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Slow Looking

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:12 PM, August 18, 2009

It was a 'Tokyo' day for me today - a couple of hours on the train to get downtown (to Kinko's to print out the summer issue of my newsletter) - so I had plenty of time to get caught up on some of the unread newspapers stacked-up here!

I came across an interesting story in the New York Times from last weekend. I see that it's also online, so you can read it at this link (if you have registered your email with them).

It's entitled 'At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus', and the writer basically just riffs on some thoughts that came to him while 'people-watching' in that museum, and by posing the question 'What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums?'

The key sentence that jumped out at me from his ruminations was:

'Almost nobody, over the course of that hour or two, paused before any object for as long as a full minute.'

Now this is of course my experience too. I don't mean as a gallery visitor - no, not me - but my experience with watching the visitors to my own exhibitions. People walk over to where a picture is on the wall, look at it for 'a moment', and then move on to the next one. Some stop longer than others; some never actually stop at all, but stroll slowly along the line of images with their feet always moving ...

Part of me always wants to shout out, "Lady, I spent three months making that thing! You think that ten seconds is enough to drink it all in?"

But of course I keep quiet.

I spoke to Sadako one day at one of my exhibitions about this, and her comment was predictable (and true): "Well, perhaps if your prints were a bit more interesting ..." And I have no argument with that. I cannot claim that my images are so intense - or wonderfully made - that I can demand that people bow down in deep admiration, but ... ten seconds? Surely, I deserve a bit more than that! Just what, actually, did their eyes focus on during the time they looked at the piece? What did they 'think'?

The writer of the New York Times piece - in a section of his story that touched on this question of 'how long' to look at the object on display - mentioned this:

"The art historian T. J. Clark ... has lately written a book about devoting several months of his time to looking intently at two paintings by Poussin. Slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic."

Now that's an interesting idea. Stop walking around. Grab one image (or two, whatever), and look closely. It's analogous to the idea of choosing one spot for a vacation and staying there for a couple of weeks, instead of travelling around to many different places day by day. Sit still. Dig in.

Assuming you choose a place (or image) with plenty of 'depth', then presumably you will be rewarded with ... Well, I'm not exactly sure what you will be rewarded with. A 'deeper' knowledge, one presumes, but perhaps an understanding of a whole different kind.

Thinking about this now reminds me of an episode with an interviewer here some years ago. I was showing him some of the stuff in my collection and when we got to one particular item (a print I own, not one that I had made), we somehow got onto the topic of 'what he should look at'. I started to blab about this, pointing out this feature, that point, this point ... He was receptive to the conversation, and it ended up with me giving him a 'seminar' on that particular image; we spent probably the best part of an hour on it.

So perhaps the people in that museum in the newspaper story aren't really to 'blame'. After all, they are not professionals; they know nothing of what they could, or should, be looking at in those paintings on the wall. And so many paintings are on the wall in most museums! Well of course people end up walking along in a daze ...

Maybe that should be my next exhibition then. Just one print. Something with meat. Put it up there on one wall by itself. On the other walls of the room, tell the 'rest of the story'. Do what I did with that interviewer - talk about the details of its composition and design ... how it came together ... what the imagery stands for ... the layers of meaning ...

'Slow looking'.

I wonder if this would work, or if people would reject it. "Eh? I came all the way down here, and all you have on display is one print? I want my money back!"


Following comment posted by: Barbara Mason on August 18, 2009 11:38 PM

I love a vacation where one stays in one place for a couple of weeks. I do agree that tourists in general and that includes museum walkers, move fairly fast...but for me it is just art overload. I cannot really concentrate with all those other people around me and there is a lot of bad art out there that I don't care about, including a lot that is in museums. Just because it is old does not mean I like it. I can understand its historical importance and relevance to the development of a particular style of art...but I don't want to spend that much time with it.

