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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The long game

by Penelope Grist, 20 January 2020

Lindy Lee
Lindy Lee, 2003 Greg Weight. © Gregory Weight/Copyright Agency, 2024

‘I move gingerly around the paintings I own because I know they are looking at me as closely as I am looking at them’, writes Jeanette Winterson towards the end of her 1995 essay ‘Art Objects’. In the piece, Winterson narrates her journey towards becoming comfortable with art: ‘Art takes time. To spend an hour looking at a painting is difficult’, she writes. ‘The public gallery experience is one that encourages art at a trot … Supposing we made a pact with a painting and agreed to sit down and look at it, on our own, with no distractions.’

To ‘trot’ less and stop, breathe, engage more. It’s an appealing premise, whether in a gallery setting or applied to anxious, time-poor lives more broadly. For our part, Eye to Eye is a summer Portrait Gallery Collection remix that invites our visitors to make this pact with the portraits. The practice that Winterson describes is what our educators call ‘slow looking’.

To set the scene for looking slowly, we’ve arranged the portraits by degree of eye contact – in a progression, from eyes clamped shut through to nowhere-to-hide stare. Daily speech and literature are replete with ocular colloquialism, metaphor and cliché: one can sport a glad eye or stink eye; get an eyeful; bemoan an eyesore; eye off some eye candy; or have an eye-opening experience. In portraiture, the eyes are somewhere to begin – they’re a way in, an initial prompt to whet the senses.

The portraits in Eye to Eye are unencumbered by extended text. For Winterson, labels shield us from the full impact of the art. At the risk of surprising, even perplexing, our biography-hungry visitors, this exhibition is an experiment in the practice of looking – then seeing – without distraction, such that what is seen (and felt) comes with time, and is entirely subjective.

As someone who admits to mostly experiencing art at a trot, I thought I should try it for myself during the installation of Eye to Eye. Would it feel superficial? Like I am making assumptions but not learning the real story? Would I be as bad at slow looking as I am at yoga? I was apprehensive.

Perched before Greg Weight’s photographic portrait of Lindy Lee, I notice her necklace for the first time. Her sculptural form is human in its imperfection – each strand of hair falls so slightly out of place, and the creases in her skin are at odds with Lee’s stark, deliberate profile. Then I sense the courage and confidence in her closed eyes; where initially I saw vulnerability, I begin to feel strength and calm.

Moving through the exhibition, Ruth Park’s dreamy sidelong glance welcomes me into the strange, Matrix-like space she occupies. A series of stylised receding doorways, with light shining through the last aperture, makes me conscious of the artist’s presence. After a while, the gaze of this misty figure – with her white blouse, lace collar, blushed cheeks and red lips – feels guarded. As I look longer, her gaze becomes neither welcoming nor guarded – just quietly questioning.

I am gently astonished at how my perceptions change, the longer I look. Looking at art slowly is absorbing, and the time passes quickly. In a 2016 lecture David M Lubin, the Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art at Oxford University, traced the concept’s development – naming the 19th century art critic John Ruskin ‘the godfather of slow looking’– and its presence in North American art teaching since the 1980s. Today, slow looking is a tool for seeking wellbeing through mindfulness in the midst of our overwhelming, cacophonous times. Its contemporary cousins are Slow Food and Slow TV.
I turn around to stand back from A man and his music: Peter Weiss and the Australian Chamber Orchestra by Kerrie Lester. It’s huge! In this group portrait of nine people, no sitter makes eye contact with any other. Weiss is separate, but listening, introspective. The orchestra is concentrating, connected and communicating through the music. Even the stool on the right dances.

In English, to gaze is to ‘look steadily and intently’. The gaze is the main technique of slow looking. In Western art history, ‘the gaze’ has its own complicated history. In his 1970 analysis of Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas, Michel Foucault observed that the gaze in art is never stable and ‘the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange’. From 1975, following Laura Mulvey’s influential essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, feminist theory began deconstructing ‘the male gaze’. Awareness of the gaze, especially of who is doing the looking, is an important grammatical element in visual literacy.

Approaching the portrait of David Dridan, I feel late to a long lunch and asked to respond to an immediate, direct question. Sleeves partly rolled, Dridan’s knuckles support his almost-lunge forward. Disconcerted, I seek refuge in detail: lettuce, brushes, the fold marks in the tablecloth, the re-corked white wine, the half-quaffed red.  Returning to meet Dridan’s gaze, I quickly shift to the chap with a scowl eating an apple in the painting behind him.

‘Art has deep and difficult eyes and for many the gaze is too insistent’ notes Winterson. Owning and then questioning your assumptions can be uncomfortable. Portraiture is a perfect introduction to the practice. Our minds seek company, other peoples’ lives invite curiosity, and the gaze, wherever directed, draws us into alternate subjectivities.

I was more interested to revisit the biographies after spending some solid time with these Australian luminaries. Lindy Lee (b. 1954) explores selfhood and cultural identity as one of Australia’s foremost contemporary artists. Ruth Park AM (1917-2010), whose daughter painted this portrait, wrote more than 50 books for adults and children. Peter Weiss AO (b. 1935) studied music, was successful in business, and became a prominent cultural benefactor to art and music. It is a work by Anglo-Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) that Brian Dunlop includes behind artist, curator, viticulturist, collector and teacher, David Dridan OAM (b. 1932). Re-reading these biographies after looking and seeing without them, I imagined these lives rather than absorbing facts.

1 Roslyn, 2016 Sally Ross. © Sally Ross. 2 The Vivisector - David Williamson, 2017 Danelle Bergstrom. © Danelle Bergstrom.

Reflecting on my test of this experimental exhibition, I discover that Eye to Eye is about visual literacy and empathy – two of the most important skills for the 21st century, as imagery bombards us and our ethical frameworks are challenged. The Gallery becomes a gym in which to exercise these muscles, through mindful engagement with human-centred art. I am excited to slowly look at newly acquired portraits of Rosyln Oxley by Sally Ross, and David Williamson by Danelle Bergstrom, and to meet anew some old favourites – Jim Conway by Greg Warburton, Don Watson by Anna Sande and Ross Wilson by Tessa Jones, among others. Over the summer, you’ll see me working out in my lunch breaks, sitting still and sentient, and restocking my reserves of wellbeing in Eye to Eye.

1 Jim Conway, 2006 Greg Warburton. © Greg Warburton. 2 Eagle Ross (Ross Wilson), 2005 Tessa Jones. © Tessa Jones. 3 Don Watson, 2002 Anna Sande. © Anna Sande.
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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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