Ways of Seeing: How to Look at Contemporary Art

Don’t know what to think? Follow these tips to find out how to look at contemporary art.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a hit 70’s TV show that presented members of the public with a stimulating and accessible way to approach art critically. Nowadays, published as a book, it is used worldwide in schools and universities to ease in eager and willing art history students.

But in case you don’t have the time to sit down and study this kind of ‘art manual’, you can read our Collectionair tips on how to think about a work of art.

Firstly, and it may seem obvious, but it’s important. Do you like it? If not — then no need to keep looking at it! If yes then ask yourself, why?

And why, is not such an easy question, the answer is often ‘just because I do’. But say someone asks you what you think about it, how it makes you feel, or even what is specifically interesting about it? Here are the questions you can ask yourself to make sure you have every angle covered.

1. What is it about? Can you tell just by looking at it? Does the title help?

Take Tomoyuki Ueno’s English National Anthems.

TOMOYUKI UENO
ENGLISH NATIONAL ANTHEMS, 2014
Paper, mounted
40 x 31 x 3 cm
Edition of 5
Signed on the mount

So, can you discern a meaning from the text in front of you? Is there a point behind it?

The artist is playing with the meaning of language, the title explains that, but he has piled up the national anthems of countries colonised by England. Most obviously it’s an explanation of why England is a world language today… but then don’t forget, with artworks that take such an open play on a concept, when you discern the meaning, you can never be wrong!

2. What about the composition, does it remind you of anything? What do the colours tell you?

Take Tal R’s Untitled colour wood cut.

TAL R
UNTITLED, 2006
Colour woodcut on paper
59.6 x 79.7 cm
Signed and numbered
Edition of 24

Its neither landscape nor figurative, but the forms and colours are bold enough to make a lasting impression. They remind us of abstract art in the past, of artists as famous as Picasso. Maybe in this example, the meaning is less important to you and aesthetic values take precedence. This is completely normal, and a perfectly acceptable reason to like a contemporary art work. Remember, you don’t always have to search for the meaning in something…

BUT, let’s say you can’t figure anything out just by looking at it, and you still don’t know how you feel. Maybe its time for some research…

3. Learn more about the technique. Is it complex, is it innovative, is it interesting to you and most importantly, do you want to know more?

Take this work of Australian artist Cameron Robbins.

CAMERON ROBBINS
SW COOL, CLEARI NG 18 -19/9/2 014, 2014
Wind drawing with pigment ink on paper
76 x 70 cm
Signed on the recto

Robbins is known for his innovative ways of creating art. Here has used a machine which records the patterns of the wind and turns them into drawings. Just like with anything, sometimes you have to research to know more. If the idea interests you then google it, read interviews with the artist, and see what else you can find out!

4. What about the context…of the work itself and also the artist? Think about where are they are in their artistic career, what is their nationality, where was the work made?

Take the work of Radhika Khimji, immediately attractive to the eye and beautiful in composition and aesthetic, these works take on extra significance when you read more and contextualise them.

RADHIKA KHIMJI
THERE IS A CENTER IN THE MIDDLE, 2016
Oil, thread and gesso on digital print on paper
72.4 x 98.2 x 2.3 cm
Signed on the verso

Using photographs of her ancestral town of Kutch, Western India, Khimji worked on top of the images using a variety of tools, to create new and personal meanings.

Or, take any work from the exhibition LIVE STREAM FROM IRAN, like this work by Yashar Salahi.

YASHAR SALAHI
UNTITLED, 2014
Mixed media on paper
21 x 29.5 cm
Signed on the recto

Consider the countries recent history, the breaking of boundaries that these contemporary artists face and where they find their place in the contemporary art world today. Contextualising an artwork can be as important as appreciating it visually, and can really help to bring new meaning and understanding to something.

And finally, remember to think out of the box, read between the lines, use your eyes, but don’t only judge a book by its cover!

COLLECTIONAIR

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