The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gallery: Episode 4

Beaverbrook Art GalleryJanuary 19, 20180 Comments

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gallery: Episode 4


Abstract art is a style that often viewers either love or hate – or are simply confused by! The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is currently showing a retrospective exhibition from one of Canada’s most inventive and influential abstract artists of the 20th Century, Oscar Cahén, and offers a perfect opportunity to apply a new way to see the world.

Strategy #0: Don’t panic! Galleries and museums are places to enjoy yourself. Don’t feel that there is only one right way to experience art. Wandering through and stopping for things that catch your eye are perfectly good ways to start!

Strategy #1: looking at the technical approach. Read more here.

Strategy #2: Influence and Inspiration. Read more here.

Strategy #3: Imagery immersion. Read more here.

Strategy #4: Elements of Art.

There are seven elements of visual art that can be considered as its building blocks. When you visit a gallery and find yourself not sure of what to make of a work – as can often be the case with abstract art – a strategy to look at specific elements may help you to understand what you are seeing.

The seven elements are: line, shape, form, space, colour, texture, and value.

Lines are simply that! Within a work of art, take a look at the width, direction, and length of the lines the artist has used, and see what the artist could be making. Shapes and forms are the elements created by lines.

For example, in Untitled (1953), we see how Oscar Cahén uses lines in three different sections of the painting to create three distinct areas. Working from left to right, we see vertical blue and orange lines on the left. Three horizontal, pink lines in the middle create a different image and draw our eyes across to the three vertical, black lines on the right edge of the work. The lines in this case are straight, short lines. But, if the lines were connected, as we can see in the middle, they begin to form a shape. In this case, Cahén has used two lines to almost create a circle (shape) but it still appears two-dimensional (form).

Colour, texture, and value are elements that refer to how the artwork looks or feels. Which colours are used in the work? Are certain colours paired together or overlaid within it, and how might that draw your eye? Value refers to the intensity of colours: are they faded or intense, bright or dark?  And texture refers to how something looks or feels (smooth, bumpy, etc).

Trophy (1954) is an excellent work to look at how Cahén uses colour. The work contains almost no black or white, which were more commonly used in abstract art at the time. The bright and bold pink, orange, purple, and blue makes this one of the most eye-catching works on display in the Oscar Cahén exhibition.

Finally, the element of space is one that brings each of the other six elements together in an artwork – how has the artist placed certain elements and colours for particular reasons, purposes, or intentions? What parts of the work contain something (positive space), and what parts of the work are left empty (negative space)? Examining an artwork at such a fundamental level like this is something that can be done with any painting, but it may be especially useful with abstract artworks that are not always immediately clear.

The titles of an abstract work can also sometimes suggest what the artist was thinking when they created the artwork. Art educator Christina Thomson talks about using this strategy when looking at Oscar Cahén’s works: “What do you see in the work Still Life (1953)? Do you see a fist in Trophy (1954)? What is tumbling and churning gregariously in Traumoeba (1956)? There may be many interpretations.”

Abstract art is open to many different interpretations, which sets it apart from other types of artworks we’ve seen in this series so far. When you first look at Oscar Cahén’s abstract work, it may be easy to pass over it without understanding. By looking at the elements that went into creating the work though, you may find a new appreciation for the style. Thomson says, “what appeals to your senses and calls upon your experiences to create connections and makes an art work meaningful to you? I know I am captivated by a painting when I find myself imagining its creation. I feel the speed and rhythm of the brushstrokes and the pressure of the paint moving on the surface of the canvas, spreading and absorbing into the paper, sliding across the wood.”

Next time you are in the Gallery, take a look at some of the abstract art on display, from Oscar Cahén to Jean-Paul Riopelle. Compare and contrast the elements of art, spend a few minutes imagining what went into the creation of each work, and see what expressions of each of these elements appeals to you.

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