Researchers, headed by psychologist and neuroscientist Professor David Alais, assembled a collection of 100 paintings from online archives, randomly selecting 40 paintings and then briefly presented them 20 times in random order to 24 people who rated themselves as having low expertise in art.
Results showed a strongly accumulative effect. If one painting was regarded as beautiful, the next artwork was likely to be rated highly. The feedback worked the same for paintings that were disliked – neighbouring paintings were also regarded negatively.
There is also a slower contrasting effect at work. “Something will always look better when put beside something ugly,” Prof Alais says.
The sensory process of assimilating and judging artwork likely occurs too fast for the individual to be aware it is happening, says Prof Alais. Visitors who quickly scan a catalogue or walk into an exhibition looking for something that appeals may not realise their judgments are influenced by what they have seen before. In the case of someone with detailed knowledge of art, higher-level cognitive processes tend to kick in and override these visual impressions.
Prof Alais had expected to find the way audiences judged paintings to be more idiosyncratic and reflective, drawing on life experience. But across two different groups of observers, there was broad agreement on what was regarded as attractive. The results were consistent with emerging evidence that much of what is pleasurable to the eye is due to basic visual features such as colour, texture, and shape. In this study, paintings with a cooler, bluish colour spectrum were more highly rated.
Abstract art tended to be more polarising than figurative and traditional representations of art, Prof Alais says. Often it is the more ambiguous paintings that are the most engaging, invoking more cognitive factors such as art knowledge and experience. And too much beauty can be disarming.
“When you see a room full of flawless, beautiful art, you become tuned to that high standard as being the norm, and hence the beauty of the works is less apparent,” Prof Alais says. ”It’s as if your visual and aesthetic systems become numb to them.”
The Art Gallery of NSW’s Isobel Parker Philip, says sometimes the best is saved for last but often it is a question of pace.
“Some of my shows are structured around the alternation between quiet moments and more dynamic or ‘louder’ displays, while others can build like a crescendo, with key works placed strategically to pull people through the space,” she says
Every exhibition is different and requires a different approach.
”When placed together in a space, artworks talk to one another,” Parker Philip says. “This is something you have to handle carefully. It’s a skill – an intuition – you hone over time. Some contexts call for harmony while in others, conflict can coax meaning.”
For Bullock, what is considered ‘best’ is entirely subjective.
“My best could be another’s worst,” she says. “This is the beauty of art. I am aware of my own biases when it comes to the art that I enjoy the most and try hard to present work that sometimes I admire but ultimately do not have a passion for. It’s important to be open-minded.”
Independent curator and a professorial fellow of the Victorian College of the Arts, Natalie King, agrees that placing artworks side by side induces a dialogue between artworks and ideas but scenography, flow, lighting, wall colours or treatment and ambiance all play their part in making a memorable exhibition.
“As a curator, I deploy multiple tools to entice viewers from activating site lines, ensuring sequencing of artworks creates a rhythm and sometimes inserting a ‘surprise’ or incongruous relationship or unexpected inclusion.”
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald