It’s been quite some time since I got to be alone with art (I mean small-a art – visual constructions, not big-A Art – person named Arthur who had his name chopped down to a three-letter word; I don’t know any of the latter). But this past weekend I had some business to do in the big city – Vancouver, to be precise, a five-hour trip over the mountains – and when I was finished with what I had to do, I indulged myself with a visit to the Art Gallery.
It was lovely. They had a show of a collection that included works by Cezanne, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, and another of Chinese art that examines the interaction of traditional art with the modern. It was in the latter, when I was standing in front of a marvellous work – an installation of ceramic art by Liu Jianhua – that suddenly a realisation took shape in my mind: visual art is something I need to experience alone. Inside my head, I was having a dialogue with an imaginary partner, telling them (it’s not a specific him or her, or it, for that matter) what I thought of this piece – half-baked sentences that bubbled up and sunk away again unfinished as my mind walked through the visual realities in front of me and then moved on to the next piece, focused on seeing. I was looking, I was responding – I was, pretentious though it may sound, communing with the art work.
In the fabulous art instruction book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain author Betty Edwards talks about how visual art, or visual perception, primarily takes place in the right hemisphere of the brain, while the brain’s language centre is located in the left. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for artists to be unable to draw and talk at the same time. I know that’s certainly true for me – if I want to really focus on what I’m doing visually, my flow of words dries up.
I’ve had friends say “Let’s get together and make art!” Well, actually – that doesn’t do much for me. Sure, I have fun hanging around with friends and mucking about with art supplies, no question of that; but the result is practically never one of my better pieces, artistically speaking. If I am with another person, my thoughts are focused on that person – and as I think in words, by definition my brain is stuck in the wrong modus operandi for thinking of art. If I’m talking to someone else, I cannot communicate with the art.
So art is something I need to experience alone. In order to get the most of a visit to an art museum or art gallery, especially one of the calibre of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I need to be by myself. I need to be able to get stuck in front of a piece that grips me, just staring at it, letting it impact me, without having to get back out of myself and explain to whomever I’m with. It’s not that I don’t enjoy looking at art, or making art, with friends – but the experience of the art will be far more shallow than anything I could get on my own. I’d never realised it quite like that before – but for real depth, it has to be just me and the art.
So, what did you do last week? Me, I went on a date; we had some great conversations, myself and an installation of Chinese ceramics in celadon and oxblood glazes. We got real close.
Life, the Universe, Myself and Art. It’s got to be just the two of us.
PS: I wanted to post a picture of that marvellous Liu Jianhua piece, “Container”, but sadly, I don’t think it would be right under the fair use copyright law. If you go here and scroll down, the second picture on the left is of an earlier installation of the same work; at the VAG it was sitting on white ground, which made it even more amazing. But just so you’re not deprived of a photo of an interesting piece of pottery, here’s one of mine: “Squashpot, Untitled (2011)”. Yes, I know, it’s stunning.