How To… Enjoy Visual Art

This article is part of the 2019 Summer A&E Guide. For more, click here.

You don’t have to favor representational art to enter a gallery with preconceptions. For too many people, the old canards are still at play: “Anyone can do that,” “I don’t know much but I know what I like,” “You call that art!”

Yet art in any form should do more than reinforce bias or provide comfort. It should unsettle the viewer enough to force questions — if one takes the time. Using materials subject to degradation, decomposition or chemical change through the course of an exhibit, contemporary interdisciplinary artists have made temporality an ingredient in the work itself, emphasizing the importance of time in experiencing art. In Vinhay Keo’s aptly titled 2017 “Confront” exhibit, public events included Keo himself occupying the space, silent, unmoving, partially clad in white cloth, his brown skin and black hair dusted with white, a challenge to the viewer’s passivity. Most spoke about him as if he wasn’t in the room.

If you walk into a gallery space and don’t immediately comprehend what the work is about, stop, clear your mind, plant your feet and let your eyes move over each piece naturally. Where does your mind go? What is the work suggesting to you? What emotions arise? If you find yourself feeling angry or hostile, that may be exactly what the artist intended. Currently on exhibit at Craft(s) Gallery & Mercantile is Hawk Alfredson’s “Tight Antic II” a 6’x5’ painting that has been evolving for more than 20 years, densely packed with figures of dark emotions and impenetrable detail that would be overwhelming if not for the scale of the piece, and the teeming, anarchic mass of disturbing (disturbed?) characters may be off-putting to some, deeply engaging to others.

It is also important to push past seeing art on the electronic screens that have become too much of a filter for experiencing the world around us. Online activity, especially social media, can be useful for discovering a new artist or public installations, to identify what might be provocative or comforting, depending on your taste. It’s limited, but it’s a start, and the artist’s online presence is an opportunity for the artist to communicate crucial context about their identity.

‘Confront’ by Vinhay Keo.

Even art that is created digitally is much different when you are in the same room with it. Digitally displayed art lacks the presence and detail of the gallery or public space. Size, scale, texture, color saturation, sound, light and movement are crucial factors in how we interact with art. The internet can be tantalizing, but being in the room still matters. Robb Hill’s “Homeland” series of photographs are shot digitally but presented on large photographic paper not hidden behind glass but exposed so that the warmth and texture of the luxurious black and white prints have an impact unavailable on any website. They are also exhibited in a specific configuration of 37 or more individual images, the artist using the details of the space to determine how, in that specific place and time, he draws you toward the work.

Art is never “finished” until it confronts an audience. The viewer is never a passive recipient of the work. The sum total of everything the artist has put into any given piece, the inspiration, the hard work, the intention, falls short. It is maybe 90% of the work. The audience must bring something to the party, and always provide the last piece of the puzzle. •

Keith Waits works for Louisville Visual Art and is managing editor of