Yes, this is art. I apologize. I’ll explain.

Amir by Ken Lum, 2000.

I get why people have a hard time with art in general, the above piece doesn’t make it easier if you are new to trying to “get” art. And it’s a shame. I went to the Ken Lum show at the Vancouver Art Gallery with my dad and look at pieces like the one above. He hated it. He doesn’t know anything about art but he knows what he likes and this was not it. In fact, it made him angry.

After I thought about it for a a few days afterward, I realized that he was angry because like most people he doesn’t like being hustled. Standing in front of Ken Lum’s work without any background on what he is doing and why can give people the feeling of being scammed. No one likes to feel like they aren’t cultured and modern art can be a tough pill.

What’s Ken Lum trying to talk about with these pieces? In a really brief way, the work he is making is about peoples public lives and their private lives and what we show to each other. With the piece above, Lum may want us to look at why Amir is moving back home to Eritrea. And why he can’t make life in Canada work despite offering everything from shoe repair to thrift goods or cheap watches. It’s one imagined immigrant’s life summed up in one object and tries to encourage us to imagine how he experiences this country. Pretty heavy subject matter when you get into it.

How do we find out these things? How do we get a deeper understanding of what we see?

Variant I by Brian Jungen, 2002 via

1. Get out and see some stuff.

Placing your self in front of art is the first place to start. As I mentioned before, you can’t get into an artwork without standing in front of the thing. I could write a whole post on how good going to a museum or large art gallery is for first or second date. Or any relationship for that matter. Taking someone along gives you someone to bounce thoughts off, ask for their opinions and check them against your own and slows you down. In a good way.

Venus by Andy Dixon via

2. Slow down.

You need to slow down. Average visitors to a museum spend less than 10 seconds looking at the work. The person who made what you are looking could have spent months on it and years to get to the point where they could get it to where it is; put in front of you by people who understand what they have done. At the end of the day, it’s your opinion that matters most to you.

Taking a moment to look closely at it is worth your time. Get up close, look at the details. Back away and see the whole thing at once. What does it make you think about? If you are still not interested, it isn’t working for you. But it is worth a minute to check out. Having a second go around is also a good idea. If something interested you, go back and see if you can figure out why. Knowing what you like helps build your taste.

Like a Great Black Fire (detail) by Rebecca Chaperon via

3. Ask questions.

“Excuse me, can you tell me what the hell is going on here?” or something maybe a bit less direct is a good place to start. In a commercial gallery space, there will be someone at a desk working at a computer and besides the initial greeting they may ignore you. Most places will give people a chance to look at the work in private. Some will simply be lazy. It’s their job to explain the work to visitors and try to get your business. But it is usually your responsibility to ask questions.

A good way to start is something like, “Excuse me, I’m interested in this work. Do you have a moment to tell me about the work and the artist?” If you are too shy or intimidated, and honestly there is no reason to be, take a look around for any literature in the gallery for more info. If you were looking at a new car, you wouldn’t mind grabbing a sales person and picking their brain, this is no different.

Madame Guillotine by Mark Soo, 2011 via

4. Get a posse and do the opening circuit.

Get out there and hit some shows. Go with a crew of friends who may also may be into seeing some work. Get dressed up. You can plan a route based on your local galleries openings. Most galleries will have openings on a certain night, in Vancouver it’s Thursdays, in your city it may be another. Check out one of the big galleries in your town, the Vancouver Art Gallery or the AGO in Toronto. Worst case: you drink some bad wine, see nothing you like and can head on to a club if it’s not working. Best case: you see some great work, drink some good free booze, and maybe meet someone you may not have met before. There is no easier way to make friends than asking, “So what do you think?”

And just so you know, they may not understand what’s going on either. So enjoy yourself.

Any comments on experiences getting to know art and artworks are welcome below.