Introducing the ‘slow art’ movement; it’s like the ‘slow food’ movement, with art (and food)

Examining Reed Danziger's 'Continuous Duality of Energies' (Aparna Narayanan)
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For a few moments, the event acquired a six-men-of-Indostan quality.

The abstract painting by Reed Danziger, exploding with colors and shapes, brought to mind a collage, said a painter and teacher of Hebrew from Israel. An artist from Brooklyn demurred. There was so much going on—it gave her the sense of standing in front of a manifesto, she insisted. Surely it resembled a film strip, argued a painter from Long Island City.

The artists were gathered at McKenzie Fine Art gallery in Chelsea on Saturday for Slow Art Day, an annual event during which art lovers visit local museums and galleries to look—slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully—at pre-selected works, and then repair to lunch to discuss the experience.

Slow Art Day began in August 2009 with a single venue—the Museum of Modern Art here in New York—and just four participants. The concept was an instant hit; it expanded to 55 sites across the world in April 2010 and to 101 in 2012—this year’s selections ranged from a sculpture garden in Ohio to contemporary works in Poland, and from a food-related art tour of Manchester, England to photographs and video installations at the Tate Britain in London. At each venue, a volunteer host selects the art to be viewed. As a result, “art” is defined in its most diverse and subjective sense.

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As the annual event approaches in April, it is promoted through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Participants sign up through the group's website or via the online ticketing service Eventbrite, but walk-ins are typically welcome too. Although the event is free, guests pay for any museum tickets and for the wrap-up lunch.

The idea, organizers say on their website, is to “slow down and really see art” by spending 10 minutes meditating on each work rather than “breezing past artworks in the standard eight seconds.” But, at the McKenzie gallery at least, slowing down to see art didn’t seem to mean quieting down to contemplate the works.

Host Alison Pierz explained that Slow Art Day was inspired by the Slow Food movement. “I like to think of art as sustenance,” she said. “It sounds hokey, but it’s good for the soul. These things take time to make, so let’s take time to appreciate them.” Slow Art Day intends to draw “regular folks,” she added, but—as the members of her group made clear—it sometimes attracts more “art world people” the bigger it gets. “It’s become a thing,” said Pierz, a former gallery director. “This is like preaching to the choir to a certain extent.”

Paige Pedri, a sculptor from New York, circled her hands in front of one section of Danziger’s An Ordering of Momentum and then over another. “What’s happening over here and what’s happening over here are completely different,” she observed.

Others in the group drew in closer to share their own insights. Liliana Perez, a painter from Long Island City, inclined her head towards the painting’s midsection, which was streaked with colorful geometric shapes. “The one thing that holds a painting is a line, and a line is a very dangerous thing to hold a painting with,” she said briskly. Nicole Laemmle, a painter from Brooklyn, traced the same area in air with a fuchsia nail. “I feel there’s too much thought by the artist in this piece,” she murmured.

More discussion followed, until the event host announced it was time to move on to the next venue—Galerie Protégé, a startup that showcases works by emerging artists in Chelsea’s gallery district.

As the group walked down a few blocks, Michal Nachmany, the Hebrew teacher, explained what drew her to the event.

“It’s good for me as a teaching tool,” she said. “I teach adults, and they are jumpy in their heads. So this is a way to do things slower, and get into the depth of things, and concentrate more.”

A few minutes later, the group entered Chelsea Frames, a framing studio on Ninth Avenue, and wound down a spiral staircase to Galerie Protégé in the basement. Abstract acrylic works on paper and canvas by local painter Paul Thomas hung under track lighting in the clean white space. The critique began at once.

“It’s almost like stained glass,” said Laemmle.

“It’s very joyous, it’s very alive,” said Pedri.

“There’s a luminosity in the light,” said Perez.

In one corner of the room, Thomas, who was participating in the gallery tour, deconstructed his own painting, Inner Thoughts, for a viewer.

“The more you look at the painting, the more you will find,” he said, smiling. His long-nailed hands slid sinuously in the air as he traced a flowing form on canvas here, a wash of color there. “The art is only as good as the interaction you have with it.” His hands mimicked a flower furling and unfurling; a stack of gold rings on a finger glistened. “It comes together and opens up, and when you follow things, it disappears and dissipates,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the shop level upstairs, gallerist Debra Kowalski remarked that many visitors fail to engage with the art on display in the gallery. “We had a guy in this morning,” she said. “He did a 180 and came back upstairs. He didn’t take time to take it in.” She gave a small smile. “There’s a whole art to looking at artwork.”

The event wrapped up. Some members of the group made their way to The Half King restaurant and bar for the post-tour debriefing. The menus arrived and were examined in a reverential silence to match just about any other object that day. Buffalo burgers and Caesar salads were ordered.

The talk veered to birdwatching in Central Park and country homes in Pennsylvania, and to the contrast both offer to urban life. That brought the conversation back to the respite Slow Art Day offers from the clamor of blockbuster shows and dizzy opening receptions, and then to art in general.

“Art,” said Thomas expansively, “is the most non-utilitarian thing you can buy with the greatest amount of status. It’s not like a Rolls Royce.”

“To say art has no function, that is where things get tricky,” Pierz countered.

The mimosas and seltzer arrived. Glasses were clinked. The art lovers settled further into the hobnailed black leather sofas for more discussion.