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The Slow Pleasures of Looking at Art

By Steven Rosen · April 23rd, 2014 · The Big Picture
ac_bp_room from damascus_provided by camRoom From Damascus - Provided by CAM

Art Museums, like any other civic institution, participate in lots of special “days” and other catchy events to get visitors.

But Slow Art Day, which occurred April 12, was such a good idea — at least at Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), where I participated — that it should be instituted on a regular basis.

An international event sponsored by an all-volunteer organization, Slow Art Day has its roots in a 2008 event in which its founder, Phil Terry, spent hours at Manhattan’s Jewish Museum looking at just two paintings, according slowartday.com. This year the Taft Museum of Art and Contemporary Arts Center also participated.

At the CAM, a group of a dozen or so people met Lisa Jameson, assistant professor of art education at Northern Kentucky University, just inside the main entrance at 11 a.m. and were given a sheet listing just six artworks on display — out of a collection of 60,000 objects (not all on display, of course).

The plan was for Jameson to lead us on an hour tour of these six. She would provide some background and commentary, but let the group ask questions and make their own observations. Then we’d have boxed lunch and discuss the experience. 

Importantly, the six objects were not overtly connected, as is the case in so many art museum guided tours where you wind up looking for an overarching theme (why are these “highlights” of the collection?) rather than just appreciating what’s before your eyes.

The first two objects took us to the museum’s Asian collection — a section I’ve always found to be underappreciated.

We first looked at the early 18th century “Room From Damascus,” a gift to the museum from Andrew N. Jergens in 1966 — it was saved from the demolition of his Northside home. As we took turns standing in the room with its painted and metal-leaf decorations over richly generous wood, it felt like being bathed in gold. It was a sunny day outside, but the real sustained warmth — the luxuriance of art — was in here. And we had time to admire it and notice all the details.

Nearby was the sublime “Writing Box With Mountain Landscape (and Brush)” from Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868) in a case with other articles, showing how integrated art and everyday life were in historic Japan. 

We also saw the ruggedly expressionist sculpture of a horse, “Cavallo,” by 20th century Italian artist Marino Marini, and the portrait of “The Willard Family” from the new gallery devoted to American Folk Art.

We stopped at Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler’s large canvas “The Sacred Hour,” from the 1910s. I’ve passed this work, in which two posed women in long blue dresses sit side-by-side on what seems to be an abstracted landscape, countless times and never noticed much more than the color, size and symmetry. It registered as nicely decorative, and I moved on.

But on this day, free to spend time with it — and the observations of others — deeper appreciation occurred. The daring, experimental nature of Hodler’s painting technique — each of the women’s hands were different — stood out, and we could see charcoal lines on the canvas where maybe he had started other figures. 

Our last piece was Todd Pavlisko’s contemporary “All the Money I Found in a Year,” in which he lays out on the floor of the Dutch Gallery, arranged year-by-year, coins he has found since 2004. Museum visitors often have a tendency to react with superiority or even hostility to installation or conceptual art they don’t immediately understand — maybe because they feel too rushed to be thoughtful.  

But here everyone was interested in trying to understand the piece, both on its own terms as visual art and for the questions it raised about saving and discarding money. And people noticed how appropriate it looked in an ornate gallery where so many paintings had gold frames.  

Because we were only looking at six objects in an hour — and were not paying attention to anything else — there was no guilt about passing other art by. My mind was clear of obligations — like in meditation.

Usually, I feel pressured to look at everything in a specific gallery (or, if out-of-town, an entire museum) and that inevitably means spending too little time with the life’s work of so many talented, creative people. That’s what Slow Art Day is attempting to remedy.

Rather than a Slow Art Day, there should be an ongoing Slow Art Tour. I’d come once a week. 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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