The Art of Talking About Art the Right Way

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I love poems and short stories. And I don’t just enjoy reading them, but composing some of my own too.

But there’s something that lurks around in the dark corners of my mind and often stops me from penning down my thoughts or publishing it on my blog.

It’s the feeling of self-doubt and hesitation.

If you have ever created something in your life, even if a small poetry, you would know what I’m talking about. You struggle with the opening, maybe tearing out draft after draft and throwing balls of paper till they fill up your room.

Even when you go through the entire process, the inner struggle begins – To publish, or not to publish. And so the story goes.

Ever faced this kind of a hesitation when you go to an art gallery? You look at a painting and sometimes hesitate to talk about it, with others around you. You’re not sure whether you have interpreted it right, numerous questions plague your mind, and the battle begins again.

So, if you want to put an end to this conflict, this is the post you should read. Here’s how to learn the art of talking about art the right way.

Observe the painting carefully

I’ve seen most people visiting art museums and giving paintings a quick glance, probably reading the wall text for a few more seconds, and moving on. It’s not surprising that most people don’t know how to interpret and read a work of art, the way it should be. The problem is that they don’t spend enough time with the painting neither do they experience it.

To truly understand a work of art, I usually spend time to study it, absorbing all the details, delving deep into the psyche of the artist who painted it, having a conversation with the painting, listening to it. I enjoy seeing my interaction evolve with the piece of art, as I begin to uncover more details and the intent behind it.

Though I’m not asking you to do it my way, a careful observation is necessary. Understand what kind of emotions it evokes in you. Don’t be afraid to express your opinion, even if the other person has a different one from you. Art is not like mathematics or science. There’s no “correct” answer to what the artist is trying to convey, whether the painting is beautiful or not, and so many other questions. The important thing is the ‘Why?’ behind your conclusion about the work. In other words, your reason of liking it should be clear to you.

I’ll try to elaborate on this in a better way through this painting by Ankur Rana.

Ankur Rana is fascinated by the subject of love. While most of us are familiar with the term “falling in love”, Rana believes that we only rise in love. Love is a powerful force and it has the ability to let you rediscover yourself as an individual. Experiencing love changes us with its healing touch by setting our spirits free.

What caught my eye in the painting, “Love is in the air”, was the use of onions on top to convey the idea. Onions are closely associated with the magical effects of tears by virtue of the onion’s innate capacity to make people cry. In fairytales, tears have been considered as a mystical fluid that bestows life. The artist has used this symbolism to convey the simple message that love restores life and gives a new meaning to it.

The style – abstract, landscape, still life?

Are you looking at the portrait of a beautiful woman (figurative), a garden or a meadow (landscape), or flowers or fruits (still life). It’s best if you can research beforehand about the different genres of paintings that you are going to explore.

Most contemporary artworks are divided into distinct styles – abstract, figurative, conceptual, landscape, still life, or religious. Paintings can also be identified as an amalgamation of these styles. For instance, take a look at this abstract figurative work by contemporary artist, Sachin Jaltare.

While the form in this work of art is figurative, the style has been chosen as abstract. Even though the lines and figures in the painting are not distinct and get merged with the background, one can still comprehend that there are two different figures of a man and a woman. That’s where the beauty lies in this artwork.

Similarly, get to know about the prominent features of paintings of each style. While you research, pick up paintings that appeal to you and understand the time period or art movement it belongs to and the ideology of the artists behind the paintings.

Intricate details

A lot can be said about a painting with the kind of colours used, the material deployed, the way shading and texture give form to the elements in the artwork. When you are observing a painting, understand that it is an arrangement of a myriad of elements put together.

After you have identified the artist and the style of the painting, the material and mediums used are the next point of focus. It could be acrylic or oil paint on canvas. Canvas, paper, and board are the most common materials used while mediums applied can be oil paint, watercolor, acrylic, pen/pencil, ink, or charcoal. Sometimes, a mix of more than one medium is used.

Talk about the colours, shapes, and lines used in the piece of art. Is the surface texture smooth? How is the brushwork? Is it smooth with a few brushstrokes or rough with thick chunks of paint? Observe the detailing. Are the facial features, folds of the clothing, expressions finely detailed or more subtle? Use your intuitive guidance to understand what the artist wants to highlight and wants you to focus your attention on.

Paintings by Madhuri Bhaduri, for instance, have a very distinct impressionistic style which can be identified by short, broken brushstrokes and little stress on clarity of form.

Say the obvious

Artists often take up a material as part of their art and then alter it to something else. This is widely visible in Conceptual art, which rejects the conventional idea of art being aesthetically pleasing. Instead, it focusses on a thought-provoking concept.

American artist and pioneer of Minimalism, Dan Flavin’s artwork, White Around the Corner, 1965, might just look like two tube lights just standing there. But remember, do not say it looks like some lights have been placed there”. Instead talk about the placement of the object, pointing out how the lights have been placed vertical to the ground to one side of the wall and highlighting these subtle aspects.

Flavin often said about his art, “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else”. The artist always maintained that there was no symbolic meaning behind his works. He picked up readymade objects, similar to Marcel Duchamp’s style, fluorescent light fixtures being the material of his choice. Flavin’s aim was not to derive complex messages from his art, but to simply bring the viewer’s focus to the present moment, to the immediate surroundings. His emphasis was on the light itself and how it illuminated the exhibition space.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions

Every work of art has a story behind it and believe it or not, a good critic will always have many questions to ask about it. Even as a novice, every single thing that we say about a painting can turn into a question. For instance, we can consider Dani Marti’s artwork, named,  “It’s all about Peter”.  The painting is made up of melted plastic objects, bowls, orange juicers, and other plastic domestic appliances, all of different colours and collected by a certain person called Peter from the year 1999 to 2009.

Standing next to it, just the expression, “it’s interesting the way the colors have been chosen to be placed side-by-side, what do you think of it?” becomes a question. Understand what exactly is intriguing you about the artwork. This is an effective way to start a conversation about a specific piece. Ask the gallerist what interests you, even if it is a small detail. The gallerist will further address your concerns and explain more about the piece and acquaint you with similar pieces that might spark your interest. This way, you get to know more and expand your knowledge.

Understanding installation art

Installation art, often called “environments”, take up the entire room or the gallery space, that viewers can walk around and thoroughly experience. A spectator can look at the installation from different reference points and also experience it through different senses like touch, sound or even smell.

Installation art is a lot like conceptual art, in the sense that the idea and the impact is much more important than the aesthetic value of the finished product. It encourages us to reevaluate our thought process and values. An inspirational example of an installation artist is Jitish Kallat. He reflects upon complexities of urban society and its people. His famous installation “The Cry of the Gland” composed of 108 photographs of male shirt pockets from men of different walks of life commuting to work. He wanted to depict the common man’s identity through the content of his pockets.

Conclusion

Having said all of that, a genuine love for art is essential. Art should inspire you to think, analyze, and come up with a different perspective as well as your own original thought process when you see a beautiful piece. Remember, your “Why” is vital. With each piece of art that you encounter, you come up with different reasons as to why it appeals to you.

Appreciating art is a process and it will happen over time as you go on exploring more. All you need to do is give yourself a moment to slow down, look, see, think, and everything will fall in place.

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