The perfect appetizer for the Denver Art Museum’s Passport to Paris exhibition is hidden in a dark corner on the museum’s fourth floor. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Two Planets series illustrates perception as a function of social conditioning and challenges the notion that art viewers must be properly cultured to understand a master painting’s meaning. Rasdjarmrearnsook introduces small groups of Thai villagers to reproductions of Western master paintings such as Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners. As the group interprets Millet’s The Gleaners by finding aspects of its own culture immersed in the painting, Rasdjarmrearnsook exposes how the struggle of every viewer to find meaning in a master painting results in a valuable point of view.
Facing away from the camera, the Thai villagers explain that they can’t comprehend the artistic intent within the Millet painting in front of them. Are the gleaners “digging for bugs” or harvesting rice? And where are the elephants used for field labor? The villagers are candid as they repetitively claim not to know anything at all. But they know as much as we do. The way they struggle with the painting and attribute personal meaning to it is how every art appreciator should.
Define the forms. Apply your own life experiences to the work. Develop an interpretation, whether narrative or conceptual. Paintings are masterworks because they invite varied interpretations, which is exactly why Passport to Paris visitors should experience the enlightenment of Two Planets first.
Rasdjarmrearnsook’s work is a masterpiece itself because of its ability to inspire imagination. I found myself voyaging into an introspective space for nearly half an hour as English translations of befuddled Thai conversations rolled across the bottom of the screen. The sound of birds and wilderness hearkened back to my childhood while camping in the Rocky Mountains and discussing life’s intricacies with my family over card games and an open fire. The humid and growing landscape brought about a crescendo of nostalgia, hope, and satisfaction for a fleeting moment. How is my perception formed? What does this painting mean given my past experiences? Do I really know anything? I was entranced. Illuminated. Inspired.
“It’s just a bunch of women talking in another language,” muttered another museum goer who peeked in for just a second.
And then it was gone.
Have fun seeing the French masters in the Denver Art Museum, and take the time to appreciate the covert contemporary master on the fourth floor.
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