Skip to content

How to go to an art gallery

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.

Flora at Oriel Myrddin

The first thing you see in Oriel Myrddin’s gallery at the moment is a strange drift of clay flowers, with little notes written on cards popping up at intervals between them. You can participate in this exhibit. What you have to do is write down your first memory of flowers and you’re given one of the little clay flowers (roses?) to take away with you. I recommend you do so firstly because the little flowers are exquisitely made little things and look great as table centrepieces, but also because this kind of piece really needs the audience to help it work, and if you do join in, the memory of the piece seems to linger, adding an extra nuance to the work. This is an unusual sculpture that exists in time as well as space.

I sometimes play a little game when I’m going around exhibitions called ‘what would I steal if I could get away with it?’. In this exhibition, the make-off-with-it piece, for my money, is Michael Boffey’s bronze Frozen Melody. The whole thing is a colour just warmer than gold would be.The void left by the flowers is somehow more eloquent than the actual remains of them would be- not that the other pieces aren’t arresting in a different way, but the act of removing any intelligble fragments makes for a different sort of statement- Not ghostly, exactly, but a tangible-seeming way of referring to an object without actually referring to it. I think of Rachel Whiteread’s similar method of using casts of the inside of things, but Boffey’s work isn’t as direct- it’s more poetic really, using the process of arranging objects to cast to carry the visual metaphor of the piece.

Ori Gersht’s film is well worth a look too (you can ask the gallery staff to switch it on). The central thing to understand is that the sound being heard is the machine that was used to make it. I won’t ruin it for you by describing it too much, but there’s an ethereal quality to the sound, note quite music, not quite speech, not quite white noise, in the hinterland between those three things. The stills, in a way, are stronger pieces- the selected pattern made by the objects in the still have a dreamy nature that belies the process by which they were made. Having said that, you wouldn’t want to see the stills on their own- having the film there completes the experience.

One can’t really miss Jacques Nimki’s big, patterned drawings. There’s a certain essence in them that reminds me of surrealist scribblings and automatism, but conceptually they belong to an entirely different category, and the kinking drainpipe and other representational elements of her compositions remind you of that. You can really lose yourself in these works, and there are all sorts of little details to discover around the edge of ‘the little florilegium’.

A lot of the pieces in this show depend on you knowing a little more about them than could be easily gained just by confronting them head on, and this is nowhere more true than in Yoshihiro Suda’s work. This is mainly because they’re so good though- ‘morning glory’ had me totally convinced as the real thing until I find out it was a magnolia wood carving. The mind boggles that the technical capabilities that artist must have.

Emma Bennett’s striking paintings are also pieces that depend on the artist’s personal resources, but these are probably the most intellectually accessable pieces in the whole show. Her flowers and fruit ane other props can be enjoyed just for the virtuosity involved, but her sheer black surfaces and other devices invite more nuanced interpretation.

Don’t miss Owen Griffith’s account of his experiments in green spaces and volunteer-fuelled transformation programs. He clearly has a flair for this kind of thing, and the images are charming, if a little cosy.

Flora is on show at Oriel Myrddin until the 31st of October.

Drawing 2015 at Oriel Myrddin

Drawing 2015 at Oriel Myrddin showcased a wide variety of talent, taking in diverse drawing practices in a range of media and approaches. Walking into the room, one is drawn immediately by Anne-Mie Melis’ large, colourful, diagrammatic drawing. It speaks of careful analysis and deliberation. The drawings, based on nature, form a unique synthesis of up-to-date ideas about drawing.

On the wall in front of you, Julia Griffiths’ pictures are sinuous and powerful, yet somehow delicately observed. The artist uses wire to make work that is somewhere between sculpture and drawing, straddling the line effortlessly.

Moving along, Helen Booth’s sparse, terse drawings are particularly efficient somehow. The geometric lines speak of a visual language that is carefully distilled from observed phenomena.

Robert McPartland’s intimate, somehow homely drawings are well-observed in a different, less reductive way. There is something hugely appealing about the way they draw the eye.

Anna Barratt’s ethereal yet approachable drawings contain somehow a sense of longing. She makes drawings on graph paper using felt tip pens and other seemingly childlike materials. The cut through the paper onto paper below is particularly effective. These images have somehow a hallucinatory feel to them, a certain nearly manic energy that speaks of thoughts just below the conscious level.

Stephanie Tuckwell’s loose, immediate works are drawings of a very special pedigree. Her work is about, simply, materials. One feels that many of the features of her drawings are selected accidents- serendipitous features that are slowly coaxed into the service of the amalgamated whole.

