The Experience of Looking

Tiffany Beres

This exhibition is challenging, challenging in the most stimulating and inspiring way. You see familiar natural forms—rocks, roots and water—but if you look a little deeper you will discover much more. You may even leave with a better understanding of yourself.

At the heart of this exhibition is the question: how do we meaning­fully experience art? When we go to an art institution, we typically try to see as much as possible: we scan for the most attention grab­bing, the most colorful or most familiar works. Then we examine the artwork, check for a text caption or explanation, perhaps even snap a photograph before moving onto the next piece, only to do the same. Statistically, most museum goers spend ten seconds or less in front of an individual work of art, but is this truly looking at art? More often than not, artworks are just ‘eye candy,’ momentarily entertain­ing, easily consumable, but intellectually undemanding and soon forgotten. In our Information Age of speed and consumption, how do we actually engage with what we see?

One solution is, of course, slowing down. In recent years, there has been a global movement aimed at countering this need for instant visual gratification and encouraging more mindful and contempla­tive engagement with art. Known as the Slow Art Movement, this crusade is related to the cultural ‘Slow’ movement, first in food, then to everything: slow goods, slow teaching, even slow sex. Built on the premise that art should be savored in a conscious and deliberate manner, over the past decade this movement has been steadily gaining followers. In 2009, for example, museum and gallery ad­ministrators as well art lovers designated a Slow Art Day, a day when visitors are encouraged to spend five to ten minutes with a piece of art, and see what the experience brings. Since then, this event has grown into a global phenomenon with hundreds of participating venues every April.

Recently, the visual arts and literature scholar Arden Reed fleshed out this idea of taking an unhurried contemplative stance towards art viewing in Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell (2017). One of Reed’s primary arguments is that we need to be ‘fully present’ in order to engage with art. Indeed, he suggests we only know that art is affecting us when we become immersed in it, momentarily persuaded that ‘our experience is all-consuming.’ To Reed, the most profound art experiences (and granted not every art experience will be profound) engage our entire psyche. In the space and time between the viewer and the art, ‘the viewer needs the artwork in order to receive pleasure, under­standing, consolation—all three, or something else. The work needs the viewer in order to realize itself.’4 By Reed’s formulation, there is a kind of interdependency in the art viewing experience—the artwork requires the viewer to reach its potential, and the viewer needs the art to discover something about himself/herself.

The contemplative aspects of ‘slow art’ appreciation are very much akin to Chinese traditional scholar-artist ideals of connoisseurship and art viewership. By the Song dynasty (960–1279), there was already an established approach to looking at painting that in­volved ‘spiritual communion’ (shenhui 神會)—a term that describes the intuitive understanding that results from the coming together of subject and object through empathy.  As the Song polymath and statesman Shen Kuo (沈括, 1030-1094) said in his Dream Pool Essays (夢溪筆談), ‘the excellence of painting and calligraphy should be sought through sympathetic identification (shenhui) and not through formal elements. Critics of painting can usually indicate faults of shape, composition and coloring, but one seldom sees a man who understands its subtle ordering and profound begin­ning.’ Rather than capturing mere form-likeness in painting, visual art sought to break down the distance between the signifier and the signified. Unlike the Greeks, who saw mimesis, or imitation of nature, as the principal objective in art, Chinese scholar-artists emphasized the expression of the mind. Thus both calligraphy and painting are referred to the artist’s ‘imprint of the mind (xinyin 心印)’, a reflection of the artist, and his ideas, thoughts and self-cultiva­tion. In this way, Chinese painting and calligraphy was not only a vehicle to connect the viewer to the represented form, but also to the artist himself.

Nature art is one category of Chinese art appreciation that requires special mention. In Chinese culture, the imagining of nature is a highly intellectual pursuit related to spiritual self-cultivation. Strangely shaped stones, sinuously twisted roots, and the evocative patterns of waves, are all aesthetically appealing and conceptually stimulating. When nature is made into art, the artist identifies a particularly evocative natural subject, but then goes a step further, interpreting it with his own subjective vision. The result is a rep­resentation of a greater whole in both a formal and organic sense. The famous sculptor and Chinese scholar-rock collector Richard Rosenblum calls this concept ‘worlds within worlds’—the more you look, the more you find within. A Chinese scholar’s garden is a classic example: designed as a miniature world, small scenes are set up so that as you wander through the garden, you come upon several intimate landscapes to view and enjoy. Similarly, a strange-looking rock can be appreciated and enjoyed as a representation of an entire mountainscape, as well as a beautiful natural phenomenon, an abstract piece of sculpture, a meditative portal, or a spiritual icon. The playfulness of such art forms is that there is no one way to view them; there is no right or wrong, correct or incorrect. The relationship between the viewer and these natural representations is personal and subjective, but each of its incarna­tions, if deeply contemplated, is likely to lead to additional layers of appreciation. By isolating things in nature that have the potential to resonate and transform into something else, artists traverse the border between culture and nature and allow their viewers to have a more direct engagement with art.

