A few minutes ago I was watching a young couple staring at a huge abstract painting in a commercial art gallery. The painting was mysterious, dark, tentative — with perhaps, only perhaps, the whisper of a female figure. Previously, when I’d daringly checked out its very high price, a gallerista swept by and assured me, “We sell a lot of this man’s work.”
Now I’m sitting on a bench eating coconut ice cream while keeping abreast of brain science on my iPad. V.S. Ramachandran is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego. Looking into various brains, including the brains of people who look at art, he’s come to the conclusion that things are better when they are less visible. He calls it “The Peekaboo Principle.” In his research, it seems that girls in scanty clothing are more appealing to the average straight male than girls in the buff. To be fair, these findings have been challenged by every frat house west of the Pecos.
According to Ramachandran, concealment works because we are hardwired to solve puzzles. People get turned on by problem solving.
Further, curiosity is more arousing than the part where you get the message. This is how Ramachandran explains the popularity of abstract art. It seems our tiny perfect brains are forever on the lookout for wizardry. He thinks we are hardwired for what he calls “ultranormal stimuli.” Yep, it’s a bit like religion — many people crave the possibilities of the transcendent, the divine, the paranormal.
We have all thought about the mystery of why people desire such and such and not such and such. Some in the neuroscience business would have us all marching as zombies to the primordial echoes of our lizard or other cranial departments. Perhaps that’s why it feels good once in a while to hear someone say they liked a painting of a barn because it’s their barn.
The young couple in the gallery moved over to the desk. They happened to be maxed out on their card, but the gallery was just willing to take a cheque. “I don’t know why we both love it,” the young woman said. “But we’re definitely taking it.”
PS: “Perception is more like puzzle-solving than most people realize.” (V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human)
Esoterica: Many artists tell me they are totally not interested in what makes people buy their art. Some are even not interested in why they make art in the first place. These people are known as “link challenged.” I’m not one of them. Why did I choose the coconut over the Hawaiian Mud Pie? A lot of people were buying the HMP. For me, it was those little bits of coconut. They’re hidden in there. Those little bits are not fully disclosed at the beginning. You have to find them as you go along. Oops, a drip.
The slipping glimpse
by Gina Koper, New York, NY, USA
This is really interesting. The Peekaboo Principle fits perfectly with deKooning who called it “the slipping glimpse.” This is exactly what deKooning discovered growing up around the seedy area of Rotterdam near the docks. When he was a boy, he liked to watch the whores who displayed themselves in windows. He noticed it was the prostitutes who merely “flashed” that were the most enticing. He said when the whole thing was on display you lose interest. See Stevens and Swan — DeKooning: An American Master. Great book! One of my faves.
Getting the message
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I’m not sure this principle is entirely accurate. It doesn’t explain why people don’t see a message in every painting. My work is mostly allegorical. I like to tell a story, but few viewers of my work “get it,” whatever that “it” is. Now, if I’m exhibiting and someone asks me about a particular work, I tell them what the work represents, and then they see it. But, this could be auto-suggestion. A similar example is staring at cloud formations. They are filled with suggested imagery if you look long enough. I do believe that we are hardwired to make order of our lives and abstract work is akin to cloud images. If you stare long enough at most things, if you are a person with any imagination, you will see something where nothing exists. On the other hand I still am stumped as to the meaning of a black dot on a white canvas. Uh, nothing.
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by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
We are definitely hardwired to look for and try to find the hidden. This is perhaps where the true treasure in any piece of art is instead of in the obvious. I use my own paintings and drawings as a kind of a mirror. Once completed I tend to find new recognizable forms in most of my more recent paintings and drawings. But these types of puzzles also exist in nature. If you spend time looking at a landscape, the plants and other elements, trees and rocks, etc., you will often see animal and other recognizable forms that shift when the light shifts. Maybe the puzzle-solving and fascination with this is deeply linked with our survival. After all, spotting a prowling predator hiding in the bushes can save one’s life. But the illusionary nature of light-play can also protect a predator from being spotted until it is too late for the prey. It could be that all nature is constantly playing a game of masquerade and peekaboo. I can only speak for myself but I definitely instantly mirror my mind and emotions on how I perceive my immediate surroundings as well as anything I observe. This to me is constant, unavoidable and fascinating. The tricks your mind can play on you are as endless as your own imagination!
There is 1 comment for Survival instincts by Helena Tiainen
Mystery, mythology and mastery
by Joseph Jahn, Nibe, Denmark
Mystery prolongs the life of any painting. A time travel interview with Leonardo would be very detrimental to the mythology and attraction of the Mona Lisa. Of course the mystery of the painting must be combined with the mastery of the execution for the experience to slice through the thinking mind of the viewer and appeal directly to the personal mystery of the viewer’s experiences. Then you have an irresistible marriage of forces. The thing viewed and the viewer. The artist is superfluous at this point. Just a vehicle for the viewer. The one that painted what the viewer had always contained within themselves. Some viewers are very surprised by this feeling of connection with a painting and some are very familiar with the experience. Glad the gallery accepted checks.
