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Go beyond the attractive picture, try to scratch below the surface

Judgement, composition, balance, interplay of palette, size, the choice of a medium—all play a crucial role in outlining the brilliance of an art piece.

opinion Updated: Aug 03, 2018 16:04 IST
Arvind Vijaymohan
Arvind Vijaymohan
Arvind Vijaymohan,Gurugram,Artery India
Arvind Vijaymohan is the CEO of Artery India, a financial data centre focused on Indian art sales globally.(Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

What is the mark of a strong work?

This is a question that I am oftentimes asked. How does one establish that a work of art is powerful, or by extension, that an artist has a strong practice. Are there parameters that justly outline the standard of an artwork, or is the position of art collectors gushing over a work driven by drivel and pure fluff?

There certainly are characteristics that define the strength and integrity of a work. A cursory viewing of even a single work would allow anyone with a trained eye to establish the merit of the artist. The composition and balance of the elements, the blend and interplay of the palette, the adeptness with handling form, the choice of a particular medium to render the work, the size chosen — all these aspects, amongst various others, play a crucial role in outlining its brilliance.

So how exactly does one identify the strength of a work, read from the lens of the public-at-large? For the larger quantum, that is in most instances straightforwardly defined by the golden test of its visual impact. In the specific Indian context, the viewer is generally drawn to aesthetically pleasing imagery, with the sweep extending in some cases to encompass semi-realism, more so if rendered in a vibrant palette. The reason follows a simplistic explanation, that of one’s sensibility being attuned to what it understands without much challenge, especially if coupled with bright and pleasing colours.

This visual inclination applies in particular regard to those who do not have a pronounced level of engagement with art. Most of our citizens did not have an active exposure to the subject during their formative years by way of museums, exhibitions, and crucially, an active arts programme in school or college.

When the eye encounters a highly skilled realistic rendering of a subject: it could be a figure, or an inanimate form, the fairly instantaneous reaction, even for an evolved eye, is one of marvel. This appreciation is however drawn on a short path, with only a limited number of works qualifying as masterpieces, essentially early examples that are celebrated for breaking ground in terms of studying perspective, lighting, chiaroscuro or the like within this domain. The brilliance of an artist’s skill as depicted in the work, without the content eventually delivering some meaningfulness beyond her/his evident expertise leads to what I’d regard as a flat tire along the art appreciation highway. That skill though extremely fascinating during the initial stretches, will after a particular point fail to challenge the eye, and more importantly, the mind, should it not go beyond being just a handsome face.

Let me state this clearly: there must remain a place in all collections for works that serve little purpose beyond beauty, but for the health and growth of the collection, it would be prudent to go beyond that foundational point.

This is where the crucial concept of the narrative must be considered. This aspect, as you’d perhaps have gauged is in some manner rendered secondary in many of the above outlined instances. The narrative can be a story that is being portrayed in a particular work, as alternately, a concept that the artist is interested in exploring, unravelling and deciphering. It could also refer to a series that the artist is focusing upon for a particular exhibition. In wider instances and in the finest scenario, the narrative could be a long-standing muse of the artist that has engaged her/his interest, evolving richly over the passage of time and practice. Most of the legendary artists around the globe have perennial favourites, narratives that have either remained a constant, or were revisited on a fairly frequent basis over the course of their practice.

This is an aspect I recommend all budding collectors to keep in mind when engaging with an artist’s work. Go beyond just the attractive picture, and try to scratch below the surface (not literally!) A thinking artist’s work will certainly challenge your faculties well beyond the measure of the visual beauty that her/his signature delivers.

At a personal level, the mark of a strong work for me is defined by memory. In light of the fact that I view a few thousand works every year, the ones that remain in my mind following months of their viewing are the ones that qualify. Since I am largely familiar with most of the primary signatures, this applies essentially to the emerging bracket, as also international artists - the ones that I view at art fairs and exhibitions visited during my travels.

This usually requires a little nudge, that involves regularly scrolling through archived images on my handheld devices to revisit some galleries. The strongest ones are those that I whilst mulling at random over a colour or subject, recall purely on the basis of the impression they made during the viewing. That always tends to send to hurrying to my iPad to retrieve an image for another look.

(Arvind Vijaymohan is the CEO of Artery India, a financial datacentre focused on Indian art sales globally)

First Published: Aug 03, 2018 14:37 IST