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Relax and go with your instincts to allow art pieces to reveal themselves

| Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
How to understand art

Art is capable of evoking emotion, changing thinking and inspiring creation.

Art is also capable of being confusing, challenging and, in some cases, frustrating.

When it comes to viewing artwork, industry insiders have a few pieces of advice for anyone lacking an art education.

“Getting better at that is like anything else — it comes with practice,” says John Carson, head of the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University. “If you really want to appreciate art more or dig deeper, look at as much as you can and get as much information as you can.”

A good first step to approaching art is to rid the mind of preconceived notions, insiders say.

“Sometimes, people give art false reverence,” Carson says. “There's a notion that every piece of artwork is a work of genius. There is good art and bad art. Not all art is profound. Some is just about nice colors or patterns.”

While some pieces elicit immediate reactions from viewers, others require more time to reveal their meanings.

“Spend time looking at it,” Carson says. “It's like letting something wash over you. If it doesn't happen, move on.”

Dan Byers, co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International, says people tend to have an “inherent distrust” in their interpretations of art.

“It's all about finding something recognizable or familiar to life,” he says. “Contemporary art works very well that way. Think about why an artist chose to include something and what that means.”

If the work does inspire a gut reaction, artists often encourage viewers to trust that instinct.

“You should not think about trying to get the whole picture,” says Frances Stark, a Los Angeles-based artist who debuted her newest video installation at the Carnegie International. “Let stuff grab you. Don't think you have to ‘get' stuff. Let yourself be lured in, and open up.”

Larger exhibits like the International can seem overwhelming to novice viewers and experts alike. Spreading the experience over multiple visits is an ideal solution, those in the art world say.

“You don't have to read a book in one go,” Carson says. “Take a couple of trips. Things can reveal themselves over time. If something intrigues you, but you don't get it, go back again.”

Janet McCall, executive director of the Society for Contemporary Craft, suggests people take in a trip to the museum “like bite-size pieces.”

“Pick a few things you want to look at and think about, then come back another time,” she says. “This show has a really long run, so people are able to come back many times to see different things or react in different ways.”

Lynn Zelevansky, director of Carnegie Museum of Art, recommends visitors make use of the free app for Apple devices the museum developed to serve as an audio guide. For larger shows, she also recommends repeat visits.

“Try not to exhaust yourself,” she says. “Come back multiple times.”

If a piece remains perplexing, there are a few ways viewers can glean more information. Titles help, if the piece has one. Asking yourself questions also can lead to an answer — is the work technically well done? Why? What was the artist's intention? Are there layers of meaning or one bold statement?

And it never hurts to ask others.

“People shouldn't be afraid to dislike stuff or say when they can't understand something,” Carson says. “Turn to the person next to you and say, ‘What do you think about that?' ”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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