All in all, the work here was both thoughtful and revelatory, showing drawings that probe beyond the seen world, becoming drawings of the mind. There was no waste here- an efficient, terse exhibition that showed absolutely contemporary and fresh work.

Unfortunately, the exhibition closes tomorrow. Details here:

The black blog- Aberystwyth edition

Last Friday, yours truly grabbed his notebook and his swimming kit and went to Aberystwyth for a swim, some fish and chips and a bumble around the art galleries.

The standard of painting localy is really rather excellent. I snapped up a quick exhibition at the Morlan centre.

There really is nothing quite like the sea, with its delicate graduations and fields of ripples, to teach one about using colour, as evidenced by Eileen Mullet’s flaming june. This is very solid painting. Margaret Worral’s landscape and seascape are also very well observed, with just the right degree of looseness in painting.

As well as the sea, of course there’s the sky, represented here by Gwawr Jones’ magical ‘first snow of winter’, and Jenny dee’s very pretty ‘first snow’. The spatters of white against the dark blue and black trees create an intoxicating wintery effect.

There was also a picture of some donkeys, wonderfully titled ‘eating machines with gentle faces’ by Eileen Bakewell. Also highly worth a look are ‘rising moon’, again by Jenny Dee, ‘day sleep’ by Hilary Smith (hovering on the edge of abstraction with her pool of red and nicely drawn cats), Laura O Reilly’s ‘Nant y coed/ woodland beck’ and quite a few others.

Gas gallery is a much more substantial and permanent affair, situated near the train station. There are many large, colourful pieces such as Sue Harries’ jagged, exciting figure collages with interesting scribbled markmaking (presumably cut out from an earlier drawing). The artist has obviously attended a large number of life classes. Margaret Worral ( crops up here as well with her ‘the embrace’, an arresting dark blue, red and white monoprint.

It’s nice to see a sculpture, especially one as witty as Richard Brown’s ( elephantine parody of the tesco’s logo with a little receipt tucked underneath. It’s at risk of being overpowered by the other works in the gallery, but taken in and of itself it’s an intelligent little sculpture.

Carmen Mills with her ‘flow 5’ has wonderful impasto accents, and a particularly deft way with the brush. Tali Wilson’s strangely appealing ‘pouring’ is less exuberant, but equally enchanting.

The piece I would steal if I could get away with it, though, was Jane Roy’s ‘the flying machine- study’ with its busy, energetic, almost dysfunctional marks.

I didn’t go this time, as it’s a hefty walk, but Aberystwyth arts centre, up at the university, is always worth a visit. The buildings themselves alone are worth the trip- a delightful blend of modern and postmodern architecture, with wonderful views across the town and down to the bay.

If you want a pint while you’re there, I highly recommend the glengower hotel on the seafront, towards the cliff railway end.

Where links to artists’ sites have been able to be found, they are given. If you’re mentioned on here and have a link or some photos of work you’d like to be put on here, please do get in touch as this blog is becoming a wall of text.

Please, let’s be abstract.

The surprising thing about abstract painting is that it sells well- at least according to John Baldessari. Perhaps because they are more easily subject to the observer’s interpretation- a lot of them can be almost anything you like. That’s a good thing, it means you’re free to interpret the work in a personal manner. The abstract painter is not a tyrant.

The problem is though, that abstract painting may have fallen into something of a decline. True there are great painters out there, like Tomma Abts and Gillian Carnegie. But a lot of the leading lights- the most powerful creative minds- have entirely forsaken abstract painting and sculpture to concentrate on photography and installation works. Now, I’ve nothing against installations and photographs. I’ve had a lot of pleasure from them. But painting and sculpture are important too. People have always painted and sculpted (even from the earliest times- think of the ice age works exhibitted a while ago at the British museum) and they probably always will. The way I see it, a decline in painting and sculpture is sympomatic of nothing less than a decline at the core of our civilisation.

Let me explain why I think that. It’s because the freedom to paint in an abstract way is an important freedom- I’d go as far as to say the most important freedom of the 20th century. Kandinsky, Braque, Pollock and others had to wrestle control of the brush and support from the dying hand of the critical hand of the time. In a way, the development of abstraction in the west was a rebirth, a renewal of the vital forces of our culture. Also, in some ways it was a return to earlier art- think of how Picasso admired African masks. The bald truth, I think, is that most art produced at most times anywhere in the world has been abstract- think of kente cloth (a textile made in Africa) or Polynesian gift assemblages (perhaps ‘assemblage’ is not the right word- there was a cycle of gifts where these exquisite little feather and bead items were passed around whole chains of islands in the Pacific).

