Thoughts on Remembering a Visit to an exhibit of ‘REALLY BIG WORKS’ at the Albuquerque Art Museum

pink and grey

In the late 1990s, I went to see an exhibit in the Albuquerque Art Museum. I decided to go see the exhibit because I had arrived 45 minutes early for an appointment in Old Town and I had some time to spare. I don’t remember the exhibit’s actual theme but I vaguely recall it was something about ‘REALLY BIG WORKS’—the kind that are the size of normal walls and therefore not intended to be hung in the living space of anyone who doesn’t own a McMansion.

Since I was working with a 45-minute time limit, I decided I would look at each of the works for as long as it held my attention.  I figured this would be a good way to time my viewing experience and still get to my appointment.  In any event, I got through the works in record time.  Not a single work out of the 15 or 20 works held my attention for more than a minute (if that).  As a result, I was left with nearly 25 minutes to fill.  There was a low bench set in front of a large 4’ x 6’ minimalist painting. I do not remember the name of the artist or whether or not it had a title.  I have reconstructed the work’s appearance here. The (to me) bland grey and pink work hadn’t merited more than a 5 second glance when I was working my way around the exhibit, but the bench looked inviting, so I decided to sit down.

I am not particularly fond of minimalist work because this style is usually so subtle that I find it boring. I call Bruce Nauman’s Center of the Universe sculpture at UNM The Concrete Idea [picture below]. (I have since realized that its apparent simplicity masks  possibilities for deeper experience of engagement that didn’t occur to me when I first encounter the work. For example, I heard a music student standing in the center playing a flute and the shape of the sculpture enhanced the music.  It also provides an interactive experience and watching how others interact with it is fascinating.)

Nauman Center of the Universe

I spent the next 15 minutes staring at this work.  After a while the museum guard who was posted in the room came over and asked me what I found about that work that had held my attention for the last 15 minutes.  I laughed and confessed that I was using it as a projection screen for a daydream.  In turn, I asked her what she thought of the works in the exhibit.  She told me she disliked them.  I suspect that she found them boring. (Boring is a kind of value judgement after all.)  I hadn’t found anything to really look at either and unlike the bored guard, I could leave.

As I reflected on this experience, I thought about the jury process that is sometimes used to select works for exhibit.  At that time, artists would send in slides of work and the curator or a jury would go through them to make the selections.  If there were a great many slides, the viewing time for each slide would decrease because the process of jurying works usually takes place under extreme time constraints.  For one show I entered, I calculated that my slides were viewed for a maximum of 10 seconds.  This kind of process tends to favor works that have immediate impact or reproduce well as slides.  I strongly suspect that the works in this exhibit had been selected this way.  That is why none of them stood the test of attention which I devised.  I also think that the theme of the exhibit was too vague especially since the works didn’t leave enough impression for me to remember it.  So, I realized that just because a work has been exhibited in a museum that is no guarantee of its aesthetic value.

What holds your attention when you encounter a work of art?  Since your response says more about you than it does about the work, the answer to this question is a opportunity to learn more about yourself.  I always do.

Thoughts on Remembering a Visit to an exhibit of ‘REALLY BIG WORKS’ at the Albuquerque Art Museum

The Power of Story

In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron argues that:

Story was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs.  Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.  Story is what enables us to imagine what might happen in the future and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. . .Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into pay attention to it.

Stories are a very powerful way in which our society shapes our identities by providing a pattern which resonates with our personal experiences and thoughts. As Cron reminds us:

Story is the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters.  Other people’s stories are as important as the stories we tell ourselves.  Because if all we ever had to go on was our own experience, we wouldn’t make it out of onesies. . . .


humpty dumpty book


For me, Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass is a story that has shaped my thinking about how we make meaning our of our experiences. I have been reading and re-reading Caroll’s stories about Alice almost from the time I learned to read. I was a child very much like Alice—full of curiosity and questions. I remember often being puzzled by the actions and words of those around me.

Eventually Alice’s adventures had a powerful influence on my own thinking about how we make meaning.  In one particularly influential scene, Humpty Dumpty rudely asks Alice what her name means. When she asks if her name has to mean something, he replies “Of course it must . . .My name means the shape I am and a good handsome shape it is too.  With a name like yours, you might be any shapes, almost.”  Humpty Dumpty confuses the difference between proper names which simply denote a single person or object with words like ‘egg’ or ‘horse’ which have general significance.  Later in their conversation, he claims that he can make words mean anything he wants them to mean.   Alice replies to this absurd statement by asking how “you can make words mean so many different things.” To which sensible objection, Humpty replies “The question is. . .which is to be master—that’s all. . .I can manage the whole lot of them.”

