Host Essay by Hedy Buźan
Have you ever wondered “Okay. – So, how do I start ‘Slow Looking’?”, or, if you are a museum educator, “How do I help a visitor slow down?”
One answer comes from the interactive art appreciation online New York Times column Close Read, written by critics Jason Farago and Arthur Lubow. They use an observational technique to closely examine work as diverse as an Albrecht Durer self portrait or a Jasper Johns abstraction.
Of course, being art historians Farago and Lubow bring context and relevance to the exploration, but this extended way of looking is a possible model for advanced slow looking sessions.
(Ed: For museum educators designing events, Slow Art Day HQ recommends a simple approach that allows participants to discover that looking slowly with no prep or expertise can be transformational; to that end resources such as this step by step process used by Brigham Young University Museum of Art for their first Slow Art Day in 2021 can be quite useful.)
While I have done a lot of slow looking (and slow painting) in my life, this series helped me see even more clearly.
This is what I notice about the Close Read method:
- The critic starts by taking in the whole object and thinking about what it is – a figurative study of an interior/ exterior environment, a landscape, a ‘documentation’ of a historical event, or a self portrait.
- Then they get specific describing the characters the atmosphere and the general feeling of the piece. (Incidentally, back when I was an art teacher, I would ask my students to start a critique by describing the image to a blind person, naming all the parts as specifically as they could- I found this tool helped students start really looking).
- Then the critic starts in with observing parts. Noticing. Noticing. Noticing. The pose, the background, the brushwork, the characters- primary and secondary – the light and the dark passages.
- Once the parts are named the critic becomes curious about each one and what it might represent- They ‘Sit with it’ and let the work reveal itself. Asking themselves: Why is this compelling?
- As they notice they ponder: Why this depiction? What could that possibly mean? How does it expand the meaning of the work?
- Finally they embrace context- comparing it to other works, putting it in cultural and historical context, and inviting us in to a deeper understanding.
We can expand our Slow Art experience by adopting some of the techniques above including reading about the artist’s life, comparing one artwork to another, and by looking at the works of the artist’s influencers and contemporaries….but remember our main focus, especially with the public, is on the simple art of L O O K I N G with no expertise or historical knowledge required.
If you want to read more, I recommend beginning with their wonderful piece on Jasper Johns, How a Gray Painting Can Break Your Heart.
Founding Host, Slow Art Day
Hedy Buzan is an artist and founding host of Slow Art Day. She also helped launch the Laguna Beach Sawdust Festival, an annual arts festival in Southern California.
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