Category Archives: Returns

The Invisibility test

“Looking and seeing” Frits Ahlefeldt (1966)  Denmark.


A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about how the constant exchange of art works through The Collective meant that what’s on our walls would never become “invisible”. Instead, our domestic spaces assumed a more dynamic nature that changed in aspect and feel every time we had an “exchange”.This made us pay more attention to their detail, even when you have had them before, as it was more akin to a new acquisition “with a certain familiarity” every time they returned to your home.

The idea of an art work, or any item on a wall, becoming “invisible” because it remains in the same place for many years was put to the test recently, albeit inadvertently, in our own house.

We have a large screen print by a well-known artist that is very distinctive. I am particularly fond of this piece though it is not part of the Collective’s Collection. Apart from being a wonderful work, it has a history and memories associated with it that hold great significance for me personally.  Every morning as I eat breakfast in my kitchen I can see the work on the wall, through the door in the next room.  And every morning it reassures me and inspires me, as I look at it and see it there in its particular location. I never tire of looking at it.  It’s been there for years and I watch it change with the different seasons as mornings get lighter and then darker ,and through all the associated light changes that come with our weather and hit our dining room in the morning.

The work needed reframing which we had discussed on numerous occasions and as Tim knew the appropriate framers I was going to leave it to him.  Time passed and still we hadn’t managed to do it and now it also needed some conservation work.

This year, on my birthday, Tim presented me with what appeared to be a large art work, all wrapped up as it was.  I was excited! When I opened it, it was the very same screen print that was on our wall in its usual place.   How had that happened?  Only then did I really notice.

Unobserved by me, Tim had taken down the original, had a good photocopy done, reinserted it in to the old frame and taken the original screen print to the framers where it was now presented in a brand new perfectly finished frame, fully restored and even more of a spectacle than before.  I was stunned – how could I have not noticed?

Only once had I speculated that the colour looked different but thought it was nothing more than a trick of the eye with the particular light of that morning.  I had ceased to observe it properly, but just viewed it from a distance in its rightful place.  It’s detail had in fact become invisible and what mattered more was that it was just “there”.

There is an established science around “familiarity“and psychologists have discovered that there is a “happiness directly correlated to how many thing we are familiar with”.  But why are familiar things more “likeable” ? Are our brains lazy or is it that “familiar things make us feel more comfortable“?  The answer is “yes”,they do – they reassure us, provide landmarks amidst all life’s uncertainties and anchors in our domestic  spaces.  In this case the anchor was the art work that never moved from its place. The trouble is that in the process of making us feel more comfortable our brains stop to really notice and a layer of “invisibility” is created.  We only really sit up and see when something changes significantly.  This is of course why the the constant change of the Collective art works provide so much stimulation and interest because we, and all visitors to our houses, have grown to expect change and notice more readily when they see the new or returned art works.

I’m still astonished I failed to notice the substitute, but it struck me how true the assertion was that familiarity creates invisibility. Perhaps the difference between looking and seeing.

When did you last ‘see’ a familiar object that you look at every day ?  You might learn something new!






The Returns


Bobby Dowler 3
Odd painting 1 (2009) by Bobby Dowler. Owned by the Collective

When I famously opened my mouth in shock horror on national TV during the Culture Show‘s short piece on The Collective my disappointment was obvious to see. Why was I disappointed?  Our household’s bid to have The Collective’s new purchase, Bobby Dowler’s Odd Painting 1, was rejected by our fellow Collective members in favour of another household during our twice yearly “exchange”. It was a fair vote and as a Collective member you have to take the disappointment with the excitement in the knowledge that your turn will come – just not this time. Patience is a virtue and the reward is all the more sweet when your favourite “returns” come home.  That moment came just before New Year.

Buying and sharing art work between six households does mean that most of what you are exhibiting in your home (though not all) is never permanent.  I have always seen this as a benefit, because the art works don’t have the chance to become “invisible” – merging in to wall or floor where they might assume more of an identification feature of your house – part of the decor.  If, however you are changing the works every six months that process of “merging” never happens.  Family, friends and visitors notice the changes, come to expect them even, and the walls retain a unique quality that is dynamic, almost living, as they are constantly re-energised with changing art works.

The downside is the sense of “loss” of your favourite piece(s )every six months – and

Bobby Dowler 1
Odd Painting 1 by Bobby Dowler. Owned by The Collective

sometimes you do feel a real sense of loss in something that may have brought so much visual and emotional pleasure within your house.  But when you do get it back you see it as if it is a new acquisition again, particularly if the gap has been a long one.  This was certainly true of Bobby Dowler’s Odd painting 1.  The thrill of getting it back, and having it up on the wall again, immediately changed the room bringing a new vibrancy and spirit.  Family members noticed it immediately:

I like that one – we haven’t had it for ages

Is that the one with the chewing gum on it?!”

Their friends noticed too, and being the Christmas break, all visitors passing through the house commented.  Some of them had seen it before, but the return had made it much more visible again.


BD close-up
Details from Odd Painting 1 by Bobby Dowler. Owned by The Collective

Bobby Dowler is a south London based artist, represented by the Hannah Barry Gallery in Peckham. Odd Painting 1 is made from found canvas, bits of old book pages, chewing gum and scraps found on the streets of Peckham and woven together with lots of colour.  Based as we are in south London this has added appeal in our household- “it’s from our own back yard “(or very nearly).  It’s a big work for a domestic space and certainly bigger than anything we had bought previously or have bought since, in terms of space occupied on a single wall.  It even requires separate transport to move it every six months as none of us have cars big enough to put it in.  It’s a “degradable” art work in that it will deteriorate with time, unprotected as it is on its found canvas.  But it is still very much in tact, cared for and valued across all the households – like all our works.

Most people will associate “Returns” with one or more products being sent back because they are the wrong kind, not working, damaged or no good – and most definitely “not wanted”.  For Collective members “Returns” can be one of your most treasured and valued works, a personal response that makes them all the more special for having them back. Viewed with a renewed energy it’s as if you are seeing them for the first time but with a familiarity akin to a homecoming.