Standing in place

Hit and Miss #75

After writing last week’s newsletter, I bundled myself off to the National Gallery to stare at art. This differs from how I normally visit the Gallery, when I merely glance at art.

This visit was scheduled in my calendar as “Slow art @ NGC”, with a link to Rob Walker’s “How To Pay Attention” in the description. In that piece, Walker describes techniques for paying closer, more involved attention to the world around you. Three in particular inspired me:

  1. Look slowly

    Robert Irwin, the artist mentioned above, shaped his practice in part by spending insane-sounding amounts of time simply looking — at his own paintings, at rooms, at outdoor settings. …

  2. Look really, really slowly

    Educator Jennifer L. Roberts has described an assignment she’s used in art history classes as making students regard a single work for “a painfully long time.” This seems to mean three hours, which does sound like a challenge (although it’s nothing compared to the time Irwin spent studying canvases, en route to concluding, in essence, that canvases were beside the point). …

  3. Look repeatedly

    In a 2012 essay in The New York Times, culture reporter Randy Kennedy describes a decade or so of looking, again and again, at Caravaggio’s “The Denial of St. Peter.” The painting hangs in the Met, which Kennedy has occasion to visit often, and taking (yet) another look at this painting has become part of his routine every time.

These principles—paying attention to art, for a long time, over and over—have long been implicit in my visits to the Gallery, but I appreciate how Walker makes them so explicit.

I knew already which piece I’d attend to: W. Blair Bruce’s The Smiths (image online). It’s caught my eye repeatedly on prior visits for its sense of movement, its fantastical colours, and its impressive size.

As I stood before it, I found myself pulled in deeper. I noticed details—of the composition, of the content, of the technique—that I hadn’t observed on prior visits. This is one of those experiences that’s hard to capture in words, and maybe not worth doing so—instead, I encourage you to give it a go of your own.

But I will say this: attending closely to a painting for a long time felt similar to attending closely to a place. I’ve long found beauty in knowing a place—a city or a trail or a home—very deeply. Art can also offer such beauty. Paying attention yields dividends.

With that, I’m off to the Gallery again. All the best for the (hopefully attentive) week ahead!


P.S. If you’re interested, here are some of my favourite pieces at the Gallery: