Take a Slow Look, Canada

Slow Art Day has asked its 2013 hosts and volunteers to write short summaries of their own experiences looking slowly at artworks of their choosing.

The day of my assignment, I strode into the gallery with purpose; J.E.H. MacDonald’s October Shower Gleam, 1922, was the only work I was going to spend time with that day.  This work did not initially outwardly appeal to me – I felt like I was up for a challenge to see what it would be like to look at it slowly.

J.E.H. MacDonald, October Shower Gleam, 1922. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings.

I set my alarm for the proscribed 10 minutes, and set my eyes (and mind) to work. What initially made the painting unattractive to me, the garish 70s mix of close-to-neon colours with earthy greens and browns, I set my eye to first. Looking closely at what I read as autumnal trees and brush, I soon discovered a graceful patterning of organic shapes in the entirely unnatural colours of bright pink and teal, outlined in ultramarine blue, with a ground of gessoed and textured canvas showing through. As my eye traveled downwards, towards the reflection of the landscape in the still lake, I realized that MacDonald’s depiction of water consisted solely of a reflection of the patterning I had been closely studying.

What I read as “water”, in fact, didn’t contain something normally characteristic in depictions of water; namely the colour blue. MacDonald actually had painted a ground of light orange onto which he had then transcribed his reflected scenery. Sandwiching this mirrored landscape was a mass of roiling clouds, done in wavy lines of lavender and deep purple, as well as a rocky outcropping of land containing a few windswept trees in the foreground. They squished me into the landscape in such a way that I felt like my only escape was forward, toward the rolling hills and the two small “V’s” of clear sky – away from the October shower that was imminent, seen in the shiny wetness of the purple clouds.

My “introduction” to the work lasted a mere minute or two. After that, I was lost in the landscape, its patterns, shapes, colours, and texture, until my alarm rudely interrupted. Ten minutes felt like two; I could have easily spent another ten or twenty minutes immersed in the work.

Though not initially appealing to me, I grew, through this exercise, to appreciate aspects of the work that weren’t immediately apparent. Practicing slow looking with a work I wasn’t immediately attracted to in a positive way helped me remember that to “like” and “dislike” are fluid categories (and don’t always include “appreciate”). I was also reminded not to always take other people’s word for it – it is always more rewarding to see for yourself.

-Tori McNish, Slow Art Day volunteer

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