At the time abstract art was developed, it came in for a lot of criticism. But in a way this freed it from the need to conform. That’s almost punk in intention- Iggy Pop didn’t think ‘hey, I can make some money by meeting people’s expectations’, he just thought ‘hey, I want to make some really great music’.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a cred-merchant either. I don’t care about being ‘hardcore’ in terms of looking at ‘cool’ stuff- that stuff, frankly, is for gits. What really matters is what pumps you up and gives you the tingles, so to speak. And Rothko and Klee, for example, can do this like nobody else can.

Sometimes, I suppose, abstract painting is like Freudian and Jungian analysis- the interpretations of some works can be like the fantasies Jung recorded when playing his games with sticks and mud. However, abstraction- certainly no less than representation, than mimesis- relies on composition. In fact sometimes more so than mimesis, because especially in abstract work, nobody can tell you how to compose by rule. The process is not rational- it’s intuitive. Composition is something you have to work out for yourself, using your own inner resources. That’s an important freedom too.

Abstraction can also be the fundamental beginning point for mimesis in the form of mark making. It’s about what works for you though, there’s no hard and fast rule. Some people prefer to start by learning perspective. This is key though- learning to make art is a very individual process, not an assembly line.

Also, please let’s not have any of this guff about abstraction being ‘easy’ or ‘a cop out’. It is, for god’s sake the 21st century and each generation has the right to rewrite art as it sees fit. If you fine abstraction easy, let me assure you that you’re doing it wrong. Abstract art is often the culimation of a long process of intellectual and physical development in an artist’s work. Most of us start with mimesis- it is, after all, natural to want to draw what you see. But some of us go beyond. It’s equally true to say that a lot of exciting art is in the middle ground between abstraction and representation. That is, I hasten to tell you, fine. It’s good to have painters who are well versed in the other arts and can find pleasure equally from a tomato as a painting. However, abstract painting runs parallel to and in some senses completes the capacity for abstract thought. There are really three kinds of abstraction. One is what I used to call ‘pure’ abstraction- a form of painting that relies upon visual language alone. The other two are where abstraction extracts visual tropes from representational pictures, and where abstraction finds visual equivalents for nonvisual art, such as music. Each kind, I would say, is equally valid. It’s crucial of course to be open minded.

But the main reason I’m attacted to abstraction is because I want the art I see and make to be beautiful and exciting. Something like Charlie Parker’s jazz or Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture. While we’re about it, I’d like to emphasise that what I’ve said applies equally to sculpture- sculpture like Cy Twombly’s or even Anthony Caro’s. The best abstract sculptures for me though are the kind that do something- that symbolise in form and material some kind of mental process or conceit. It’s almost like in music where the lyrics and the tune have a harmony, a kind of symbiosis.

So yes, Let’s be daring. Let’s be free. Let’s not just describe, but also create. Let’s be abstract. Please.

Shani Rhys James at the National Library of Wales

I know it’s a long trek to Aberystwyth, but I promise you it’s worth it. In the gregynnog gallery, they are showing ‘distillation’, a summary of paintings by Shani Rhys James.

The first thing that hits you about these paintings is not, funnily enough, their size, despite the fact that these paintings are massive- yards high and broad. This is because of the way the images are cropped, I think. The figures and objects seem squashed into the frame, creating a dense, claustrophobic atmosphere. There are smaller paintings,such as the series of heads, but for the most part, these are enormous works.

But no, the first thing that shocks you is the colours. These are ‘unnatural’ colours. The use of colour reminds one of Gerhard Richter. They are deliberately unaesthetic, mirroring the artist’s concern with creating that captivating atmosphere. But where Richter uses grey and yellow, these paintings are more human. There is a lot of red here, but it’s not the kind of red that sells pictures. It’s an uncomfortable, troubling red. The colours dance in the frame in a vibrant but uncomfortable way. These paintings take you in and in,

