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Expose yourself to Art...
...and see how it reflects in the world around you

by Paul Varnell . Contributing Writer

Art imitating life: ‘Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash.’

About 50 years ago one of my school classes took a field trip to the local art museum. I remember nothing of that trip except seeing a small abstract painting that was almost entirely black except for a few splotches of bright red and blue in the middle. It was titled “Christmas Eve.”

I was so taken with the little painting that when the formal tour was over I went back to look at it again. If the artist meant to suggest a warm festive home on a dark winter night, he succeeded. If the title was an afterthought, it was an inspired choice.

The painting has stayed with me over the years and I have occasionally wondered who painted it. So several days ago I called the museum to ask the artist’s name. An assistant curator kindly looked through their holdings and reported back to me that they had no painting by that title. Perhaps my memory was faulty or perhaps it was part of a touring exhibit.

I offer this as an example of how a piece of art can grab your attention and linger long in the memory. Most of us remember at least a few paintings, if only because they have been reproduced so often — Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Edward Hopper’s diner in “Nighthawks” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

But there are many less familiar paintings like “Christmas Eve” that can have a similar impact — different paintings depending on the viewer.

Several years ago I saw a poster in a local framing shop of a man in a trench coat, his legs bare, standing facing Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” holding his trench coat open wide. The print at the bottom read, “Expose Yourself to Art.” I wish I’d bought it.

Too often, though, the message of “expose yourself to art” is that art is good for you. But there are several other reasons for looking at art.

My reason would be the more hedonistic and subversive definition that art is enjoyable; it is another mode of pleasure. In addition, it can enhance our perceptions in that we absorb from it a more attentive way of seeing, noticing things more closely and often more appreciatively.

Two examples: I was reading on the roof deck on my apartment building one evening last fall when I glanced up at the light of the setting sun reflected from the tall buildings nearby. My immediate thought was “Oh, Sheeler!”

Had I not known Charles Sheeler’s urban landscapes such as “Skyscrapers” or “Church Street El,” I am sure I would not have paid much attention to the various colors and the play of light and shadow on the buildings. I now watch for that more carefully.
A few months ago I was out walking and noticed a woman on the other side of the street walking a small dog that trotted along beside her as fast as it could, its little legs almost a blur. I was startled to realize that it looked exactly like Giacomo Balla’s depiction of motion in his “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash.”. Had I not known Balla’s painting, I probably would not have paid much attention to the scene.

For the last year or so, I have been writing frequently about art, including articles about 25 local gay artists. I go to galleries, I look at the art, I interview the artists and I try to write about them in a way that will lure readers into going to galleries and checking out the art for themselves.

Seeing paintings “in the flesh,” so to speak, is far superior to seeing small pictures of them in books or newspapers. You can see details you miss in small reproductions, you can see the true colors and, sometimes, the size itself is part of the point of the painting. Most first time viewers of Seurat’s 8-by-12 foot “Grande Jatte” are surprised by how big it is. And, of course, many works by “emerging” and “mid-career” gay artists are nowhere in print at all.

I would not claim that there is anything like a “gay style” in art. The artists and their work are too different. Or, perhaps, there are as many gay styles as there are gay artists. In any case, any piece of art has to stand on its own wholly apart from the biography or the intention of the artist. But I suspect that knowing an artist is gay or lesbian does provide a point of contact for the gay viewer and invite a more receptive attitude.

Not every piece of art you see at galleries is destined for greatness. But some of them can be very fine and one or another piece may linger in your memory as “Christmas Eve” has lingered in mine.

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