’ as Gombrich (In his usual direct, unaffected manner) calls it. It’s also critical to think about how the subjects of the picture reflect the conerns and attitudes that the artist wished to convey. It has been said that art is a form of communic ation, but there is one crucial difference from regular, verbal communication; The message, to some extent, depends on you. The artist’s intended message is not necessarily the one that you come away with. A piece by Joshua Reynolds, for example, might be intended to convey the wealth and influence of the artist’s patron, but you might simply enjoy the quality of the painting. The message will shift over a space of time as well.

In an abstract picture, and in a lot of more recent representational work, it’s more important to think about how the picture is painted rather than what the picture is made of or what it depicts. Try and analyse the means by which it was constructed or the way in which the paint is persuaded to summon up the subject. This is often very personal to the artist, and it will show you how the artist makes the subject theirs. An important point to bear in mind is that direct, true one-to-one representation is actually impossible. Even in a photograph. There is always some degree of abstraction in operation. Line, for example, is a form of abstraction.

A certain level of familiarity with the intellectual climate of the time when the piece was made is indispensable. Reading what a critic has to say could give you a way in to the piece. A really good critic is an artist in his own right in the sense that he helps form the spirit of the period- think of Ruskin and the preraphaelites, or Greenberg with abstract expressionism. I’m not saying that everybody who goes to a gallery should attempt to read Derrida though- that would only make the experience more intimidating. A good place to start for the interested member of the public would be the ‘very short introduction’ series, or possibly the illustrated ‘introducing’ books. Both series are very good at giving the reader a solid orientation in a short space of time. The other book I thoroughly recommend is Gombrich’s ‘the story of art’. He’s gone out of fashion recently, and there are bits that you possibly shouldn’t take too much to heart, but generations of artists and gallery-goers have read and valued this book.

Another point is not to assimilate other people’s bad ideas about Art. Give yourself the freedom to experience and interpret the work for yourself. Don’t be intimidated by the label, either. A lot of exhibitions have extra documentation- sheets of notes, catalogues etc. I tend to wait to read this sort of stuff until after I’ve seen the exhibition, but some pieces actually rely on knowledge that’s difficult to come by except by reading the documentation- information about how the piece was made, for example. Possibly the best advice is to have a look first, and if you find yourself stuck on a particular piece to have a look at the documentation then. It could make all the difference. A lot of people would ask what makes an unmade bed art, and miss out on the fact that Emin’s bed was the bed on which she lay after a painful break-up with her boyfriend of the time, and the mess and clutter act as a portrait of her emotional state at the time.

I hope this little article will hope you get more out of your next visit to a gallery. Art is a vast, weird and wonderful world and a little orientation helps enormously.

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