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Humboldt’s Guide to the Galleries

By Humboldt Magnussen

Looking at and appreciating art is not an exclusive club or even one you need an MFA and 60 thousand dollars of debt to enjoy.  If you are going to galleries for the first time in ages (or ever) it can be awkward, but like all new experiences half the battle is allowing yourself to explore and open yourself up to the adventure.

Appreciating art is not necessarily a team sport, but if you go with friends it can be more enjoyable because you can discuss the work or just chat with your bud.  What I have learned is that when you go to an art space and are really excited about their programming they are usually more then happy to go on at length talking about the work, plus there is often a panel of text or an artist statement readily available. If a space is not very forthcoming with conversation that can be for a lot of reasons: they are busy, it is not a question they normally come across, they might not have a lot of opinion on the work, or they might dislike it. The curator, artist, and gallery attendant are not usually the same person, so you will get a variety of degrees of information and interpretation depending on who you speak to and you may not find one definition of what the work means, but different people may have different opinions.

Commercial spaces are often prepared with a pitch used to tempt a buyer into purchasing the work. Because selling art is how they continue their programming, their focus will be on selling the work and running the space like a business. That being said a commercial space will not close the door on someone that just wants to look at the work, but what kind of conversation you may have about the work will depend on the individual gallery and the person working at the time. Figuring out which galleries you know have a roster of artists that you are interested in, as well as a welcoming atmosphere comes with spending time searching for what you like, while learning to avoid places that don’t support your art interests.

I used to drag my eccentric prairie mother to art events and stick her in front of a work I loved to try to convince her to love it as much as I did.  The thing that I found was she thought there was such thing as right answers, that art had a prescribed meaning you searched for, and if you came up with no answer (or a different answer) then you “didn’t understand.”  But I think the goal of looking at art is not to necessarily to find the intended meaning the artist had in mind, but instead to find your own meaning, and answer your own questions.  This can be guided by the title or information provided by the space but that isn’t always essential.  There is no right answer (or right way to look at art) and if you don’t get anything out of a particular piece that’s okay too, move on. My mom likes Michel Jean Basquiat because of his bright colours and scribbled text, and she feels like the paintings look like diary entries. On the other hand she thinks Warhol is sloppy and should have layered his prints with more precision.  She decided that for herself, but it took some time for her to feel comfortable saying her own opinion.

The art world can be intimidating, it is full of weird mind games where often inaccessible language (International Art English) is thrown in your way, however if a statement makes you feel belittled or like you don’t know enough then it is always in your power to walk away. Sometimes people create work in response to complicated theory and research so it makes sense for them to use that language, but oftentimes you’ll find that if they can’t explain it in simple terms then they do not understand the theory well enough. I often feel pressure in the art world not only to like everything I see, but also to dress up a certain way or appear richer then I am when going to galleries, which can take away from the enjoyment of looking at the work.  When going to openings you can feel like you are also a bit on display. Then again, you can do what I do which is to look for the people that have paint spots on their shoes or ink stains on their hands, because usually you’ll find that if they are liking the work they will probably be wanting to share their enthusiasm.