Eventually Humpty Dumpty’s exchange with Alice provided a guiding metaphor for my Master’s thesis in philosophy.  The first sentence of my thesis was Humpty Dumpty was headed for an ontological crisis. His fate as a broken shell was created in part because he arrogantly chose to believe that his control of meaning of language gave him power over what would happen in his life.  He denied the reality of his own story captured in the old nursery rhyme about his fatal fall—a fall severe enough that the authorities—represented by all the king’s horses and men—could not save him despite his belief that he controlled language and therefore controlled his own destiny.  His belief that he controlled the meaning of his own experiences without regard to any objective context was the source of his downfall.  By ignoring the balance between subjective experience and objective knowledge, he set up the conditions for a major life crisis.

I think by making things.  In the early 1990s, I was making artist books.  The work pictured is based on this scene from Through the Looking Glass.  It captures my thinking about how we make meaning and communicate that meaning to others effectively.  In other words, how we shape and are shaped by the society we live in.  Ultimately, I came to realize that the arts provide the connections that allow us to experience points of view and ways of life different from our own.  Stories and images and music and dance matter because they are an important way we create culture.

What stories resonate with your life story?  What stories reflect your ideals? Your dreams?  Your values?

The Power of Story

Art and Spirituality: Mandalas as Sacred Geometry

cut paper Mandala 3

Mandalas illustrate the power of pattern in creating symbolic images. A mandala expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between man and the whole of nature. Mandalas are usually based on the circle which is a universal symbol for wholeness as well as the cosmic order.  The colors and shapes that make up the patterns often have symbolic meaning as well.

The mandala often serves as the basis for spiritual practices like meditation, but they also can function as part of religious rituals.  Labyrinths and Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas are all examples of images that function as part of religious rituals.  These traditional forms that help to center and focus the attention of the worshipers.

kalachacra in progressFor example, Tibetan Buddhist monks use loose colored sand to create complex mandalas. Like Navajo sand paintings, the Kalachakra mandala is part of a healing ritual. When the ritual is complete, the sand of the mandala, which is now charged with sacred power, is swept up and scattered in a place such as a river which will spread the healing to everything within the reach of the water.

The process of creating this complex image is very challenging.  I had the privilege of watching Tibetan monks construct a sand mandala during an exhibit of Tibetan religious art at the Albuquerque Museum.  During the break, one of the monks asked if anyone would like to try creating a design with the sand.  I took him up on his offer and discovered that even the smallest lapse of attention meant that the sand scattered.  This experience taught me why the monks use the training in making sand mandalas as an aid to meditation.

The spiritual power of the mandala is not restricted to its use in religious or spiritual practice. Self-expression through artistic, visual means can also be therapeutic. In my experience, my most fundamental thoughts and feelings are easier to capture in images rather than in words because visual images ‘speak’ to the right brain rather than the more controlling left brain which uses words.  Creative work allows me to experience what I cannot put into words.

Slide16The psychologist Carl Jung believed that mandalas are an archetypal form of spiritual wholeness—an image of the higher Self. For Jung, the concept of Self is the central archetype of the collective unconscious and serves as the organizing principle of the individual personality.  In his psychotherapy practice, he helped his patients to enhance their level of individuation—a process in which the patient’s consciousness becomes differentiated from other people.  Constructing mandalas gave his patients a creative way to achieve a conscious relationship to the Self—a process that he believed had the power to heal.  Jung himself drew mandalas.


Art and Spirituality: Mandalas as Sacred Geometry

The Act of Making Meaning

Visual analysis begins by thinking about how a works means. The formal elements of line, color and shape get their meaning from association rather than definition.  So, the meanings of visual language are more like how poetic language uses words than the language of prose.  Both poetry and visual images depend on the sensible properties of the work which shape our experiences.  The use of metaphor grounded in common experiences rather than description is present in all the arts.

The artist begins the process by making choices about media and subject matter.  Those choices reflect his/her intention/purpose in making the work.  In the creative process, the artist develops those choices by responding to the experiential feedback from work in progress.  The question at this stage is What do I do next? If the creator can answer this question, the creative process is working.   If not, the process shuts down until it can be answered. Sometimes this shutdown simply means that the work is complete.  But this shutdown can also occur if the internal critic interferes with the creator’s trust in the process itself.  That is why the ‘voice’ of critic should be ignored or suppressed until the work nears completion.