The artists of The Experience of Looking have all discovered ways of representing nature so as to evoke contemplative experiences for their audiences. Wang Mansheng’s (王滿晟, b. 1962) paintings are drawn primarily from his imagination and are informed by his literary background and deep love of nature. For his Ancient Vine Grass Script Series, Wang constructs a visual interplay between form and meaning. Each monochromatic vine formation is not only a detailed botanical representation of textures and patterns, but also a shape related to Chinese characters that the artist finds within. According to the artist, he is interested in these old vines because their appearance takes on layers of meanings: ‘because of their age, [these vines] are like a record. In their textures, whorls and twisting forms, I can see how the elements have shaped them. I can see history. I can see wise souls. Their shapes and textures, their life stories, are very attractive.’ In addition Wang likens, these organic vines to Chinese cursive script caoshu (草書, literally ‘grass script’). The twisting shapes and sinuous energy of growth are akin to the expressive lines that materialize when writing Chinese calligraphy. The multiple meanings of these ‘pictographic’ forms are to be read and appreciated as viewers spend time absorbing the language of these painted vines.

Daniel Eskenazi’s (b. 1969) photography work is also intimately connected with the spirit of nature, and is driven by his strong in­terest in both ancient and contemporary Chinese art. The title of his most recent series, Synoptikos, is related to the word ‘synoptic’—a term derived from the Greek words for ‘together’ and ‘view’ to form a meaning of ‘taking a general or comprehensive view.’ This idea of attaining a broad view of a subject through repeated thoughtful observation is at the heart of the experience of looking. Here we see studies of roots and rocks (living and inanimate), but beyond the surface of what they represent, their forms can also conjure up questions of perception. Of course, the most striking visual element of this series is the way that Eskenazi has divided his subjects into a series of vertical panels taken from multiple perspectives. Breaking up the subject into multiple details, changing their size and compo­sition, each quadtych gives an awareness of the whole while never revealing it in its entirety. According to the artist his work is intend­ed to encourage viewers to mediate on his subjects: ‘Invariably we strive to see subjects in their entirety by imperceptibly stitching multiple focused images in our minds, as the eye can only focus on a six degree arc. This can sometimes mean we miss the essence of all matter of subjects as we quickly move away from the internal to the external. This work tries to circumvents this usual tendency in an attempt to remain with the internal life force that resides in all forms of nature.’ By picturing his natural subjects in fragmented forms, Eskenazi demonstrates how these objects are not static—they change as individual consciousness evolves.

Working with ceramic in a bold and virtuosic manner, Zhao Meng ( 趙夢, b. 1967) is an artist who also creates objects of contemplation. On earth each stone is formed through natural erosion by water and wind; here instead, Zhao Meng makes his own stones out of clay. Each unique sculpture is the result of a difficult and lengthy creation process that requires extreme mastery of his materials (porcelain and glaze), two hands, and the highly technical firing process. Zhao’s Alphabet Stones are so named because they seem to denote the basic building blocks of nature. There is an overall concordance between each of his rocks and the aesthetic forma­tions that we see in mountains, streams and clouds. More than just inanimate objects or imitations of natural forms, however, each of Zhao’s creations takes an original organic form that also seems to resonate with our feelings toward and understanding of nature—a universal language related to Shen Kuo’s ‘spiritual communion.’ As we examine these creations from up close, we can also discover the sensuous details that individuate each work —the surface textures, the luster of the glaze, and smooth or sharp protrusions. Thus, each naturally inspired form communicates to the viewer on multiple levels. According to the artist, ‘my sculpture describes the wondrous encounter between ancient and modern times, a philosophical dialogue between the East and the West, a complete fusion of humanity and nature from the raw material of clay and technolo­gy. It is a meditative world full of tension and possibility which is revealed in the mind wandering across geography and space-time.’ Zhao’s sculptures provide limitless opportunities for the beholder to imagine and be enraptured.

