What’s Missing? : An Examination of an Art Gallery and its Pieces

The work of Frans Wildenhain, artist and master ceramics craftsman, is both whimsical yet in many cases highly practical. After visiting one gallery exhibiting his work this past week, I have come to have a greater understanding of the effort that not only goes in to creating pieces, but for the work that goes in to putting a gallery exhibit together. Over the past few weeks, I have been discussing the nine steps of Visual Communication Analysis as prescribed by Helmers. While the initial steps require a surface level of analysis of the visual communication artifact, the latter steps involve reflection beyond the visual content. It is now my pleasure to complete steps five through seven of this process. Step five requires that the viewer consider what might be “absent” from the artifact. In the most common instances, this step refers to examining what is absent from an image; however, I was instructed to examine what may be absent from the entire exhibit featuring Wildenhan’s work. Included in this blog are three images taken of specific pieces in Wildenhan’s collection. As mentioned, it is possible to consider step five in multiple ways, thus, I will reflect accordingly on the manifest content which is intentional and the latent content which is this inherent absence that is prevalent in any collection.

First, what struck me as highly interesting about specific pieces was Wildenhan’s unique use of paint placed directly on the surface of his pieces. For example, in the first image at the bottom of this post, it appears that Wildenhan placed his hand prints around the vase he created. Additionally, he chose to allow black paint to drip freely down the side of the piece depicted second at the bottom. When thinking about what is absent from these pieces, there are many possibilities. To name a few, an alternate choice in color is absent, the imprint of another body part (such as his feet or the feet of a child) are absent from the vase first at the bottom. Also, there is deliberate lack of precision in the placement of the paint on the vase depicted second. As I will discuss in step six, there are always biases that both the artist and the viewer bring to the table that influence the creation and interpretation of specific artifacts. What is most interesting to me; however, regarding this idea of absence, is the mere fact that as a visual communication scholar, I am allowed to reflect on what might physically be missing from an exhibition. It is interesting to me because as a casual museum and art gallery visitor, I am bound to reflect on the physical artifacts displayed; however, I am less than likely to think twice about what is presented, how it is presented and what might be left out. The Widlenhan collection did an exquisite job displaying the artifacts and further giving narrative background on Wildnehan’s life. Though this is not frequently included in art exhibits, I would have loved to read about what specifically inspired Widlenhan to create specific pieces; more specifically, what moved him to place his hands on the vase. Was it a whim? Was it deliberate or an accident? Thus, this element was missing from the exhibit. Additionally, it is safe to say that all of his life work was not displayed and what would have been interesting to know would be why certain pieces were chosen for the collection. Do they work to convey a theme? Are these his greatest achievements? I could continue on an on about what may potentially be missing; however before blabbering on for longer, it is important to recognize the sixth step in the process: realizing one’s own personal biases and how that may influence one’s interpretation.

According to Helmers, “it is difficult to work against the grain and challenge ourselves to see things differently because so many aspects of visual understanding in our society rely on the same codes: balance, symmetry, conventions of beauty, (p. 49). I will be honest. When I walked in to the gallery, my initial thought was, vases as art? I quickly remembered personal time spent in pottery class and hushed my ill-bred thoughts when recalling my first abysmal failure at making a vase. Alas, after much time I became quite good at ceramics. However, even after taking classes, which are designated as “art” classes, my perception was still that ceramic is inherently a functional art. In my experience, pieces were created for the purpose of use and not for admiring. I was particularly blown away by the piece pictured third below. Though I am not entirely sure what it is, when I saw this, I knew that Wildenhan had far greater vision and talent than I ever could hope for. Alas, I fell in to the “I could do that” trap when I saw the black paint drizzles and hand prints. Yet it was my reflection on the fact that most likely, these splattering of paint were highly devised and intentional. Therefore, once personal biases were set aside, I was able to fully appreciate the beauty of the collection.

There is one final step that I will discuss at this point. I have already touched on it; however I will wrap up my thoughts concerning the effect of the exhibit on myself as the viewer. Essentially, what I came to understand after visiting the gallery was that in truth, I am highly untrained in the fine arts. I have an appreciation, but it is my desire to learn more about the fine arts so that I may more intelligibly critique and discuss. During the immediate moments after entering the exhibit, the overall presentation, lighting, spacing, and design of the gallery caused overwhelming calmness. In the past, I have visited galleries and displays that cause uneasiness or a feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed. The reason I did not feel either of these sentiments is because the gallery contained just enough artifacts to see in a reasonable amount of time and was also not over-burdened with text. Though I proposed that some additional background text would have been nice, I also believe that it is not entirely necessary. I truly feel as though I was able to take away the overall whimsical, simple, and highly artistic values imbedded within each artifact and as an overall feeling within the entire collection.

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