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.
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