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Art: Look at the trees, not the forest

The importance of the interior of an art gallery when showcasing an exhibition

I often remind myself that I want my collectors to see the trees, not the forest.

Curating is a word often used when describing a gallery space, but it remains the core of an exhibition. Curating is most of the time a common effort between the gallery and the artist, in an attempt to “tell a story” within a defined spatial area.

Most galleries, by default, do not offer a modular display area, and the curation is bound by spatial restrictions, such as wall space, ceiling height and the overall volume of the place.

When the gallery business started booming during the second half of the last century, most contemporary galleries adopted a “white cube” model (coincidentally, one of the world’s leading galleries is called White Cube, in reference to their space). The “white cube” model offered the advantages of big open spaces, where artworks are allowed to breathe, and did wonders for solo or carefully curated group shows. Unfortunately, real estate limitations made this particular gallery aesthetic available only in certain parts of the world, and for a certain calibre of gallery. The reality is that most galleries have to make the best out of a location that they rent rather than own, and the curation has to be in adequacy with the interior limitation of the gallery.

I often remind myself that I want my collectors to see the trees, not the forest.

Just like any other retail experience, the interior of an art gallery is of utmost importance. The choice of material, the layout, and the overall “flow” of the gallery has to reflect the art it houses, and to the best possible extent, magnify the artworks on display.

Galleries showcasing modern works often opt for smaller spaces, giving the viewers a sense of intimacy with the paintings, heightening their senses of being up close and personal with something unique and valuable. Older paintings tend to be smaller in size, and generally speaking, a sense of coziness enhances the viewing pleasure.

Galleries showcasing contemporary works tend to go for a more neutral look, which usually works well with the aesthetics of the works on display. Given that very few things can be moved from an architectural standpoint, the amount of play that we have lies in the display choices that we make. The goal is to tell a story, and as such, we have to make sure that all of the artworks “talk to each other”.

This is a tricky exercise, whereby paintings or sculptures have to be displayed in a careful way to ensure the homogeneity of the show. I often remind myself that I want my collectors to see the trees, not the forest.

I like to use the example of the dots in a Damien Hirst painting to illustrate my point. While each dot might seem to have been placed on the canvas randomly, there are indeed some rules applied to achieve the cohesiveness of the artwork. The placement is done in a grid pattern, known for attracting the human eye. Additionally, no two dots from the same colour can be seen next to each other. These strict composition rules on a dot painting translate into something that looks effortless, while a lot of thought has been put into it.

This is exactly what we do in galleries; we try to tell a story in a very subtle way.

The writer is the director of Opera Gallery Dubai

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