How art works

What do you see when you look at art? Just another pretty picture? Or pretty statue, or photograph or drawing? It’s not always easy to tell what an artist is trying to say, and why.

Maybe the way to start thinking about it is by asking a different question. Not what or why, but how. How did the artist make this? And how does it work? Just like a car, art is a kind of machine. But instead of carrying you from Point A to Point B, art is designed to carry your imagination.

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There are a few simple movable parts shared by every piece of art, whether it hangs on your refrigerator door or on a museum wall. They are:

●line

●color

●space

●material

●scale

In search of examples, we spent the day poking around a museum. (It’s actually two museums under one roof: the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

While we were there, we found a handful of things that we think will help you understand these five qualities — and how they work — a little bit better.

Each work of art asks and answers a different question. How big is something? What’s it made of? What color is it? What shape is it? And how is it drawn?

To make things interesting, we added a sixth quality. It’s one that you can’t see with the naked eye. That’s because it’s the idea behind the artwork. It raises the most interesting question of all: What does it mean?

— Michael O’Sullivan

Line

Sometimes the art is in the museum, and sometimes the museum itself is the art.

The roof of this museum’s courtyard is a kind of giant drawing. Designed by architect Norman Foster, it’s supposed to look like a puffy cloud floating over the building. Made from a steel grid that frames 864 glass windows — no two of which are alike — its wavy outline is not all that different from the wavy outline that you use when you draw clouds in art class. The only difference? This drawing weighs around 900 tons.

Color

Put your nose close to the portrait, right, of Bill Clinton from the “America’s Presidents” exhibition and you will see that artist Chuck Close turned the former president’s portrait into a bunch of individual pixels. But unlike the pixels on a computer screen, each small square in Close’s painting is made up of several colors at once: for example, red, on top of green, on top of yellow.

Now look at the image at arm’s length, and you will see that all the colors blend together. There’s a lesson here: There’s no such thing as flesh tone.

Space

You’ll need to borrow a pair of 3-D glasses from the museum to view Kota Ezawa’s video “LYAM 3D.” (They’re not the kind you use at today’s movies, but the old-fashioned kind, with one blue lens and one red lens. )

Here’s how it works: Ezawa started with a realistic movie with human actors. He then redrew the actors as two-dimensional cartoon characters so that they look like Flat Stanley. In a way, he’s showing you how far from real life art can take you. Then, by asking you to put on your glasses and see the movie in 3-D, he seems to be moving you back toward the real world.

What’s the point? Well, Ezawa wants us to think about how artists use pictures — movies, cartoons, paintings — to create a three-dimensional world on a flat surface.

Material

You’re probably used to art made from, you know, art supplies. But one whole section of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is filled with crazy stuff, including a giraffe made from bottle caps. About the craziest thing is something called “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.”

Created by Washington janitor James Hampton — who took 14 years to build it, in a secret garage studio, using tinfoil, burned-out lightbulbs, broken furniture and cardboard. Hampton meant it as a kind of altar. But it’s also a monument to an idea — the idea that anyone can be an artist, and anything can be art.

Scale

If you’ve ever played jacks, you’ll recognize Paul Feeley’s sculpture, which takes its name from the old playground game featuring spiky, star-shaped toys, about the size of a Bakugan. “Jack” takes something very small and makes it very, very big. Six-and-a-half-feet big.

By enlarging a familiar object, Feeley makes it look strange and a little funny. (Yes, it’s okay to laugh at art.) Simply adjusting the size also makes it look, suddenly, like a spinning ballerina, or a ship’s anchor. Feeley probably wanted people to see different things when they looked at it. What does it look like to you?

Idea

Put everything together — line, color, space, material and scale — and you may get art. What’s the secret ingredient ? It helps to have an idea or a theme. Something to say.

Roger Shimomura’s “American Pikachu” — which features the artist’s face painted on a Pokemon’s body — has a message. When the artist, who was born in Seattle, was only 2 years old, he and his family were sent to a live in a camp with other Americans of Japanese descent. It was World War II, and the U.S. government, which had just been attacked by Japan, didn’t trust some of its own citizens, so it locked them up.

Shimomura’s self-portrait as Pikachu — a creature of Japanese origin that’s been adopted by America — is like cracking a joke, but it’s one whose punch line stings.

 
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