James’ concerns are mainly with herself and with the props she has in her studio. What really makes the pictures of her studio stand out is her acute visual perception. She has a very finely honed sense of what objects are and how they look. What’s amazing is her economy of means. She gives us, say, a plastic bottle with a few sweeps of her brush. The height of this comes in her painting ‘muse of fire’, where she summons up an elizabethan costume with yellow decorations. The mark making is strikingly original.The other stand out feature in this work is the mix of different approaches to perspective. This is a common thread running throughout her pictures. The objects and people are rendered in a manner almost representing David Hockney’s ‘egyptian’ paintings. What really does impress is the way she manages to make the paintings hold together in spite of this. Her drawing and structure is second to none. Take the way she manages the set piece of a girl with a red figurine on the table in ‘red queen- and as for you’. What seem to be almost casual strokes of paint summon up a clear and viscerally felt structure. Her paintings are almost on the edge of exressionism or even abstraction, but she carefully reins back her use of paint to keep her subjects recognisable. The hands, particularly, are always exquisitely drawn. Take the girl in ‘red ground II’ who seems to lunge, zombie-like, out of the frame. She is handled with a visual wit that suggests far more than it describes. As I say, Shani Rhys James paints mainly her stock objects- gloves that twist on the floor and resemble human hands, a dish painted with oriental decoration in blue, and herself. But through her handling of these things, she hints at important truths, not just about herself but about all of us.

The two ‘If I could get away with it I would steal them’ paintings, for me, are ‘bath’ and ‘blue top’. These paintings invite further scrutiny. In ‘blue top’, The delicate balance between the black candelabra and the woman in a blue top is offset by the head of a little girl peaking into the frame, almost as an afterthought. The candelabra has obviously been judged to a nicety, as evidenced by the little flecks of black that Shani Rhys James has left in, to tell the story of the painting’s re-working. This is a very honest painting, and it’s possible to spend a long time looking into it. Once you get over the initial aesthetic shock, these paintings are immensely satisfying- the ‘rightness’ of it all is wonderful. Everything seems in exactly the right place and the subjects burn themselves into the retina. This painting is in some ways the closest James ever gets to abstraction- the cropped woman, the girl and the candelabra seem to float on the nearly painful red ground.

The crowning glory, though, is ‘Bath’. It’s a minimal painting, showing just a head peeking out of the bath and the victorian design in black on the wallpaper. These designs pop again and again in her works, recalling the series of bedsits she used to live in with her mother. Something as simple as a wallpaper design, rendered vividly in black, is enough to capture a massive amount of atmosphere. It’s striking what she manages to achieve with so little- the head is enough to create a human presence. It’s a massive work, towering up to the ceiling, but somehow it has all the intimacy of a much smaller painting. The painter is clearly a puissant artist at the very height of her powers.

‘Distillation’ by Shani Rhys James runs at the national library of Wales, Aberystwyth until 23 may. Full details at the National Library’s website here:

Thin place at Oriel Myrddin

Thin place at Oriel Myrddin shows a body of sculptures that are powerful and commanding. They dominate space. The most resonant example is ‘pylon totems’ by Johnathan Anderson. It’s also the biggest. Tens of vertical, gaunt forms are mounted on a plynth. These objects are something like a hybrid of an electricity pylon and a cross. They have a certain attention-seeking power that is perhaps in danger of taking over the exhibition. But I don’t mind- they’re wonderful. Part of the power of these pieces, roughly tied together and painted, lies in their colour. It’s unusual to see much black in an exhibition, but seeing so much of it in one place gives these crucifix-like forms a real presence.

The exhibition is based on a contemporary reading of ancient Welsh pagan beliefs that speak of certain places- particularly on the Welsh and Irish coasts- as being ‘thin places’, places where the boundaries between this world and the celtic otherworld were thinner than in others. But the exhibition seeks to fuse this belief with modern artistic, literary and scientific practices. I’m not entirely sure I wholly buy this, but the pieces are so exquisite it hardly matters. Flora parrot’s works, for example, are again commanding presences, and the layer of dark, grainy matter at the base of one of the works presents us with a powerful aesthetic experience. The works were created after a visit to the dolaucothi gold mines, and it’s possible to believe that the piles of matter are drawn from the ground itself. Another sculpture hangs in the air, with delicate, leaflike forms suggesting wings or perhaps some otherwordly presence.

All the artists have some of this otherworldlyness about them- Adam Buick’s votive jar works call to mind ancient pagan practices, such as the mousterian burials dotted around Europe. I was also reminded of how Australian aborigines would often walk hundreds of miles to maintain ancient paintings whose purpose is lost to us.

The artists’ pallettes of black, grey and white are well chosen to enhance the eeriness that this exhibition summons. Taken as a whole there really is a sense that this is a ‘thin place’, somehow magically empowered and liminal.

Thin place is on show at Oriel Myrddin until the 28th of february on which day a ticketed one-day symposium will be held by the curator.

Full details on the website here: