Do you often feel out of place when you’re at exhibits? You’re not alone. Going to art galleries and openings is often intimidating especially when you hear people use pompous words to describe art.
Because we know a lot of you will be going to Art Fair Philippines—vernissage is happening now, as in Wednesday, with the fair opening to the public from Thursday to Sunday—allow us to offer you a cheat sheet. You know, to save you from unnecessary nosebleed.
1. Identify the form. Is it a painting, a sculpture, an illustration or a photograph? If it’s a collage of these and other objects, call it mixed media. But when there are digital elements, electronics and other intangible things in the work like audio or film, call it multimedia.
If it can’t be pinned on your wall, it’s probably an installation. Now, if it moves, call it kinetic art, which BTW depends on motion to achieve beauty and meaning. If it looks like you’re watching a play, it’s performance art.
2. Classify style. This is pretty tricky as you need enough exposure to the scene, plus some knowledge of history and theories. But here are some basic things to keep in mind so you don’t keep bumbling “cool,” “awesome,” and “avante-garde”: Abstract is what makes you say, “a five year old could’ve done that.” This kind of art does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality, but tries to explore the subconscious, primal instinct and impulse into the canvas. It’s often nebulous, employing blots, shapes, colors, and gestural marks.
When it looks like news in visual form, it’s realism. These are works that attempt to represent its subject as accurately as possible—devoid of any form of embellishments, fantasy and distortion. When it resembles a picture, just add the prefix “hyper.”
In contrast, anything farout, trippy and dreamlike reeks surrealism. Think: artwork on acid. Works from this department tries to draw things that lie in our subconscious.
If it looks like it was inspired by Minecraft, it’s probably cubism. If it looks like, it’s something you could buy in a mall, it’s pop.
If it feels ghetto, rough and street, it’s low brow or brut art. Close to this is kitsch—German word for “trash”—which refers to cheap, vulgar and sentimental approach to creating art. It is usually used to comment on how popular and commercial culture degrades life.
When you can’t figure out what it is, say “it’s conceptual” as conceptual works can look like anything. This is because the art lies in the ideas behind it, not the object itself. Conceptual artists use whatever materials and whatever form is most appropriate to put their message across—from performance to literature.
If it’s ambiguous and difficult to categorize, try emergent or experimental. These are things that rebel from known forms and innovate. Sometimes, they don’t look like an artwork yet. Oftentimes, the artists themselves don’t know what it is.
If it’s something you’ve seen before and you remember the artist, just say it’s derivative from his or her work. It’s not really a style, but it’s sounds really smart, and less condescending than copycat. It’s a handy adjective.
3. Recognize story. Shows usually come with exhibition notes meant to guide the viewers. But oftentimes, they’re confusing. When you can’t understand, or get bored while reading it, stash it in your bag and just stare at the work. Identify the subject, and then consider the emotion it conveys to you. The important thing is to spot something you can relate with. Once you’ve established a context, you can start exploring what it possibly means.
4. Combine things. Construct art compounds by using the styles to describe the forms. For example, if it’s a painting and it’s exploring dreams but there are elements of Star Wars, say, “it feels like a pop surrealist painting.” You can mix and match depending on your understanding, really.
5. When in doubt, just say it’s a “social commentary.” You can easily get away with this because it’s vague and universal. Let the person you’re talking to finish your sentence. Just nod and listen. Recycle the information the person you’re talking to is saying.
If you’re sure that the work is political, say that it’s a “political commentary.” Art is an expression but it’s also a means for people to criticize what’s happening in a particular place or community.
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