There are 3 comments for Mystery, mythology and mastery by Joseph Jahn
by Laurel Knight, Bend, OR, USA
I just finished a show where I had a large amount of my work displayed, including an original painting titled Twist of Fate. This show was mainly for wildlife and related subjects and yet this painting of five depression era men was the biggest draw. People came from aisles around just to see the painting and the hidden celebrities’ faces. I had thought that it might be a well received painting for a select group but to my surprise, everyone regardless of age and gender came up to me to see if their guess of the hidden identities was correct! What smiles and joy I saw on the faces of all who observed it, and I know that by figuring out the puzzle of who is who was the draw to that painting! I am sure most of us have heard of Bev Doolittle, her visual puzzles are still talked about.
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Uncovering the psyche and the heart
by Mary Jane Q Cross, Newport, NH, USA
Dr Ramachandran may be doing his research, but perhaps is not going deep enough? The uncovering of the figure is more than the suggestion of removal of clothing. It can stop there and it will be the suggestion of an erotic nature. Or in Historical Biblical or just plain good Art with staying power (200 plus years and still captivating) it can be the deeper uncovering of the psyche and the heart. One can be said to be magic or as you wizardry or as you hit perfectly the Hope of the Divine. But taking it deeper is perhaps the man thing with the clothes or the woman thing having her heart uncovered. I do love paintings where men uncover the heart of women. Men artists and women artists have different perspectives to offer. I will take the Hope any day.
There are 13 comments for Uncovering the psyche and the heart by Mary Jane Q Cross
Childlike thrill of discovery
by Chris Riley, Edmonton, AB, Canada
For sure this turns me on like crazy. Puzzle solving, discovery, mystery and surprise. I thought it was because I was the youngest and hated things being done for me and still do. I’ve always loved treasure hunts and dumpster diving in antique barns and thrift stores, Winners and Google. Maybe it’s the same thing. “Don’t tell me! I wanna find it.” The childlike thrill when you’ve made the discovery. When my eyes scan over a well layered painting with plenty of drips and windows I think. How brave. I tell my husband, “Look how brave this artist is. He says, “Honey, soldiers are brave.” Is it strange to aspire to the compliment of bravery in your work? I think not. I’m mostly bored by paintings that tell the whole story, unless it’s a fascinating story told by a master of his or her craft.
by Elizabeth Schamehorn, Washago, ON, Canada
I try to create what I call an “eye-puzzle” in my work. People are always seeing things in the painting that I didn’t consciously put there. After they’ve looked for a few moments, I tell them the back story on a painting. They say “Oh, yeah!” and focus on it even harder. I don’t spell everything out for the viewer; I like to give them something for their brain to play with. Some would still rather have familiarity, but even in the most photorealist of painting, there is more interest with a little mystery. An art student I know (Not me. I wish I’d thought of it!) was painting pleasant green realist landscapes of a riverbank. When she added an upturned boat, in slightly different positions in each painting, the series suddenly gained serious coolness.
by Robin Tondra
This is why people have to “make something” out of an abstract. I rarely look for things in a painting that aren’t really there. I just like looking at the art. I have found that the title of a painting, particularly a non-directional work, can make or break a sale or a ribbon. People want the work to have a meaning. They cannot tolerate the idea that there is not a message, but only the subjective experience of the artist and the viewer. I usually do my work because it is pleasing to me and I like the outcome. I like to experiment. Further, I don’t have something in mind that I am trying to represent. When I finish, one of the most creative things is coming up with a title that captures the essence of the piece and will intrigue people. Actually it is frustrating to have to do this because I would like for people to accept something without some sort of linguistic label. Non-directional art is just that — without direction toward a concrete reality. But I think people are unable to trust their own intuition and experiences. So often I have artists comment on my work by saying, “Oh, I see an angel here” or “a horse there.” Even artists are compelled to find something concrete in the work. I love to just look at it. I don’t try to “see” things in it. I like it just the way it is.
There are 2 comments for Linguistic labels by Robin Tondra
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Tova Gabrielle of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, who wrote, “Life is like a canvas. Nine out of ten are warm ups.”
And also Sharon Sedeen of Berkeley Springs, WV, USA, who wrote, “Loved This! or should I say !Siht Devol?”
And also Bev Rodin of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Coconut creates a positive mood, and I love coconut, coconut cream pie, coconut yogurt, coconut on Thai green curry, oatmeal coconut cookies.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The Peekaboo Principle…