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Resist the temptation to rush from one piece to the next. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters/Philippe Wojazer / Reuters)
Resist the temptation to rush from one piece to the next. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters/Philippe Wojazer / Reuters)

How to read abstract art Add to ...

If you feel intimidated, skeptical or just plain confused about abstract art, you aren't alone. "The first time I see a work of art, I may not know what it's about, and I'm a specialist in the field," says Kitty Scott, director of visual arts at the Banff Centre. Here are her tips for getting art smart.

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You don't have to get it

The most important thing about art is how you experience it, not whether you can decode the artist's meaning. "There's not going to be a quiz, and you don't have to like it," Ms. Scott says. She compares discovering an artist's work to learning a new vocabulary. "Over the years, you may see 20 works, and then you start to understand their language and what their subject is. It doesn't have to be immediate."

Take your time

Resist the temptation to rush from one piece to the next. "Ours is a fast-paced culture, but visual art - be it painting, performance art, sculpture or whatever - demands our time," Ms. Scott says. "Think about how it's made. Does it have sound? Does it move? What is this thing?"

Piece by piece

Assume every aspect of the work serves a purpose. Ms. Scott points to Betty Goodwin's Bent Figure with Megaphone, 1988, currently on display in the Art Galley of Ontario's three-part exhibition At Work: Hesse, Goodwin, Martin, which also presents art by Eva Hesse and Agnes Martin. "You see a disembodied head. You see a red wedge driven into the figure or coming out of it," she says. "Right away, it's a very tortured and disturbing image. You can ask yourself lots of questions. How does it make me feel? What if my body were in that position?"

Consider the vision

You've no doubt heard someone say, "My five year old could do that!" Even if that were true, Ms. Scott argues that the level of technical difficulty is less important than how a piece expresses the artist's vision. "I think of artists as seers. They have new ways of looking at the world," she says, citing Brian Jungen's repurposing of common objects as an example. "He looked in the back of his truck where he'd thrown some Nike sneakers and recognized that the design of the shoe was something similar to a Northwest Haida mask. He started taking the sneakers apart and reworking them into masks."

Get lost

A museum or gallery visit can be a journey into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable - but that's the point. "One reason people love to go to the museum is that it's a safe place to get lost," Ms. Scott says. "I love to feel like I'm discovering something I've never seen before. It may be stunning or terrifying. If it's interesting, it stays with you."

Embrace the abstract

"There used to be an idea that art was a moment captured, and there was real skill in reproducing something and making it look real," Ms. Scott explains. "But we no longer need a hand to look exactly like a hand."

Many of Agnes Martin's paintings are composed of grids carefully pencilled onto canvasses and washed in colour, but titles such as The Rose and White Flower, 1960 reveal nature as her source of inspiration. "She had a deep love of landscape," says Ms. Scott. "Some of what she wanted to do was to transpose those special feelings we have when looking at beautiful places."

And don't do this… Listen to the audio tour before you've spent time with the art.

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