How to See: What makes a work of art unforgettable?

How to See: What makes a work of art unforgettable?
Examples taken from the University of Western Australia 3D Art Challenges
review by Eleanor Medier (please see complimentary article in The Sim Street Journal)
(note: please see the in-world magazine or download Unforgettable Magazine #4 for more photographs.)


“Our greatest challenge at the start, was gaining legitimacy as an individual/group who didn’t yet know much about art/film. Now the challenge is going beyond introducing SL as a really interesting 3D toy, to something that has a solid foundation—that can be seen as an integral part of UWA, as opposed to a side project.” Jayjay Zifanwe, UWA SL Founder (Jay Jay Jegathesan, Manager, Physics, UWA)

Think of the most famous painting. Often, the Mona Lisa comes to mind. What makes that tiny dark portrait so iconic? Everyone who sees it in person is disappointed. But then they are haunted—captured—by that enigmatic smile, by that soft direct gaze, that masterful technique. Now, this mysterious face is one of the best known unknowns in history!

Memorable visual art speaks first, and foremost, without words. Yet, viewers like help in what to see—which does need words! In such a visually rich world, one where each person is bombarded with more images and messages in one day than ancestors received in a year, so many are confused versus delighted. It is hard to distinguish among choices and many lack the confidence to discuss.

Second Life® is a creative paradise. Just about anyone can craft snap-shots into collages with drawing programs. Consequently, the number of “artists” per capita has never been greater than in the virtual world! Yet, with all those creative enzymes floating around, the average audience member can freeze, because there is too much to wade through.

Art, like any production, fits the 80/20 Rule: 80% is not worth looking at (it pleases the creator’s ego rather than is a true communicative vehicle), 20% is decent, and has a message to convey. Of that 20%, only about .01% is truly great. And, unfortunately, that brings up the “subjective” argument—which wears thin when examined.

There is a difference between a professional appraisal and an amateur one. The professionals see beyond the style and personal preference, to what is skillful and meaningful. They call upon objective criteria. A visit to the University of Western Australia can demonstrate these concepts. Their famous 3D themed competitions attract the best and the brightest artists on the grid. To illustrate what to look for in a work of art, choosing examples from each of four recent shows was its own challenge! These are representative of a talent parade!

Taking advantage of the media is a concern for these themes. The immersive nature of art within virtual worlds is explored. Taking a walk through any of their exhibits can yield hours of discussion.


When first encountering a visual message, there are criteria to use as a test for validity and impact beyond the personal opinion of “I like it” (that begs the question “why?”) and “I don’t like it” (which is easy to say). To get past shallow rhetoric and to develop judgment, consider these characteristics:

1. Emotion. Color is the first thing someone notices when approaching a visual work of art. This arouses very deep primal associations—attaching feelings to the color wheel. Blue is restful, expansive, and receding. Green is nurturing, prosperous, and optimistic. Yellow is happy, advancing, and cautionary. Orange is appetizing, warm, and attracting. Purple is regal, flowery, and somber. Red is hot, passionate, and turbulent.

Perhaps the best example of red in artwork was UWA’s Fire! show last fall. To choose a single work from this installation exhibit to exemplify the concept seems unnecessary, when the entire show itself was a work of art, unlike most of UWA’s recent exhibits that place each piece discretely on a nondescript wood floored platform. The Fire! show was an immersive experience (a common trait that ties all the artists and shows together). Beyond color, the first impression is always one of three reactions: intrigue, revulsion, or indifference. Intrigue is shown by curious questions. Revulsion is demonstrated by a snap judgment of rejection. And, indifference is always punctuated with the tactful statement of “interesting.”

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2. Scale. SL shines in expressing the monumental as well as the intimate—with equal effort. Not being held by physical constraints, artists build entire environments as artwork—because they can. By controlling every aspect of a visual experience, they can push their ideas to the limit—a common human pursuit. Whether a work is large or small hits the viewers immediately by engulfing them or pulling them in as outsiders. Sometimes one work accomplishes both—offering many involvement levels. The more the viewer is engaged, the stronger the impact and memorability. Triptych by Carmsie Melodie (next page) shows three con-strained human forms that are encased in atmospheric cubes. Looking closer, each offers an attitude to contemplate. This scale affects the intimacy because the figures are avatar-sized. Contrast this scale with many of the more grandiose entries, the artist controls perception with proximity.

