What We Mean by “Taste”

Four You Gallery
January 13, 2021| Diane Young

Looking at the pieces from Camilla Marie Dahl’s latest exhibition, Over the Hill, evokes a range of emotions and reactions. The grainy scenery gets you all pensive. You reminisce, you’re nostalgic and you feel serene all at once. They say the eye is comforted by looking at vast distances. We live in cubicles, work in cubicles and limit our eyes’ vision to a screen only a few centimeters away from them. Watching nature, looking at the sky, breathing the fresh air, all induce a certain comfort to the whole body, in general, and to the eye, in specific.

The eye is the main organ needed when we experience visual arts. It allows us to “see” so that our mind can assign meaning. That one complex organ, receives millions of stimuli and relays them directly to a triggered nervous system, one whose job is to make sense out of the consecutive images. When, scientifically, extending our vision to long distances is healthy to the eye, observing landscapes like those Dahl is currently exhibiting at our gallery, initiates a similar feeling of ease. The structure of the eye allows it to differentiate in depth, in color, in shape and so on.

When looking at Dahl’s One Horizon, you ask yourself what exactly it is that makes you feel the way you do. Is it that natural response to… nature? Is it the fact that our brain has been trained to associate grains with old photographs and, thus, induce nostalgia? Is it the combination of the colors used in the piece? Is it our state of mind while experiencing the painting? The factors are limitless, so are the answers. We receive art in a very physiological fashion and we react to it, also in a physiological fashion. You have the receptor cells that analyze colors and hues and you have the neurotransmitters that make you feel one way or another as a result of the receptor cells. It really isn’t as simple as that but we’re focusing on the big picture. Looking more at the outcome than at the biology that creates the outcome.

Camilla Marie Dahl-Horizon, 2020-Pumice, perlite, coconut husk fiber, acrylic, and oil on canvas-91.5 x 167.7 cm

Recently, there has been a study that linked the pupil dilation to sexual orientation. Published by Cornell University back in 2013, researchers used an infrared lens to measure changes in the pupil. This experiment put an end to hypotheses long circulating about a direct relationship between orientation and the eye. The pertinence of the findings of this experiment to our subject is that it offers a first level study of how the pupil reacts to a visual cue. The pupils dilated as a reaction to images that aroused the individuals. In the simplest form, if you are a woman attracted to a man, your pupils would dilate. As such, we are presented with proof that visual stimuli are received and responded to subjectively. If you’ve been traumatized by the Beirut explosion, a photograph of cotton candy might trigger a pupillary reaction other than that a photo of a sunset would evoke.

Petr Novák

Digging deeper, the aforementioned reactions all contribute to the human psyche. The way we observe the world, the way we interact with paintings, films, photographs, billboards are as much psychological as biological.

However not the biggest science buffs around, let’s take a close look at an in-class social experiment that demonstrates the relationship between triggering the eye and the impact of visual cues on our conscious and subconscious. Psychology professor, John Suler, showed one of his classes 200 numbered photographs consecutively, giving each photograph only 5 seconds of time. The students were asked to write down the numbers of the photographs that left an impression on them, whether positive or negative, during the slide show. Afterwards, the students were asked to bring back to awareness one piece that left a lasting impression.

Through this informal experiment, Suler inferred a number of observations. First, the attention span faded with time. The more stimuli/photos the students were seeing the less photos that left an impression. Most of the photos they noted were ones with early numberings. Meanwhile, when asked to choose one photo that was remarkable to them, the students were able to recall photos that could have been displayed at any point of the slideshow.

The main conclusion here is that when the conscious slows down due to habituation, the subconscious does not. Most of the numbers written are from the beginning of the slideshow, yet, when choosing a particular photo, the students’ subconscious triggers a deeper memory, one that reacts intrinsically and intuitively.

Another interesting observation, when the photos varied from aesthetically fulfilling to mundane and basic, students chose a mixture of all. Even more so, images expected to be incongruent and memorable were noted during the slideshow but weren’t nearly mentioned in the exercise where they had to settle for one piece. For instance, a photo of a clown in a graveyard was in the top 20 photos mentioned when the slideshow was rolling but only once in the aftermath.

This coms to convey that the way we react to visual stimuli is extremely subjective and often has more to do with who we are as individuals rather than what the image itself is showing. It is essentially here that we give credit to the post-structural movement that allowed the subject to receive an art piece the way they want to rather than seeking to understand the way the artist meant it to be. With post-structuralism, the very foundation of production shifted from one that is rather rigid and one-dimensional to an approach that allows fluidity and triggers conversations. This school acknowledges that the way we perceive the world is subjective and makes this whole conclusion a part of creation.

The clown was copied from a photo of Memorial Day parade and pasted into the background image of the graveyard.

All in all, how we interpret art is one big question with more than one answer. It’s a number of factors that contribute to why you feel something for Dahl’s Over The Hill when someone else wouldn’t. Between biology, psychology and the characteristics of the piece itself there exists a soft spot that makes you who you are and that gives you something we call taste.

Camilla Marie Dahl-Over the Hill, 2020-Coconut husk fiber, pumice, acrylic, and oil on canvas-130 x 213 cm

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