No, REALLY look at it: Critical Looking at the Benton

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A photo of the outside of the Benton. One of the recent exhibits at the Benton is their Critical Looking series, which encourages looking at a single piece of art for long periods of time. The Daily Campus / File Photo

A photo of the outside of the Benton. One of the recent exhibits at the Benton is their Critical Looking series, which encourages looking at a single piece of art for long periods of time. The Daily Campus / File Photo

A couple nights ago, I finished my dinner and decided to spend some time stargazing in the back of Hilltop. It wasn’t that cold out, relatively speaking for this season, and there weren’t many clouds. I left my apartment for this part in the back of the complex that faces the woods with some nicely placed rocks. When I walked into the area past the parking lot, I realized there were six deer minding their business. Like any good zoomer, I instinctively pulled out my phone to take a video, not realizing my flash was on, and five of the six scattered. The one closest to me didn’t move a muscle. We locked eyes for about 20 seconds, staring into each other’s souls. One of his antlers was slightly bigger than the other. His tail was still, yet not between his legs, perhaps showing some bravery. He had a beautiful white tuft on his chest. After this moment, he blitzed into the woods with his compatriots, but if he did, he would’ve just been a deer. 

In The Benton’s Critical Looking series, participants are asked to look at a single piece of art for a half-hour, pretty much continuously. You are forced to do what you know you should do at every art exhibit. You gaze at the deer. The deer, in Friday’s case, was Anna Sobol-Wejman’s print titled “Muza Ila,” part of the Benton’s Democracy of Print exhibition.  

The session started with two minutes looking at the print, in complete silence. “Most of the time, if you are really interested in something in a museum, you might stand there, studies show, for 30 seconds,” said Amanda Douberley, Assistant Curator, Academic Liaison and spirit guide for Friday’s dialogue. “So we’ll see how long two minutes feels.”  

The small group, some of which was a class, stared at the work. Douberley had taped over the written photo aid, thereby eschewing any hints we could take from Sobol-Wejman’s intent. After the hour, which was only two minutes in real time, Douberley probes the room on their general thoughts on the print. “The fingers and the hands, wrapping around the various areas: Around the head, the side of the arm, the neck,” said a woman near the front of the crowd. “I noticed how the head and the neck look really small compared to the hands,” said a student near the back. “I think that’s more of a figurative aspect of it, to show they’re smaller. Not just their physical body, but how they’re perceived as smaller than the person wrapping their hands around their neck or their arm.” 

Later in the conversation, the political themes of the print came into play. The entire exhibit, which I covered last semester, focuses on the unique connection UConn had with the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland through the early ‘80s. America and the USSR, which had de facto political control over Poland at the time, were engaged in the crux of the Cold War. Pro-democracy movements in Poland were being stifled, and by the creation of this print (1983), the country was just released from two years of martial law. As the initially covered aid points out, Sobol-Wejman’s image “can also be read in relation to the violence and repression of the Communist regime.” Audience members picked up on the metaphor.  

“It’s about oppression. It’s an anti-oppression statement,” one said. “If the government is strictly monitoring what you can and cannot publish, doing this is the only way of expressing how you really feel about what’s going on,” added another.  

At its surface, art can mean little. A portrait can just be a drawing of someone. A landscape can just be what someone saw and drew. An abstract can be nothing at all. However, the reason art has persisted through the mists of prehistory to this moment is because it’s never what it is. It’s what we attach to it.


Daniel Cohn is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.cohn@uconn.edu.

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