Once the work seems to be finished, the next question becomes What have I done? This question represents the final stage of the creative process. At this point, the creator shifts roles to become the first viewer of the work.  That requires stepping out of the creator role and summoning the critic’s help in determining if the work has achieved enough coherence to shape the experience of a viewer.  I use the process of titling the work as way to signal this stage.  Giving an art work a title means I own it in a way that represents my judgment that the work embodies my experience in a way that communicates meaning.

Like the process of creating the work, interpretation starts with making associations derived from the visual language of the work.  The process of interpretation which creates meaning follows a similar path from experience through knowledge to understanding the work’s meaning/message. Meaning is context dependent. But unlike words which rely on knowledge contexts, visual images use experiential associations to communicate meaning.  The visual language itself is represented by the question What do I see?  The answer to this question can be a response based on common human experience for example, the color ‘red’ used to symbolize blood or a smiley face icon.  Sometimes the answer is grounded a specific context such as community’s way of life.  If the viewer shares a common context of knowledge or experience with the artist, they will be able to ‘get’ it without too much trouble.  However, if the work comes from an unfamiliar context such as a different culture or time-period, the process of association breaks down.  That is why interpreting works of art from a context with which the interpreter is not familiar requires knowledge beyond the common associations of the viewer’s own cultural, social or historical context.

So, the answer to the final question What do I think this experience means? requires a definitive test to determine what information is relevant to the work’s meaning. The test that works best uses the touchstone of experience with rather than knowledge about the work. Facts about the work are not enough to understand its meaning.

The test for relevance involves how much the information changes the interpreter’s experience and thus changes the work’s meaning.  Like the way in which an artist ‘owns’ the work by giving it a title, the interpreter tests his/her understanding of the work through experience.  That is why I argue that artists are the only true empiricists because the final evaluation of their work must meet the test of the interpreter’s experience.  That is the only way to understand art as embodied experience.

Thus, unlike science which demands consistent experimental results, the arts are based on personal point of view.  This means that no two interpretations of a work will ever be the same because no two experiences of the work can ever be the same.  Even multiple encounters with a work by the same person will produce different—although related—interpretations. But, all these diverse meanings are connected through the objective qualities of the work.   As a result, differences in interpretation do not that restrict the meaning by dividing it into each interpreter’s subjective opinion but connect each interpretation.  In this way, the work not only links the creator with the interpreter but connects all interpreters who have made the effort to engage with and understand the work.

The image is a mind map of the complex relationship between creator and interpreter that produces meaning.  The work reflects the choices and experiences of the artist who created it.  This embodied experience functions as both feedback and limit to the experiences of the interpreter.  Thus, the work acts as an objective ground for the connection between the subjective experiences of creator and interpreter.

Creating meaning

The Act of Making Meaning

Language of Art: Visual Vocabulary

Kandinsky Comp 8

I want to begin by thinking about how the formal elements of line, shape and color function as basic visual vocabulary, so I have decided to take the elements ‘for a walk’ to use Klee’s metaphor for the process of making a drawing. This story illustrates how line, shape and color function as visual vocabulary.   Drawings are blank surfaces which form spaces articulated by marks which can remain lines or become shapes. All shapes have color and are constructed with a line that represents the edge of the shape. So, you can’t have shape or line without color; color without shape—even lines have shape.

I start with a blank sheet of paper.  That is the space in which my drawing will develop.  This paper can be rectangular, circular, irregular.  It can be used in portrait or landscape orientation.

Now I must choose the medium for the drawing.  Choice of media is a significant choice because the medium affects the appearance of the line, color etc.  Charcoal lines have a different visual quality than line drawn with a ball point pen or a pencil.  Colored pencils are different from watercolor paints.  Geometric shapes have a different meaning than detailed renderings of the shape of the human eye or ear.

I decide to use pencils.  These are easy to use and have more expressive range than ball point pens or markers.

I am now confronted with a blank space that I need to fill with meaningful marks.

I make a dot with a red pencil in the center of the space.  I make another series of blue dots in circle around the first dot. I draw yellow lines from the red do to each of the blue dots.  I decide to use more colors for this drawing.  In the right corner, I draw a blue rectangle and color it in.  I add some black lines connecting it to the edge of the paper.  I continue adding more colored shapes and lines until I decide to stop.

