Archive for February 23rd, 2009

In the last six months, a free Saturday or Sunday afternoon will likely find me down at a Northwest Coast art gallery. For me, it’s a pleasure that ranks with a good book or music store.

In fact, in one particular sense, an art gallery has an advantage over a book or music store. In a music store, you are lucky to get a quick sampling of an album if you get one at all; usually, if you want to listen before you buy, you have to do so via your own home Internet connection. A book store is much better, but, even so, reading more than a few pages will quickly make you unwelcome.

By contrast, at a gallery you are expected to give pieces a careful look. So long as you don’t touch anything without an invitation, few staff members in a gallery are going to mind if you examine piece after piece for a long time. After all, nobody expects you to drop a few thousand dollars on a mask or print without making up your mind. Paradoxically, because you are surrounded by expensive items, nobody expects you to be in a hurry to spend.

This attitude has the advantage of making your browsing session inexpensive nine times out of ten (the tenth time, admittedly, you are apt to find yourself putting down the cash that would buy dozens of books or albums, or talking about lay away plans). But unless the lust to acquire hits you, usually you can stand and admire a formline or the use of color for hours and not spend a cent.

To some extent, of course, you can browse online. But online, you miss many of the details, and your opinion of a piece can change drastically depending on whether you see it online or up close. Moreover, even the most conscientious galleries do not always have all their stock online, so you never know what you might see when you actually visit. Once or twice, I’ve even seen new pieces that have just arrived.

Art galleries are businesses, and, sooner or later, a staff member may ask if you need help, the same as in any other store. But while someone selling music or books is likely working at minimum wage and has a corresponding minimal interest in what they are selling unless they work in a small specialty store, most members of a gallery staff are only too pleased to talk art, too. If you are a novice, many are happy to educate you. If you have deeper knowledge, most are just as willing to share their enthusiasms with you. After all, they are interested in the art as well, and, while they have more to do than deal with customers, on the weekends gallery staff members expect to be busy with customers. And, because they know that most people don’t buy lightly, they are quite willing to cultivate customers to encourage another visit.

For these reasons, you have a good chance of combining aesthetic pleasure with a bit of education – or even some friendly gossip about various artists and an informal sociology lesson. If you keep returning, before long, you may have struck up something that is not quite a friendship (since, after all, money is ultimately the basis of the relationship), but is certainly a friendly acquaintance or professional relationship. In fact, of half a dozen galleries which I visit with any regularity, there is only one in which the staff is unfriendly – and, not coincidentally, it’s the gallery that I visit least, enjoy least, and have not bought from.

Best of all, though, is the time you take to enjoy the art itself. Northwest Coast art has its banalities of form and its mediocre artists, just like any other art form, but the standards of craft tend to be higher than in most forms of modern art. Even if a piece doesn’t make me want to buy, I can still learn from it, if only by trying to codify why it succeeds.

And when a piece does succeed – well, I am simply lighter of heart for seeing it. I don’t have to possess it (and good thing, too, since some of the best pieces are well beyond my price range); I am simply happier with being alive for having had the privilege of seeing the really first-rate.

The modern world, it seems to me, does little to encourage the cultivation of aesthetic emotions. Even much modern art is so tangled in consumerism and posturing that aestheticism is often ignored, if not actually ridiculed. But such attitudes have never completely taken hold in Northwest Coast art, perhaps because it is still partly rooted in culture and tradition, no matter how innovative it becomes. All I know for sure is that I come away from an afternoon at the Northwest Coast galleries feeling subtly relaxed, and never regretting the time I spend indulging my aesthetic senses.

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