Ways of Looking

by Ossian Ward, Laurence King, £9.95 (softcover)

By Hettie Judah

In 1990s Glasgow, a local restaurant ran an advertising campaign on the city’s metro describing a catastrophic dining experience: a sneering maître d’, flirtatious waiters, baffling foreign food, a bill full of hidden charges. For those who toyed with the idea of eating out, but dreaded making a fool of themselves, the restaurant conversely marketed itself as a haven of reassurance. It’s a sales approach echoed by Ways of Looking, in which Ossian Ward evokes an artworld full of ‘bad encounters’ in which art may superficially appear ‘crass and grating’, promoted by a system characterised by its ‘obfuscatory tendencies’, ‘clever-clever writing’ and ‘verbose overcompensation’, and then proffers an escape route.

Ward, who was the visual arts editor at Time Out London before moving into the commercial gallery system with a senior role at Lisson, is an affable fellow-traveller; his jocular, confessional prose touches, variously, on his family, a childhood fear of high slides, his lack of coordination and his struggles to conquer his own art prejudices. That latter is rather the crux of the book, which, in the face of art, advocates a radical unlearning and a dedication to second chances. Ways of Looking follows Ward on his journey as he attempts to practise what he preaches out in the field. Sometimes one might wish he wasn’t so successful in his efforts to give everything a second chance: encountering Adel Abdessemed’s Décor (2011–12) – a quadruple crucifixion rendered in razorwire – he initially reads the piece as a ‘gratuitous and… clunkingly obvious statement’, but after taking himself in hand, he comes to ‘[realise] that there was some merit in these grotesque, tortured effigies’.

Ways of Looking reads somewhere between etiquette manual – contemporary art addressed as a vexing hurdle of modern life – and self-help guide

An explicit nod to John Berger’s TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972), Ways of Looking shares the earlier volume’s populist approach and mistrust of ponderous critical discourse, as well as its attempt to sharpen the gaze in a world of rapidly proliferating images. The similarities rather end there – there is none of the overarching political fervour here that ensured Berger’s book enduring cult status among the left-leaning student population. Instead Ways of Looking reads somewhere between etiquette manual – contemporary art addressed as a vexing hurdle of modern life – and self-help guide.

Ward offers a methodology that he refers to as the tabula rasa approach; tabula being a mnemonic for a set of art-proximate actions – give it Time, feel for Associations, find out some Background and so on – and the whole being an exhortation to approach work with an open mind. To the recalcitrant, the conceit of ticking through a behavioural checklist may feel a distraction or even irritant – Ward’s intention however is to boost his readers’ confidence, to allow them to feel that their assessment of a work is valid because it is the result of their own open-minded and careful consideration.

Ways of Looking is as much a snapshot of the present art moment as Ways of Seeing was of the early 1970s and as Matthew Collings’s Blimey! (1997) was of the mid-90s. Collings’s book gave a glimpse through the studio door into a boisterous, resourceful and personality-driven local scene – by contrast the art that Ward parses is slick, polymorphous and deracinated; fodder for ex-industrial exhibition halls, yawning art fairs and encyclopaedic ‘-iennials’.

Ward has a tendency to second-guess his audience – to the extent that one imagines that he has a specific reader in mind. While, for the sake of familial harmony, one hopes that imagined reader is not his father, to whom the book is dedicated, it certainly feels to be aimed at an audience of a certain age. It’s a quick read – a sprinting overview of key events in recent art – and reassuring with it. Surely perfect fodder for incoming ministers of culture? Ultra-high-net-worth individuals feeling the urge to join the collectors club could also do worse than investing first in Ward’s reasonably priced volume; it may arm them against dubious ‘art advisers’ peddling second-rate Basquiats and might even give them the courage to steer into waters new. 

This article was first published in the Autumn & Winter 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia.