Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Looking at Art

As I am reviewing exhibition proposals to the Campbell River and District Public Art Gallery over these few days, and I found myself thinking about ways of looking at art. When I taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, I gave my art education students a four step method for looking at art that I still use. I'll demonstrate with one of my chalk pastel works that I offer as a shamanic art print on my Journey Oracle website.

The first step is to describe what I physically see, without using any art oriented vocabulary or psychological associations. I see a shape of crimson red in the lower left, above a white dome shape marked with facial features. The red shape transitions into white which further becomes bird and whale forms in the upper left. Vertical bands of ultramarine blue extend through the center of the picture plane and in the upper right transition into shapes of burnt sienna. A thin vertical band of lavender separates the blue from an emerald green shape that extends to the middle right margin. The lower right contains an area of visual details in which appear shapes of human faces. This first step often takes the longest. This first step is also what I do when first looking at an oracle card when conducting a Journey Oracle reading. I only describe what I see.

The second step involves using more formal art vocabulary to describe the visual elements that create relationships within the picture plane. Here I notice that all the colors are saturated--there are no pale or indistinct areas of color. I see that the white shapes draw the eye up the left side, across the top of the picture plane because of the center placement of a solitary bird form, and then down through the lightest green to a white area in the lower left. This creates a egg shaped circle which keeps the eye moving within the picture plane. I see strong diagonals ascending from the lower to the upper portion of the image, creating a visual flow that moves upward toward the bird and whale forms. When using this second step in a Journey card reading, I am noticing the color, shape and detail of the card image that stands out to my attention.

The third step is to let into my awareness any psychological, emotional or symbolic associations I am making. I particularly notice what I am feeling. I note that the intensity of color creates a feeling of drama. The addition of faces and animal / bird forms in unexpected locations creates a sensation of unreality--whether the scene is in the air or underwater or on earth is unclear. My overall impression is of looking into a place I do not understand where I cannot easily orient myself. During this step when reading an oracle card, I am noticing what general impression I have of the card. Am I feeling invited or unsettled; is there something requiring caution or surrender?

The fourth step is the inviting of meaning. When looking at art I finally now consider the artist's title and speculate on the intention. This piece is called Ode to Stones that Speak. The unreality and lack of orientation suddenly have a heightened sense of fit. This is not an ordinary reality. I now go back to my second step--of focusing on the art elements--and assign meaning to the relationships I see. The intense color saturation now connects to the density and mass of stones. The circular eye movement becomes a metaphor for the intensity of concentration required to enter an alternate reality. The visual flow upwards feels like going on a shamanic journey. In a Journey Oracle reading, this last step is also the inviting of meaning. How is this image from the Oracle an answer to my question?