Monday, May 2, 2011

My Little Eye

(c) Time Out Amsterdam May 2011

Recently, I was walking through the Spiegelkwartier with my friend’s son, 7-year old Jade Thomas, when an object inside Boven’s Veiling en Galerie caught his eye. Without hesitation, he entered the gallery and made a beeline for a large, flat ceramic piece that was laying on a low table. I followed him inside with a mind to pull him out, afraid that a child wouldn’t be welcome in the gallery, when I noticed he’d fallen into a kind of trance.

I gazed on the shiny colourful ceramic tile, approximately 45 X 60 cm. On its primarily yellow and red surface was a crude image formed by quick, rough lines – a three-dimensional scribble in cobalt blue. ‘It’s beautiful,’ Jade said, mesmerised, wide-eyed and sweet, in a manner not unlike that of a precocious child star, except that his appreciation was completely genuine.

I didn’t want to linger. I’m not comfortable in art galleries. The watchful eyes of the owners tend to put me off, as does my lack of knowledge about art. But I also didn’t want to squelch Jade’s interest, so I did the only thing I know to do when looking at art: I read the description. ‘It was made in 1973 by a Dutch artist named Anton Rooskens,’ I informed Jade. ‘It’s called “Figure in blue”…’ But Jade wasn’t listening. ‘It’s a Chinese character!’ he announced, and began pulling the piece toward him.

By now we’d attracted the attention of the gallery owner, Roel Boven. I expected him to scold us for touching the piece, but instead he gently raised it up so Jade could see it better, and explained that the image was actually a person. Jade held his hand to his chin in consideration.

‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s a Chinese character.’ Boven then guided Jade’s hand along the figure, narrating the journey. ‘These are the eyes,’ he explained, ‘here is the mouth, these are the hands, this is the hair…’Jade was partially convinced. ‘It’s a sea creature,’ he conceded.

A black chalk drawing called ‘Houses Amongst Trees’ was the next object of Jade’s appreciation. It was by Flemish artist Leon de Smet, and to me it looked like an unused page in a child’s colouring book. ‘All kinds of art are important,’ Jade said. ‘Anyone can make anything they want, and that’s why I like art so much.’ My young connoisseur went on to investigate everything on display. ‘Everyone really did their best,’ he concluded, in earnest, ‘but the sea creature is the most beautiful.’

Unlike me, Jade was completely at ease walking through the gallery space. I began to wonder if a child might not be the ideal art gallery companion. It seemed preposterous but equally logical. His admiration of beauty wasn’t inhibited by adult pretention or self-consciousness. His curiosity wasn’t hampered by a lack of formal education on the subject. He just liked what he liked, and never questioned his right to be there. And for the first time, I began to have a good time in a gallery. Art became fun for me.

We continued on to the So ART Gallery on Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, where Jade’s favourite item was a series of oil paintings of cows by Chinese artist Wang Zhiwu. One painting depicted cows playing football. As Jade stared at the painting, I studied it, too, trying to anticipate his thoughts. ‘It’s really dream-like,’ I offered. ‘The cows seem to be floating, and look how the detail on their faces looks like flakes of gold. I wonder if that’s a special technique.’ Jade shrugged. ‘They’re just funny,’ he said. While I was busy trying to understand why the painting was good, Jade was simply enjoying it.

A couple blocks down at Jaski Gallery, however, Jade cast a dim view on a taxidermy exhibit of parrots in jars by the art duo Les Deux Garçons, which he called ‘mean’. Although Jade thinks all forms of artistic expression are worthwhile, he’s also a sensitive kid who can’t understand why anyone would think dead birds are art. Also in the Jaski, Jade described Rob Scholte’s mixed media portraits as ‘beautiful photos that someone drew all over, and ruined.’

Jade’s perspective put a new and refreshing spin on gallery visits, which I previously considered a daunting activity reserved for snooty art experts and people with too much disposable income. For him, art isn’t something to be acquired, appraised, or understood, but to be shared and admired. To Jade, being intimidated by art defeats art’s purpose. ‘A lot of people like to make things,’ he said as we left the last gallery, ‘and they want to show the whole entire world.’ That includes, assured my 7-year-old friend, the likes of me.

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