‘A collage of possibilities’1: the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition
By Emma-Jane Walker
To be ‘discerning’ is ‘to have or to show good judgement’. It is to be discriminating, judicious, critical, perceptive, insightful, tasteful, sensitive… To have a discerning eye, then, is to be able to not only see, but to understand – to look at something and see the story behind it, the context that surrounds it. To see ‘the skull beneath the skin’2, as somebody once said.
It is this critical and intelligent sensitivity that has rested securely at the heart of the Discerning Eye Exhibition since its inception almost thirty years ago. Since 1990, it has presented over 12,000 pieces of artwork, encouraging the public to exercise and strengthen its own discerning eye. However, the success of the Exhibition lies not only in its guiding principle but also in the structure of the selection panel, the nature of the selection process, and the size of the work permitted.
The structure of the selection panel plays a key role in moulding the identity and the direction of any exhibition. A selector’s decisions will be driven by both their professional expertise and their personal taste, so even the more restrictive exhibition with highly limiting eligibility criteria will retain the potential for huge variety. Composed of two artists, two collectors and two critics, the selection panel for the Discerning Eye Exhibition intends to mirror the art world in microcosm, embracing the potential for variety – even controversy – and encouraging it to become one of the defining features of the Exhibition.
The structure of the selection panel is bold, but the nature of the selection process and the curation of the exhibition are even bolder. Work is chosen independently by each selector and so the first decision – the instinctive decision if you like – is the final one. As former selector Chris Orr RA comments, ‘In the selection process the works come at you thick and fast, brought in by a team of art handlers. You must make an instant decision. This has to be intuitive. Like going to a very large party you quickly work out who you want to talk to. There are second thoughts, for and against, but no time to do research or look for corroborating evidence. You have to trust your judgement built over years of looking.’
Each selector, then, emerges with their own body of work and this is hung separately, creating the impression of six small exhibitions within the whole. The result is a multi-faceted exhibition which not only holds the promise of something new around every corner, but also grants the viewer access to the unique and often surprising artistic vision of each selector.
In previous years, renowned artists, prolific critics, broadcasters, actors and actresses – even Princes! – have taken on the role of selector, and this year’s selection panel is no less illustrious. An acclaimed actress, the former Arts Correspondent for The Times, and a self-taught artist whose story is one of social media stardom, all join the ranks. The self-taught artist in question is Elmo Hood, who aims to challenge preconceptions about urban art and pop art, both within the confines of the gallery and in the public domain. Combining spray paint and acrylic he fuses pop and graffiti art to create visually rich portraits and figurative pieces. He also works with playing cards, drawing their static, somewhat absurd figures into narratives which humanise them in a way that is strikingly poignant. It was one of these pieces which went viral overnight, amassing a vast celebrity following and catapulting Elmo to fame.
Finally, then, to the size of the works permitted. Works may range across the entire spectrum of the visual arts, but must not exceed 20”/50cm in their largest dimension. On the effect of this, Chris Orr RA offers another perceptive observation:
Walking into a display like this often leads to a kind of “snow blindness”. The result of a large number of small scale, but intense images can put you into a bit of a spin, but look carefully dear viewer, and you will surely find something of great significance, even life changing for you.
Entries for the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition 2017 are now open. To enter, and for further information, visit thediscerningeye.artopps.co.uk
1 Dan Coombs, 2016 selector
2 T.S. Eliot, Whispers of Immortality (1920)