This contrast and balance between man and nature is also front and center in the work of Shao Wenhuan (邵文歡, b. 1971). Upon first impression, it is easy to imagine that his monochrome images are just close up photographic stills of nature—the spray of crashing waves or the patterns of rocks. In fact, these images are artistically constructed on multiple levels. Since 2000, the artist has been developing his own photographic process based on gelatin—an es­sential ingredient in both traditional Chinese painting color and as a sizing medium to control absorbency, as well as a basic element in the Western photographic tradition. After taking photographs of evocative natural subjects and landscapes, Shao’s hand-printed black-and-white photographs are produced by the exposing his negatives onto microscopic silver particles suspended in a gelatin medium on the paper or canvas’ surface. Each work is unique and reworked. Sometimes the artist will scratch or rub certain coatings on the negatives to create the desired ‘aged’ effect. Shao plays with the exposure times or thickness of his gelatin emulsions in the darkroom. Moreover, he sometimes modifies his printed works by adding pigments or other mixed media elements onto the pictorial surface. As he explains, ‘Today photography is an increasingly rapid, simplified process. I want to slow down and regain some of what is lost in the process; as I create, I try to explore the art of thinking.’ In an age where photography is becoming increasingly fast and dig­ital, Shao aims to recapture photography’s potential by exploring obsolete photographic processes and the creative of the medium in his own ‘slow’ photography. Each of his mixed-media works is a moment of suspended time waiting for the observer to discover on his/her own terms.

Hao Shiming (郝世明, b. 1977) also challenges viewers to look in completely new ways by manipulating one of the primary elements of representation—the line. This classically trained ink painter has developed his own painting language where he literally constructs or deconstructs his subjects using double-lined painted threads. At once a commentary on lines, the fundamental element of all brush painting, as well as tradition and identity, in his paintings each tread is inextricably linked to the others, even when broken and falling apart. Hao hopes that his audience can discover the transformational potential in his artwork, ‘Viewers first impression will likely be one of serenity, but ultimately, I hope that they can feel the life force of my symbolic language, experience the natural forms in space, and the infinite possibilities of its growth and change.’ For Hao’s paintings and sculptures it is as if he has left us with just enough clues to interpret certain forms from nature, forms that will transform and evolve over time. Part of his works enduring appeal is that, just as you can never step into the same river twice, you can never see the same form represented twice.

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat (b. 1943) is an artist who has made the intellectual pursuit of aesthetic explora­tion his lifelong passion. A connoisseur of Chinese painting and scholar’s objects, in recent years, he transformed his interest in collecting Chinese art into a profound and highly personal vision of artistic creation. Often representing specimens of strange rocks and esoteric objects, The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat captures the essential unpredictability and uniqueness of forms found in nature. He then memorializes his appreciation of these forms by inscribing these works with his unmistakable English scrawl. Similar to the viewing experience of a scholar’s object, the artist invites his viewers to meditate on his painted natural representations. In his recent book, The Art of Understand­ing Art (2016) The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat offers insight into the ways spectators can appreciate art beyond an analytical understanding of the physical surface towards a more transcendental goal: ‘At the highest level, art helps to persuade the intellect of its own limitations, encouraging it to seek a higher perspective and efficiently fulfill its proper role in the evolution of consciousness.’ True to the ideals of self-cultivation with painting, the artist offers aesthetic experiences that have the potential to delight, perhaps even enlighten.

Taken together, The Experience of Looking is the perfect play­ground to let the mind wander and explore the significance of art. The paintings and sculptures of these six artists celebrate the exceptional beauty of nature and the timeless passion of Chinese scholar-art art creation. According to Reed’s Slow Art, there are two vital ingredients in the experience of looking: the artwork and you, the beholder. Here art requires more from the viewer than a cursory glance. Just as a culinary creation is pointless without anyone to taste it, a work of art meaningless without a viewer willing to open his or her mind to it. Although they are highly individualistic in style, each of these works offers endless possibilities for contem­plation, limited only by the viewer’s willingness to engage. This exhibition is challenging. The demands and responsibilities on the viewer may be greater than previously encountered, but the potential rewards are infinite.