If I keep on adding more shapes and lines in different colors I will eventually have an abstract drawing.  It probably won’t be as skillfully constructed as the example by Kandinsky but my drawing will use the same visual vocabulary or line, shape and color that he used.  So, the meaning is not in the formal elements alone but in how they are related.  Kandinsky developed a whole theory of the symbolic use of color, shape and line but like all abstract work, the meaning begins in the association with my experience rather than trying to match his definitions.  I would title Kandinsky’s work Music for an Eclipse based on the black circle and the multiple lines that look like music notation.


Language of Art: Visual Vocabulary

Art as Embodied Experience

Weir Abstract Trees

When I go to museums or art exhibits, I usually avoid reading the artist’s title until I have given the work my own version. I call this game  ‘What would I title this work?’ and it is a way of capturing my experience rather than relying on words to tell me what I am seeing.   I want to see how close my experience comes to what the artist thought they were doing This practice helps me to really look at the work without preconceptions based on expectations based on the label.  I started playing this game when I realized that I tended to read the label before engaging with the work. That means that the words on the label are more important than the work which is just WRONG!  So, my solution was to give the works my own title before checking the words that have the power to shape my experience and thus limit the potential meaning of the work.  Once the work is completed, the artist becomes the first viewer—albeit a viewer with inside knowledge.  However, as an artist, I know that I don’t always understand my own work fully.  I don’t always know what I intended until I think about the choices I made to create the image.

The issue of intention of brings me to another point.  UNTITLED works really, really irritate me.  Even an enigmatic title like Weir’s And Little Ones all in a Row is better than UNTITLED.  At least I have a starting point for trying to feel my way into the experience expressed by the work.   I feel as if they are being coy about letting the viewer decide what the work means and that is frustrating. Artists should ‘man’ (or woman) up and give me a clue about their point of view.  What did the artist think he/she was communicating?    Art works can’t mean anything the viewer wants them to mean.

The language of art embodies experience so at the beginning of learning to interpret experiential language, recognizable subject matter which appeals to knowledge can be a distraction.  Abstract art depends primarily on experience of the arrangements of line, color and shape.  In that sense, it is like instrumental music.  This means that these works offer the clearest examples of how artists express their experience using visual language.  In other words, abstract works forces the viewer to learn to directly engage with the experience of visual language itself.  In the process, it teaches the interpreter to make the shift from left brain to right brain thinking.  Since the right brain process visual images, it is the primary mode for engaging with embodied experience.  By making the shift from left brain (words) to right brain (images) the interpreter can also shift from identifying meaning based on knowledge to associations based on experience.  Basing the meaning of a work on experience shaped by knowledge is the key to interpreting visual language.



Art as Embodied Experience

Why study art?

Expose yoursel to art

I believe that art is how we learn to be human. Before there was scientific thought, the arts—stories, music, images, dance, poetry, theater—helped us make meaning from our experience.  The process of understanding and learning from those experiences has always been critically important. The intimate relationship between knowledge and experience which is embodied in works of art allows us to communicate our experience to others. This dynamic relationship lies at the heart of the process of visual analysis itself.

In our image-saturated media culture becoming visual literate is as much a life skill as learning to read. I teach a college course called The Art of Visual Literacy.  This course is project based which means that the assignments focus on process not product, experiential learning rather than assimilation of knowledge. I think of it as a hybrid of critical thinking and a studio art course. The primary course text is a workbook not a text book.

Art works are not about subject matter.  Instead they express the experiences and point of view of their creator.  Unlike words which require knowledge to understand their meaning, Visual images communicate meaning through experience and experience is PERSONAL.  We don’t have to speak Italian to understand the Mona Lisa.    One consequence of the subjective nature of visual language is that your understanding of an art work says as much about you as it does about the work.

This grounding in experience contains both bad news and good news.  The bad news is captured in the teaching story The Blind Men and the Elephant which highlights some of the challenges of making meaning from experience.  In the story, the blind men each experience a different part of the elephant.  But a problem arises when they each assume that their experience represents the whole elephant.  By limiting their understanding to their own personal point of view, they missed the bigger picture—the whole elephant.  The point of this story is that experience alone is not enough for understanding meaning.  To really understand the elephant, they needed to combine their experiences to produce knowledge in the process, they move beyond the subject into the objectivity that is crucial for the communication of meaning.  Each interpretation must be refined by knowledge gained from the interpretations of others.

The good news is that engaging with the arts has the power to teach us about ourselves.  By making meaning, we create a connection to our own lives. Art can entertain, irritate, bore, titillate, encourage, instruct, disturb and fascinate.  So, by making the effort to engage with works of art, you will discover what art can teach you about how other people see the world.

Why study art?