3. Mystery. A work of fiction requires a conflict, and a resolution. The same is true with a visual work that has impact: it sets up a situation and offers either an explanation, a conclusion, or a direction. If there is no “hook”—something contradictory or questioning—then it is easy to pass by. Many works can be like a riddle. The best give an immediate setting, then upon closer inspection, offer more clues of message. A contradictory statement in the Fire! show was the blue-skied bubble of spiritual harmony within the volcanic turbulence. In Triptych, the struggle of the captive people against containments immediately conveys angst. What is the resolution? The artist offers one more box—one on the side that has a key.

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4. Message. What is the point? What is the artist trying to say? If viewers have to work too hard to find this, they move on quickly. There has to be an immediate grab of statement to entice consideration. Not always apparent upon first viewing, the most unforgettable art has a point, lesson, or situation that is perceived by the majority who view it. Any reaction with reasons to support can be valid; there is not only one “right” interpretation.

The message in The Big Squeeze by Herbie Haven from the Earth show is very obvious: the Earth is treated like a machine. As a resource, it is powered by the ground, possibly to be interpreted as the universe, and it obediently performs. By presenting this unusual configuration, the artist is expressing a compassion, a world view more holistic, that people should reconsider this relationship. When showing the opposite of what is desired, the viewer is shocked into the desired perception. The message in Triptych is all about perception: humans are encased in limitation. Though each has a similar struggle, each reacts differently. The good news is that, one of these three figures has found a way to break out of the constraints.

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5. Technique. Sadly, too many viewers are seduced by weak ideas that are done very well. There are many in the 80% of art not worth looking at that are executed really well. If there is no passion, no message, no mystery, and no focus that offers something different, why do it? Art on that level is more about the artist’s therapy than it is about having something to say. Fortunately, this magazine is about the art that is memorable, and technique is important. If the execution inspires awe—asking, “how did they do that?”—a virtuosity that dazzles—it is memorable.

The quality of technique is apparent in those that win in the UWA competitions. They shimmer and shine with various lightings, they take advantage of movement and change, they defy gravity. These artists are only limited by imagination, and time to execute. The Fire! show, as a complete installation, exhibited phenomenal skill. The floor was cracked with lava exposed. The viewers walked through walls of flames. One work of art flowed into the next. Similarly, the technique used in the cracked glass boxes, the skillful human forms that have a personality yet are universal, and the combination of geometry with naturalism captivates in presentation. The globe of The Big Squeeze maintains its realism, yet is dramatically distorted, and complimented with hardware, balloon, outlet, and puff of exhaust.

6. Style. The major categories of realistic, abstract, expressionistic, impressionistic, surreal, cubist, etc. all filter into SL. But additionally, eras can provide backdrops. A work of art can easily fit a fantasy setting. To present surrealistic situations is particularly enticing. As avatars can form identities with complete freedom, artists can build anything they can imagine. Neither is true in real life, where restrictions of genetics and resources dominate. In SL, talent more separates the worthwhile from the time wasting. Unlike performers, a visual artists’ behavior and appearance don’t influence the viewer. But, their personality and style come through. SL tends to favor surrealism and symbolism because, the combining of known elements in new ways is so easy to do.

Every symbol is recognizable in Herbie’s piece. It is very clear that this work expresses the use of Earth’s resources. To create a similar sculpture in real life would require expensive materials, expertise with carpentry, a year to construct, and major shipping expenses. Here, Herbie can reasonably build such a configuration, allowing the concept to be more important than its existence. The style fits his presentation, as the style of the cubistic construction fits Carmsie’s Triptych.

7. Originality. Unfortunately, most art is based on images done before, whether the creator is conscious of it or not. Those purposely replicating other ideas or styles should save their time, and do something more meaningful. In a world filled with a higher percentage of inferior art than in past centuries (where the skill required extensive training), too many people seem in love with the idea of being an artist, rather than the meaning in the work itself. Consequently, viewers drown in a sea of referential replications. The Fire! show was remarkable in its originality—the blend of many strong individual works into a cohesive whole. Many of the individual pieces express unique visions. In the Earth show, there was a greater similarity of artistic approaches—individual works less distinguishable. Many could have been done by one person. When utilizing symbolism, universal understanding of objects is necessary, so using well recognized forms, like the globe and the pipes, runs the risk of looking a lot like other creations. Magritte and Dali cast very long shadows. Homage, however, adds an original spin onto a known reference. Sometimes, like in the Fire! show, the reference becomes even humorous. The hand of God reaches through the storms into the blue-sky bubble, lighting a candelabra.

