Have you ever felt bereft of the skills to unlock the meaning of an artwork?
Blank expressions are a common response to many exhibitions of contemporary art. The viewing public can feel so negatively conditioned that they give only a cursory glance at, what they presume are, baffling abstract works as they flail around for a portrait, landscape or any identifiable feature to cling to as a lifebuoy.
Artist Rikki Van Den Berg advises the children and young people attending workshops she runs in conjunction with an exhibition in Johnston Central Library to simply spend time with the works.
Amongst the 29 pieces in the display of artworks by respected artists who have been on residencies at Tyrone Guthrie Centre are some fabulous pieces genuinely worth getting to know.
Primary and secondary school pupils explored the artworks firsthand with Rikki giving some guidance.
“I found that they will look at art fleetingly, it's like they don't allow themselves time to connect with it. And it's easier to look at a painting that represents something you know.
“I showed them how to connect with a piece of art, and it's very simple: just be with it for two or three minutes and let it speak to you – so we did that with a few pieces and they really were very surprised.”
A 2001 study of people visiting an exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, highlighted how little time the public spend viewing art, even art by such luminaries as Paul Cézanne and Rembrandt van Rijn. According to Artsy.net, the study found that the mean time spent looking at a painting was 27.2 seconds, while the median time was 17 seconds. The longest time was 3 minutes, 48 seconds - as one person, presumably admired, or at least pondered, the Dutch master's 'Aristotle with a Bust of Homer'.
Rikki recalls that 'The Ripples of Annaghmakerrig', a photo intaglio print by Matthew Gammon was a real crowd pleaser once the students had the benefit of time to take it in. It is a rhythmic stitchwork of navy crosses creating a shimmering surface upon a soothing background of aqua blue.
“They were taken aback by it because it started moving, and started creating a life of its own – there are a few pieces in this exhibition that do that. They really got the concept that a piece of artwork can suggest something which might be there and our wonderful, creative mind will see that.”
Rikki explained the techniques used before discussing abstract and conceptual art through an exploration of the pieces. Sound daunting? Far from it, it's fun.
“I have to say the response was fantastic. The children absolutely loved recognising things in abstract art, and putting their own interpretation on it.”
The proof that they expanded their ability to appreciate art could be seen in the drawings they made in response to the exhibition.
“It was amazing what they produced,” says Rikki, “they started using symbolism in them. They have a great imagination and this exhibition fed that imagination. Hopefully they left having learned something about art.”
The exhibition was compiled by the centre's director, Robert McDonald, and was first displayed at Cootehill library for the town's arts festival, by librarian Sinead McArdle, before moving onto Bailieborough Library.
Rikki, who was an artist in residence at Annaghmakerrig last year, has one piece on display - Low Clouds Forgotten Farm.
“It was part of a series called 'The Land', where I studied the forgotten landscape – the old buildings, the old shed, the old barn, where people once were and have left,” she says of her own work.
The Celt notes that dereliction and abandonment seems to be a recurring theme in art lately.
“It's a wonderful theme, maybe we can all relate to it in one way or another.”
Asked to pick two of her favourites she protests, “I don't know, I can't answer that - they're all absolutely beautiful.” Eventually she relents and settles on Margo McNulty's melancholic piece titled Curragh 3. It is a black and white landscape, where hills, trees and hedges are clearly identifiable, but the foreground is lost to a sea of shadows.
“I just love this piece. I don't know if that's a person walking,” she says of an indistinct figure. “There's a certain kind of emptiness in it that I really relate to.”
The second piece Rikki selects is a mixed media piece called Rain by Japanese artist Makiko Nakamuna.
“She came here and fell in love with the Irish rain. She thought it was so soft and clean and the darkness that it would bring yet there was still light – you know the clouds are very famous in Ireland.
“I like that – something that we're so used to and give out about so much, she saw the beauty in it.”
Funnily enough the artwork is listed as 'untitled' in the one page catalogue, but Rikki was aware of its correct title.
“It's interesting isn't it, how, if you know a little bit more about the background of the artist or the story or the concept behind the artwork, it's easier to relate to it. If I hadn't known that, I may not have chosen that.”
While the viewer needs to offer time to viewing, Rikki believes that it's only fair for the artist to give some help to reward that investment of time. She admits to occasionally “over-titling” her works in a bid to help the viewer.
“I think there's a lot of work put out there by artists that are 'untitled' and I really do think that the public struggle relating to the artwork. A title can put a suggestion into somebody's mind about what it might be about – again: is it there, is it not there? It can really help the public to understand and connect with the artwork. So I think titles can be very very important.”
The Tyrone Guthrie exhibition runs in Johnston Central Library, Cavan town until the end of January. Spend some time with it.