Note to Jeff Sonhouse fans: The artist will give a free public talk at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Thursday, August 18, at 7 PM. Find more information on the NCMA calendar.
This summer, I’ve been talking a lot about art with people of all ages–one of the best parts of my job. I’ve been engaging various groups with Jeff Sonhouse’s work titled “Decompositioning” in the exhibition, “Building the Contemporary Collection,” on view through Sunday. I use a technique called Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS) to help people decode and discover a work of art for themselves. I don’t give any information (unless directly asked), and instead I ask open-ended questions to get people looking and thinking and looking some more.
So, what have people told me about this enigmatic work? Here are a few of the observations and interpretations. Some complement each other and some contradict. There is no one right way to think of this or any artwork.
- There is a strong contrast between the neat and clean figure and the mess of the piano behind him.
- The figure’s hands are very black – like the black of the piano.
- The figure is detailed but the piano is not.
- The piano doesn’t have keys depicted, but the man’s suit and fingers make a kind of piano key pattern.
- This visual connection means that the man has become the piano. As the piano is destroyed, he takes on its qualities.
- The piano is being destroyed after an amazing performance by this musician…like Jimmie Hendricks used to smash or burn his guitars after an intense performance.
- The piano is only in the man’s imagination, and we’re getting to peek into his mind. The smoke coming off the man’s head connects to the dirt and smoke around the piano.
- The man is the cause of the destroyed piano because he is calm cool and collected with all this chaos around him. If he didn’t know it was going to happen, he would be reacting differently.
- The man is wearing a mask, with a pattern that reminds some of traditional African masks.
- It’s not just a mask, because the pattern covers the man’s neck, too.
- The position of the man’s arms seems significant. Possibilities include:
- He is protecting himself
- He is about to perform a martial arts move
- He has just finished brushing is hands together as if to say, “all done.”
I love all these possibilities, and the insights they give me as to visitors that make these conclusions. The way the conversation grows and evolves as a group relaxes and looks and talks more. Last Thursday, around 30 people looked at and talked about this work for 30 minutes…and we could have continued.
Every group shows me a new detail that I haven’t noticed before, or generates a novel interpretation.
I love my job.
IMAGE: Juline Chevalier leads a Visual Thinking Strategy talk on a recent First Thursday event at the Nasher Museum. Photo by Wendy Hower Livingston.