8. Setting. Similar to shopping for clothing, perceiving the quality of fashions has a lot to do with where it is displayed. The same dress at K-Mart would look totally different if shown at Max Mara. Sometimes a whole exhibit  gives a stronger message than its individual works, which often then appear as a series. A beautiful gallery, so easy to create in SL, can be an attraction in itself. Almost every virtual artist that has produced more than fifty showable pieces, has a gallery. They are numerous and proliferating

in-world like a revolving door in the real world—most everyone can do the basics, competition is great, and professionals find a niche. Artists who put creativity into the setting itself stand out—they most use the medium where anything can be built.

This is not true, though, at UWA. Other than the permanent collection seen upon the grounds below, all of these exhibits are on sky platforms. Of these past few months, Fire! has best used the space itself to effect. Hopefully, future shows will, as well. The Earth show was landscaped like Earth, but much of it interfered with viewing the work itself. So there is a fine balance to achieve, where the setting enhances versus detracts, or has no character at all.

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The Carousel by Yepar Saenz is an entry for the new Reflections show. It grabs attention first by its stark black and white, then by its movement. Confronted with universal symbols mounted on a merry-go-round, the images themselves are not new—a light bulb, a heart, a mask, etc. Combining them in this fashion is new—the twirling of the carousel provides a stage for their interactions (sometimes one is up and the other down, just like real life). These oscillating forms are reflected in the floor as a brain, suggesting that this piece is about mental constructs—the human process of thinking and feeling. Might it say a light-hearted attitude is one worth achieving? An acceptance of how fate causes reactions of high and low points? Topped with a “?” is an invitation to ask even more.

9. Aesthetics. This is the slipperiest of the characteristics inherent in art worth seeing. It touches more on personal taste, and can be a challenge for even the professionals to see beyond. The statement, “there is no accounting for taste” is very obvious when observing how people craft their avatars—this is self-expression at its best! Every work of art is also a self-portrait—the better it is, the more of the creator’s passion and personality is evident. An aesthetic judgment combines style, setting, scale, technique, and emotion into an overall conclusive impression. The aesthetic appeal within SL is primarily predictable. However, the artists who have works in the UWA competitions display visual acuity—talent for understanding the basics of line, shape, color, and composition. Several have developed unique and recognizable styles that hold their body of work together. The shows attract both the well-established SL artists and new residents. Like in real life, talent shines when responding to opportunity. UWA provides that opportunity. For a viewer to respond to the aesthetics of an artwork is similar to how a magnet attracts, or resists. And when attracted, seeing more works by that artist is either a revelation to new levels, or a disappointment that one piece stood above the rest. SL also provides more opportunities for artists to receive immediate feedback.

10. Impact. The whole point of creating a work of art is to make a statement—those driven by passion all say that they had something they had to express. The great ideas become like a hungry child—demanding and then controlling. Great ideas even take on lives of their own—both during creation and after. Great art causes change—even if that change is just to see in a new way. Yet, art also provides a profound cultural evolution—visual art is the spice that can make a statement that affects each viewer differently. As music unites without words, visual art as a visual language is more international than the words to describe it.

Presenting these four shows will make them live beyond their presentations. Though these collections are unique, being able to show the works again in other places is a greater option for SL artists. These shows introduce viewers to some of the best creators, a map to greater exploration sure not to disappoint, and guaranteed to offer endless discussion.

For more information, please contact Netera Landar, Editor-in-Chief,

See the issue as it first ran in the virtual world release of Unforgettable Magazine #4 (download PDF) with more graphics and photographs. See Issue #OneIssue #Two, and Issue #3 for more features and profiles.


3 thoughts on “How to See: What makes a work of art unforgettable?”

  1. I love how you mentioned the color wheel. How Well Do You Know The Color Wheel?

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