On the other hand, there are many I do want to look at and I do spend a little more time with those, especially if I can sit down occasionally. I think I spend more time looking at books than real art and the sitting down might be part of it! ha. I do remember standing in awe of pieces of art, but don't think it was longer than a few minutes for anything. I also remember being pretty disappointed in a lot of it.
Now for my favorites, who never disappointed me...Sargent was sure one, Picasso another and interestingly enough I saw a huge retrospective of Georgia Okeeffe at the Dallas art museum and was blown away. Books never did them justice. She was not an artist I would have thought could move me with a painting. I think my all time favorites of your work are the 4 beauties, but honestly it is hard to choose. The new work is so special because it is your own imagery. I like that a lot.I think I spend more than a minute with each one, but of course I am sitting down! And I do appreciate the time involved!

Following comment posted by: Terry Sargent Peart on August 19, 2009 1:27 AM

I agree with the sitting down!
Seems like we (my husband and I) are always have too many plans and are in a hurry.
When I go to an exhibit I always get the audio-tour. You have to stand in front of the piece for a minute or so to listen to what it's telling you. It will usually point out some interesting facts that you might not be aware of also. This gives me a few minutes to stand and really look.
Part of the problem with popular exhibits is the sheer volume of people. I always feel I have to look and get out of the way so others can see. I like to get up close and look at the brush strokes, or in the case of a print see if I can figure out how it was made. So, if I'm that close I'm definitely blocking someone else's view!

Following comment posted by: Dale Evans on August 19, 2009 12:03 PM

In the last month, my wife and I have been to several museums to see works by Dove, Titian, Homer, O'Keeffe, Prendergast, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Sargeant, Pissarro...the list goes on and on of all the special exhibits that are available to us here. All the exhibits are crowded, people are in a hurry - yes, feet moving constantly and usually between you and the painting or print- comments from the viewers interesting, though more often than not related to their own personal taste; and yet, the art is enjoyed, though on what level it is impossible to tell. If there is a painting or woodblock print that I am particularly interested in studying, and there is no place to sit, I've developed the habit of 'sipping', get close and study the details until someone intrudes on your personal space, back away to see the whole piece until that person moves on, and then quickly fill in that vacant space to study another part close up. It works really well!

Artists love to see the process by which another artist completes a work - hey, we love to watch Dave hard at work, hour after hour, and we spend tons of time poking around his website picking up better ways to accomplish our artistic endeavors. So, Dave, your suggestion of your next exhibition of "Just one print...on the wall by itself. On the other walls of the room, tell the 'rest of the story'." is absolutely a great idea. And there is probably no better print for this than your "Forest in Summer" to tell 'The Rest of the Story"

Following comment posted by: Dave on August 19, 2009 1:50 PM

... no better print for this than your "Forest in Summer"

Ah, but hearing you say that makes me realize that I expressed myself poorly. When I spoke about the 'rest of the story', what I was trying to get at was not particularly the question of how the print is constructed - you know, the kind of 'process sequence' that I have been posting here on this RoundTable all the way along through this project, which is what I guess you might be thinking of (I might be wrong on that).

That conversation I had with the interviewer - the 'seminar' that I mentioned above - didn't touch on the physical construction of the print at all. And yet, nor did I talk to him about the 'content' of the print in question (we were looking at a Meiji-era kuchi-e, and there is a huge back-story to each one of those, because they are actual illustrations of stories in a magazine.)

So if I didn't talk about the construction process, and didn't talk about the content, then what's left? Well, I had picked my model carefully, and there was a world of things to talk about - mostly relating to how the people who had built the thing used the woodblock technique to express ideas. In other words, exposing the thing as a print, as distinguished from any other kind of production. This can be a very fertile field to plough, although that very much depends on the work in question. In the case of prints like my 'Forest in Summer', this 'in between' zone is pretty thin, because I think that once you've worked through the construction process (how it was made), and then read about the overall story background (why we are here in this forest), there isn't actually much else left to talk about ...

I can imagine what you are thinking: "Give us some examples! Just what did you tell that interviewer?" ... and I guess I should try and do that. (If only I had taped our conversation that day!) I'm hamstrung on this right now, as I just finished making the paper wet for the second batch of the Forest in Summer, and that means my time is now spoken for from morning 'till night for the next ten days at least, but I'll start to make some notes on this.

It would make an interesting new section in the website: 'Slow Looking - What to 'see' when you look at some of these prints ...'

(Dave, get serious ... every minute you spend 'talking' is another minute not spent 'making' ...)

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