Today, for the first time, I had the great fortune to put on a pair of curator’s gloves, sit down in front of a painting on paper by Paul Garland, and examine the work I was holding up with my own hands.
This post is a little more personal, per say, than I’d ever really planned to write in this blog, but I wanted to share this experience and the thoughts it’s inspired as a new found Gallery Director. In my field, obviously, we have the opportunity to engage with works of art literally firsthand. And one of the things I’m learning from being able to do this is the importance of getting back to the basics. When you look at art, especially if you know a bit or even a lot about art history, it’s so easy to get carried away by what (you think) you know. This role I’m in forces me to emphasize focusing on what I can SEE — not the figures or objects depicted on its surface or sculpted shapes, but the actual material the painting is made with and on, the substance the sculpture’s been made out of. For example, even if you can’t pick up a work of art, you can still go to an art museum and do essentially exactly what I do as a curator. Without looking at the label, and divorcing the work from the objects in the galleries around it as much as possible, decide what material the support (or backing — like canvas, wood panel, paper) of the work is made out of. Look at the texture of the surface; the way the pigment (paints or charcoal, etc.) sits on it; look at the edges of the support against the frame, really paying attention to the detail of every physical aspect of the piece and its structure to the environment it will be/ or is placed in.
These details have the potential to tell you so much more about the work of art than simply by looking at what the artist depicted on it (though of course, that’s still important!). Things like this can only be seen in person. Of course, that ties back in to the importance of museums and galleries and going to see what art really looks like up close. And obviously the experience of actually holding a painting, lifting it up to see how heavy it is, helping identify what kind of wood the paneling could be, isn’t something you can do in an art museum. But looking really closely, examining its edges, beginning to deduce its history? That, anyone can do.