By Alison Annals, Abby Cunnane, Sam Cunnane;
University of Canterbury, Dept of Art History and Theory; | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

I WAS intrigued by the title, Saying What You See: How to talk and write about art, hoping I would find some hints and shortcuts to help me say what I see. What I discovered though was that how I have been doing it all these years is also the way students are also taught to do it: read stuff, make notes, view shows, make notes, talk to people, make notes. So no quick cheats then.

This is a book principally for those involved in art education (NCEA Level 2 and above, apparently). As such the majority of the book deals with ‘Working on an assignment’ (Chapter 2) and ‘Specific writing and speaking situations’ (Chapter 3). The first chapter, ‘Working with images and ideas’ is more what I was expecting/wanting from this book. The authors state “The frustrated response to art... is often because of the lack of a frame of reference, having nothing to relate the image to.” This, possibly unreasonably, was at the heart of what I was hoping this book would deliver. How exactly do I get context?

The upshot being that you only get context by putting in work. We are offered pointers on how to approach looking at artworks and what to consider when trying to make sense of them. One thing I appreciated was that most of the artists mentioned are contemporary local artists many of us are likely to have seen, or at least have an awareness of.

The first chapter is well worth a read if you feel a need to familiarise yourself with critical approaches to art. The worth of chapters 2 and 3 will largely depend on whether you are studying formally or informally. For me there wasn’t a lot of really useful stuff, but for the younger (or less seasoned) student there is a lot of information in there about how to approach tackling assignments, writing, and presenting them. There is also a practical appendix.

My main annoyance with this book is that, at times, I felt like I was being spoken down to as everything is so clearly explained and defined via notes and tags sprinkled throughout the pages. But then it is an educational book aimed at secondary and tertiary students, though clearly skewed more towards teens. Maybe that’s just my obstinacy showing when, maybe, it was a subtle way of reinforcing some of the lessons. Either way it’s not something to get too hung up on.

And to continue with the art education theme, the University of Canterbury Department of Art History and Theory has recently published the first issue of an annual journal, entitled Oculus.

I am surely not alone in often recoiling from jargon-heavy writings to the extent that my brain refuses to engage with what my eyes are seeing, almost regardless of the subject and my knowledge of it.

Journals often are fundamentally scholastic vehicles allowing academic staff to fulfil employment requirements regarding the publishing of research. Consequently they tend to be jargon-heavy, and difficult to fully comprehend without having a strong knowledge of the particular subject in the first place.

In February the University of Canterbury published this first issue of Oculus, a journal for visual arts research (with a ‘postgraduate’ qualifier). I’m not aware of any other local tertiary institution publishing a similar journal, so there is arguably a gap in the market.

This year I have been reading quite a bit of academic art writing as part of my own studies, and some of it has had me recoiling, while some has been a pleasure. Covering topics/artists as broad as Roni Horn, Katherine Mansfield, and Amy Chapman-Howden, the writing here is generally accessible and erudite. Naturally, as it includes pieces by a number of authors, some writing is better than others. Even when talking about artists or works I didn’t know, I never felt excluded from the discussion.

Although most articles are illustrated with monochrome images, interspersed throughout the texts are sections of colour plates showing relevant works, and recent student work.

Clearly there’s an observable Christchurch bias here, being as it is a University of Canterbury publication. In this case it was the obvious way to get this journal off the ground. With Issue 2 due for release in February 2010, the call for submissions has now gone nationwide (closed, July 31). It will be interesting to see what they come up with.