Inspired by Slow Art Day and SFMOMAslow, I recently spent ten solitary minutes standing in SFMOMA’s galleries looking only at Cady Noland’s Walk and Stalk(1993-94), a fairly lackluster piece that I never thought much of. “Okay, you have my attention,” I thought. “Make your move.”
As my ten minutes began, I tried to forget my surroundings and zone in on the formal qualities of the work. Devoid of color, the piece features a blown-up tabloid column held erect by a cartoonishly cut-out aluminum plate. In the tabloid’s photo, an elderly yet coiffed Betty Ford smiles and looks down as paparazzi, children, and passers-by crowd in around her. The photo’s caption, stuck oddly to the photo at a 90 degree angle, explains the situation: “…The First Lady was greeted warmly by crowd which attempted to follow her about the town.“ One child’s head stands out among the huddle of humans—his expression seems confused, possibly desperate—“what are we all looking at?” Good question.
After about five minutes of looking and letting my mind wander, I felt myself reading Noland’s work largely as the wall text describes it: depictive of America’s unsettling "addiction to tabloid journalism,” and commenting on our throw-away culture by memorializing this one particular moment of spectacle. Enjoying a good spectacle is such a huge part of being an American, from the Super Bowl to the coverage of violence on TV, to every other bit of exaggerated "news” we consume like fast food. Gross.
As the last five minutes of slow looking progressed, I let my eyes linger in unusual places within the artwork. I found that by blurring my eyes slightly, the dark area around the children’s feet would come alive, swimming with detail. I noticed the strangeness of a man’s bespectacled face looming ominously above the crowd, as though he was clumsily added to the scene with an exacto knife and a glue stick. In the foreground, I finally noticed a man’s arm holding a newspaper, turning away, obscured by Ford’s surreally sloping hair. Detail upon detail, captured and magnified, into an almost humorously symbolic tableau. Everything is everything. I was beginning to see the beauty.
In my last couple of minutes with Noland’s Walk and Stalk, my mind felt fired up. Unanswerable questions began to emerge and gnaw at my thoughts. What is each person in the photo thinking in this particular moment? In which tabloid was this originally published, and in what context? Does the context even matter? What was happening in America that week? I had a hard time repressing the urge to take out my iPhone and start feverishly Googling. I felt silly and stuck, realizing how heavily we rely on information—easily consumable, free-flowing digital information—to fuel our minds. We crowd in and we stare and we gawk and we stalk, obsessed with watching history unfold, as though we were in control, as though we could change something.
As my ten minutes came to an end, I started to smile in spite of myself. I realized I was no longer looking at the piece, but through it – seeing so much more than an ugly cutout of a Betty Ford tabloid. I saw America, I saw history unfolding, I saw myself looking down and smiling, just like Betty. I felt ready to take on the crowd, to push back, to answer the unanswerable.
Slow Art Day Social Media Manager Alie Cline recently interviewed Willa Koerner from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to chat about the museum’s new Slow Art Day inspired project, SFMOMAslow.
On the importance of slow looking, Willa says: “Slow looking is a way that we can re-learn how to think critically and be patient with ourselves and our minds.” You can read the rest of the (great!) interview here.
You might have noticed that the Slow Art Day tumblr has been reblogging posts from SFMOMAcrowd, which is hosting the current crowd-sourced project, #SFMOMAslow, inspired by Slow Art Day. Make sure to check out their tumblr and submit your own experiences with the art of looking!