A version of this article appeared on pages 78-79 of the Spring 2023 issue of Grapevine magazine.
I first started to pay attention to what people hung on their walls in Brooks, Alberta. I had moved to Brooks to begin my radio career as the morning man of a Country and Western station. A few weeks after my move, the station manager returned from a fishing vacation in the Gulf of Mexico with a trophy: a stuffed Marlin which he hung on the wall outside his office. The fish was a constant irritation to our radio station engineer. Every time he shuffled past the Marlin he would stop, look at the fish, shake his head, and mutter disapprovingly, “Fish on the wall, huh, fish on the wall.” My interest in wall art began with a fish on the wall.
Over the years I saw many things hung on walls: family portraits, mass produced prints, anonymous paintings, colourful fabrics, plates, spoons, shelves displaying trophies or small figurines, and yes fish. Some of the fish hanging on walls even talked and sang. Later, when I became more interested in art, I began to pay particular attention to the paintings hung on walls. I saw lots of pretty paintings. Paintings of flowers and cute animals, innocuous landscapes, and abstracts that were chosen more for matching the furniture or walls than for any artistic merit. In sum: lots of paintings that seen once need not be seen again. Paintings that did not challenge or engage.
I wondered if what I saw on walls came from a biased sample so I spent an afternoon at the Belleville Library leafing through recent issues of home improvement and home decorating magazines. I saw plenty of photos of stylish rooms and plenty of pretty paintings of flowers, cute animals, landscapes and abstracts. Lots of abstracts. Abstract paintings with a few geometric shapes with bright colours to offset the usual white or gray furniture and walls. Abstract paintings with a few lines on a white or gray background to match the colourless walls and furniture. The paintings were nicely framed and well hung. But the paintings themselves? Not my idea of good art.
OK. I am making a judgement call here. Something very few people are willing to do. After all, isn’t appreciation of art a personal thing? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? While it is acceptable to criticize the technical aspects of a painting such as its composition, brushstrokes or the use of colour, it is not generally acceptable to comment on the choice of subject matter. After all, there is nothing wrong with a person hanging a landscape, a wildlife portrait, or a colourful abstract if the person likes the painting. Anyone criticizing someone else’s taste risks being seen as a hoity toity self-appointed expert who should keep their opinions to themselves. That’s why you can find lots of advice on matching paintings to furniture and walls, on framing paintings, and on hanging paintings but very little advice on what kind of paintings to hang.
Full disclosure: I am not an art critic. With the exception of a single class in art appreciation many, many, years ago, I have no training in art appreciation. But I have an opinion of “good art” and I am willing to go where others fear to tread and suggest what sort of paintings you should be hanging on YOUR walls.
I will argue that hanging what I call “easy art” misses some of the pleasures and benefits of “good art” that engages and challenges. Less intrusively, I will also suggest that rotating the paintings on your walls keeps your art fresh and that supporting local artists makes art a richer experience.
To begin my argument, I ask: “Why do we hang paintings on our walls in the first place?” The most obvious answer is beauty. Artist Georgina O’Keefe said it well: art is filling a space in a beautiful way. Good art is beautiful and makes our homes more beautiful. A second answer is meaning. As far back when artists painted on cave walls, good art was both beautiful and meaningful. Olinda Casimiro, Executive Director, Art Gallery of Northumberland, has a great definition of good art:
Viewing art allows us to process our experiences…Art makes a difference in how we live our lives…Through their work, artists help others evoke and validate their emotions, providing comfort that we are not the only ones feeling a certain way and we are grateful to them for creating an outlet for us to be challenged…We are grateful for the work and moments artists create that make us uncomfortable and push us to grow. By leaning into these feelings, we push ourselves to think more openly and to see the world from a different point of view.
How do you know if a painting is good art? I have a simple test. Point out a painting you think is good art to someone else. It could be in a magazine, in a gallery or hanging on your wall. Point it out and ask: “What do you think of this painting?” If they like the painting most people will say “It’s nice.” If they don’t like it they will say something like “It’s interesting.” If it’s a painting on your wall and if they’re comfortable with you and they don’t like it they might actually go out on a limb and say “I don’t like it.” After people express their opinion, we typically ask why the painting is nice, or interesting, or why they don’t like it. Skip that question and ask “What do you think is happening in the painting.” Nothing much happens in easy art so there is not much to say. Good art provokes discourse. Good art engages and challenges.
I want to give you an example of what I think is good art but before I do I want to point out that I am focusing on paintings. Good art can be found in many different media: rock, metal, glass, fabric, and wood. Good art can be found in many different styles: expressionistic, impressionistic, and realistic. Your preferences for medium and style need not be defended. And neither does your definition of beauty. You like what you like.
I find beauty in many different types of art but here are my preferences. I like figurative art which is defined by the Tate Modern Gallery as art that retains strong references to the real world and particularly to the human figure. I like paintings that show me something I haven’t seen before and that demonstrate some technical ability with colour and form. I like paintings that reflect the tension between well planned and free form. So given my preferences and since I began this article with a fish on the wall, here is an example of what I think is good art: a painting that is both beautiful and meaningful. The painting, which hangs on my wall, is by Belleville artist Sarah Palmer and is titled Living in a Fishbowl. Here is what I said when I was asked what I thought was happening in the painting when I first saw it:
The first thing I notice is that the primary colour of the painting is blue. And the first feeling that I get from the painting is discomfort. There’s something wrong here. The three people in the painting appear to be posing for a family photo. The background is off kilter, as if you were looking at it through some Fun House glass. Who are these people? A man with his daughter and wife? They don’t look happy. And wait, is the man wearing high heels? Maybe the sitting person is a woman? Who are they? They don’t look happy? Are they living in a fishbowl? What does it mean to live in a fishbowl? Is that why they’re unhappy? Why are the “daughter’s” arms crossed and why is she looking up? Looking for
deliverance? And what is that sitting on the pedestal? A fishbowl within a fishbowl? Are those fish in the fishbowl? A fishbowl with no water overflowing with fish? I think they’re fish. To me they look like fish with eyes looking out of their fishbowl, sort of like the people looking out of their fishbowl.
Lots to think about and feel in the painting. Lots of things to discuss. A beautiful painting that challenges and engages me every time I see it. Good art!
Your idea of beauty might be completely different than mine but my suggestion is to find art that promotes discourse. Find art that is meaningful and that makes your home more beautiful.
I will finish this article with two quick recommendations: rotate your art and buy local art.
I lived in Montreal for a few years in a low-rent apartment on Avenue Ridgewood, a street below Summit Circle, one of Canada’s most expensive neighbourhoods. My Ridgewood apartment shared Summit Circle’s million dollar view of Montreal. Visitors to my apartment raved about the view but after a few months I found that I no longer appreciated the view. It had become stale. Like my Montreal view, even the best art can become stale after you’ve lived with it for a while. The solution to stale art is simple. Rotate your art. Put away some of your art into storage for a while. Good art will be fresh when you bring it out again. The art will have changed because you have changed.
My final recommendation is to buy local art. Your art will be much more meaningful if you know the artist. For example, when I discussed Living in a Fishbowl with artist Sarah Palmer I got new insights into the characters in the painting and a new appreciation of how the painting came together. There’s lots to enjoy in the many galleries, shows, and art events in our area. There’s lots to learn from the artists you’ll meet here and the art you’ll see here.
December 11, 2022