Everybody has their own way of looking at contemporary art. Some peer through parted fingers, stopping just long enough to draw an instant conclusion before rushing off to the next piece. Others stand for hours before a single work, staring wide-eyed as they struggle with a thousand conflicting interpretations.
"Seeing Without Eyes," a traveling exhibit now at the Fullerton Museum Center, offers yet another view, inviting sighted and non-sighted visitors to "see" 10 works of contemporary art through their sense of touch. The exhibit, which opened Saturday and continues through Aug. 26, was organized by Corinne Gillett Horowitz, curator of education for the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara.
Horowitz created "Seeing" with a dual purpose: to make contemporary art more accessible to the visually impaired, and to familiarize sighted audiences with the ways the blind and partially sighted use their sense of touch to experience art and their environment.
Each work is encased in a wooden box, closed on one side with a small, black curtain and on the other with a sheet of plexiglass. Audiences are invited to part the curtains and "see" each piece with their hands, running their fingertips across the surface of a polished wood carving, wrapping their palms around the curve of a
porcelain vase, contrasting the slick, cool touch of a bronze abstract to the prickly texture of a pine-needle basket. Sighted viewers can then step to the other side of the box and see how accurate their sense of touch really was.
Most of the works on display are by artists from the Santa Barbara area, Horowitz said, and all were created for or loaned to the exhibit with the non-sighted audience in mind.
"The artists chose their pieces for their tactile quality; smooth or rough surfaces, gypsum cement and porcelain versus pine needles," Horowitz said. "It was intended to be challenging to the fingertips.
"As a result, I've found that it works very well with a variety of audiences--children, adults, people who see, people who don't see--because it appeals to our basic senses."
To make "Seeing" even more accessible to the visually impaired, the show features gallery cards in conventional type and in Braille. Invitations to the Fullerton show were sent to all of the county's major centers for the visually impaired, and representatives of Anaheim's Braille Institute briefed museum docents on their clients' needs. The museum is also offering free admission to the exhibit to non- or partially sighted visitors.
For the sighted, "Seeing" offers yet another vantage point. When a slow, careful examination of a work is done with your fingers, rather than your eyes, it's nearly impossible to make a snap decision about the visual appeal of the art.
Take, for example, Conway Pierson's ceramic "The Anyway Anteater," which greets visitors at the exhibit's entrance. After you gingerly poke your hands behind the curtains and trace the beast's long irregular snout and stubby legs, your mind is too busy trying to identify the shape ("Is it an elephant? No, the ears are too small.") to decide whether it is "your kind of art."
Abstracts, like Rollin Fortier's untitled bronze, leave even more to the imagination, letting the viewer appreciate the way its curves conform to the shape of the hand or the way the metal slowly warms to the touch.
Horowitz, a French woman who spent 10 years as a lecturer at the Louvre in Paris, said she chose to use original contemporary art in her show--instead of folk art, a practice she has seen in similar exhibits--to give the visually impaired the "chance to use their full abilities."
"People who are blind have a finely developed, very delicate sense of touch," she said. "I felt that just using, say, quilts or baskets (which are easily recognizable by touch), didn't take full advantage of their tactile abilities.
"Say you invite a blind person to your home for a meal. What are you doing to serve it on--a paper plate, or china and crystal? You would use china, just like you would for anyone else. My feeling is that it is unfair not to give to the blind what you would give to a seeing person."
"Seeing Without Eyes" continues through Aug. 26 at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. The visually impaired will be admitted free during the run of this show. Regular museum admission is $1 to $2, free to children under 12, and to visitors between 6 and 9 p.m. every Thursday. Information: (714) 738-6545.