Sense and Sensitivity of Contemporary Art: Part Two

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Way to View


by Ranjan Kaul

In Part Two of the essay, “Sense and Sensitivity of Contemporary Art”, Ranjan Kaul discusses how “viewing art can be a highly subjective and immersive experience .”

At an art exhibition the artist or the curator usually provides a statement of what the show is about – it’s always useful to read this carefully before seeing the exhibits. A good painting, like poetry, is often layered and nuanced. So, while it is not much of a handicap to not have a background in art, it certainly helps to know the artists’ background and their intent underlying the works.


As we saw in Part One of the essay, contemporary art encompasses several strands of art, from painting and sculpture to spatial architecture and digital art. However, prior to discussing a couple of select current trends, to address those of you who might have only a perfunctory understanding of art, let’s begin by understanding how to view one of the most traditional forms of art: painting.


There’s a common tendency to immediately walk up to a work of art and look at it from up close. An artwork is not a microorganism that needs to be examined through a lens. It is an expression of life and the world from the eyes of its maker. To get an objective and holistic perspective of anything in life, one needs to step back and view at it from a distance. And so with art. Well-designed art galleries ensure that there is sufficient space for a viewer to look at a work from a suitable distance. Regrettably, many of the galleries that have mushroomed in recent years as well as gallery spaces in art fairs simply do not follow this cardinal principle. But this is perhaps a topic for a separate discussion.


As you look at a painting from afar, ask yourself these questions: Does it make an impact on me, resonate with me? Does it stir my imagination? Does it arouse in me any kind of emotional response? Is it thought-provoking?

To be fair to a work of art before you judge it, give yourself time to internalize the work and allow it to permeate your sensibilities. If the work does not strike a chord with you, there is nothing to stop you from simply walking away – there are no compulsions or regulations in the world of art. However, if there is something in the work that you find appealing, you can examine it more deeply. What is it that you like about it – the colours, the overall compositional harmony, its dramatic effect? Or is there an emotional or cerebral connect? Once you’ve answered these questions, you can draw nearer to the work to observe its subtle tonalities and textures.


The subject matter or theme is often a good starting point to view an artwork. Of course, it is understandably easier to appreciate a work of art if the subject or theme is easy to recognise, such as a landscape or portrait, or a representation of a familiar event or story. Since ancient times, some forms of art told a story from everyday life or depicted a myth, and this trend continues today. Other art forms use simplification, distortion, abstraction or even exaggeration to draw attention of the viewers, startle them or create drama. Many artists exercise their creative freedom to produce works of fantasy, or use symbols and metaphors to make a statement, or make something completely abstract that is devoid of meaning. Then there are artists who vent their emotions through their works or use an unrealistic palette to create a mood.


Viewing art can be a highly subjective and immersive experience. It is for the artist to express; however, viewers are free to and will experience the work based on their own understanding and sensibilities. As in literature and music, a work that arises in an artist’s consciousness can reach out intimately to the consciousness of others in many ways regardless of the artist’s intent. While viewing a work of art, you cannot detach yourself completely, so you’re likely to respond to the work and interpret it based on your personal history, thinking and subjective consciousness. However, at times, you’ll come across a work that is so obscure that you find it difficult to identify a subject or theme with. If you happen to be around when either the artist or curator is in the gallery, do not hesitate to go up to them and ask him or her questions about the work. Artists and curators are more often than not eager to talk about the works on display and are keen to know how these are impacting others. So, if you do get an occasion for such an interaction, do not let the opportunity slip by – you’ll be amazed by what you’ll gain.


We have till now discussed how to appreciate an artwork because there is some kind of recognisable figure or object or a representation from nature, or because it is a response to a social or political event. Yes, it may be stylized or abstracted and far from a realistic representation or depicted metaphorically. But how would you look at a painting that is completely abstract, that one cannot ascribe real meaning to?


To understand an abstract painting, it’s useful to draw a comparison with music. The vocabularies of visual arts and music are in many ways similar in terms of arrangement of individual elements, harmony, rhythmic patterns, sensory and aesthetic appeal. As in music, where small, individual contiguous or contrasting movements and chords all add up to make a composition, so too the various elements of a painting – form, colour, space, texture – come together to complete it. There are of course differences: painting being a visual medium, it represents a perception or image in the artist’s mind. Again, the expression, treatment and imagery in visual art find parallels with literary works.

It’s important to keep in mind that even the most realistic painting is always only a representation. While the artist sees the subject in three dimensions, a painting has only two and that too mostly confined within a rectangular frame. Just as a musical composition has a time limit and a literary work its word count, in art, choice of the size of a work and the optimal use of space within the constraints of the frame are important.


With these comparisons with music and literature, let us together view two abstract paintings by a contemporary Indian artist, Hem Raj.

Image 1, Untitled by Hemraj, 4’ x 5’, 2018

Image courtesy of the artist


Image 2, Untitled by Hemraj, 5’ x 6’, 2018

Image courtesy of the artist


Allow yourself a few minutes to view and internalize each work without zooming in. Do these two works resonate with you in some way? What is your emotional response and do you react differently to them? Do they intrigue you, excite you enough to compel you to keep looking at them?

A word of caution: it will be futile to try to find meaning in the above works. A pure abstract work is unencumbered by objects, figures, meaning. An abstract painting is often about self-expression, an outpouring from the artist’s mind, heart and subconscious self; interestingly, there are some artists who maintain that their works are simply the medium for conveying the expressions of their soul.

Abstract art poses a challenge for the artists: while they do not expect the viewers to experience the same feelings that made them create the painting in the first place, they certainly hope that their work will appeal to the viewers’ sensibilities. Describing his process, Hem Raj says that he often steps back when he’s painting so that he can look at his own work from the viewer’s perspective. According to him, abstract art allows him to work with complete freedom, unhindered and unfettered. He adds that viewers often make the mistake of trying to “read” his paintings. This might be the possible reason he added the undecipherable squiggles in the painting shown in Image 1.


The colour palettes of both these works, though consciously limited, are yet different. The work given in Image 1 uses warmer, earthy colours with hints of magenta and has a charming mystery about it. On the other hand, the second work (Image 2) has a calming and comforting presence, with its strips of tonal greens painted passionately with thick brushstrokes and dashes of ochre and red. The horizontal brushstrokes are counterpointed with shorter, differently textured vertical ones.


The largish black element in the painting in Image 1 is unexpected, but it is this bold intrusion that adds drama and contrast as also visually balances the black curlicues. The varied strokes in both works are uneven, rough and free; they collide and merge, seamlessly. The subtle shifts of tonal variations and the repetitive rhythmic patterns of strips of broad colour, as we encounter in music or poetry, imbue harmony and sensory pleasure to the compositions. Finally, the brushes of brighter hues in both works lift the works, as it were, just as the red brush marks in the second work enliven it (Image 2).


Image 3, Jaune Rouge Bleu by Wassily Kandinsky, 1925

Source: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38658125

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky claimed to have created the first abstract painting. Prior to painting abstract works, he painted highly charged, figurative works using heavy brush strokes. For Kandinsky, creation of abstract art had spiritual moorings; other abstract artists drew inspiration from forms, colours and patterns found in nature. Throughout most of the 20th century and till date, many artists have continued to create abstract works of art. What then is significantly new in the visual arts in our contemporary times, that is, in the last four decades? Next week, the third and concluding part of this essay will explore a couple of current trends in contemporary art.


Read: Sense and Sensitivity of Contemporary Art: Part One

Coming soon: Sense and Sensitivity of Contemporary Art: Part Three


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Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.