Sunday, 22 July 2012

So what is abstract art?

I was talking to a friend about painting the other day. I turned to abstract painting to curb my habit of slavishly copying photos. My method was to pour liquid paint (acryls, oils and watercolour all work equally well) on my "naked" canvas, let it dry thoroughly, which can take up to a week with oil paints, then  take anything I saw in the uncontrolled design and make something of it. 

The result in my case was usually animals, like this one, which is one of a set of 4:


and only occasionally concentrated on other elements, such as flowers:

but my friend says she always sees flowers in my abstracts and this really puzzles me. What have I been missing? Is that how abstract art works? The artist "creates" something - not necessarily meaningful - and hopes someone will find it significant or relevant, or maybe just beautiful. Who is to know?

At the moment I have this on my easel:

I call it "many moons ago" and it's the second in a duo, each measuring 80x80cm, the first of which looks like this:

Although it's only 5 days since I painted the first painting (with the white moon), I can't remember what I did to get it to look like that, so I'm not sure how to proceed with the second one, though the foundations for the moon theme have been laid. Actually overlaid, since I started with blue shades, but didn't like the result.

For me the moon is a symbol of time passing, by the way. Symbols are important in art, so it's wise to acquire some, which is  maybe a reason I also seem to put birds and fish in paintings, though I dare say they can be interpreted to death, e.g. the bird as a symbol not just of freedom, but also of escape and the desire to escape, or fish as a symbol of mystery,  not just because the watery world they live in is for the most part unexplored, but also because we humans emerge from the watery element at birth and have gone through all stages of evolution in the prior nine months of gestation. Did fish become birds, get fed up, and go back into the water? Who knows? An drastic over-simplification of Darwinian theory. But that doesn't matter. Abstract art emerges eventually as the survivor of whatever abstract thought  (if any) and physical processes  (evident) have gone into making it. And I do mean survivor, since the key to abstraction is  in fact subtraction: you put something there, dislike it and take it away.  You hide a previous process beneath the next one. You move in a mysterious way. You are the god/goddess of your support (canvas, paper.....).

Back to the drawing board (figuratively speaking). At the moment of not knowing what to do next, I tend to watch youtube videos of (abstract) painters speed painting as if they are projecting some universal plan or other. They always seem to know what they're doing. Some of them cheat, however, and draw with faint lines or employ some other trick to help them achieve (like repeating something they've done before?), which for me defeats the idea of abstraction because what is there is no longer explicitly abstract and certainly not spontaneous and intuitive, which abstract work is meant to be.  At least, that's what I'd like to believe.

At the MoMA touring exhibition in Berlin a few years ago there was a huge crowd around Malevich's black square. A curator was explaining what was behind it (literally). At a workshop I attended, the educator said that black square was the greatest painting of all time! I recently attended a (catastrophic) workshop at which the educator said  "painting is so beautifully lacking in sense (purpose)" ("die Malerei ist so schön sinnlos"). I looked as his paintings online (at an outdated website he said he couldn't afford to update) and realized how unprofessional and light years away he was from the reason for wanting to paint, and  totally devoid of the legitimacy to teach it. I share the desire to paint with millions of others, starting with the cave dwellers in Lascaux. On being asked, he admitted he was horrified at the idea of painting something  figurative., such as a landscape or still life On his website he has only abstract geometric type paintings. (and claims to be a sculptor rather than a painter - OK so why teach painting when he hates it?). A lot of thought might have gone into his constructed 2D artworks, but no heart.....

Which brings me back to the question of what abstract art is!

I went to a hyper-modern exhibition in Amsterdam a few years ago. Actually we were in Amsterdam for a van Gogh show, and I visited the modern exhibition because we had to wait all day to get into the v. G. museum, as the tickets were timed and ours were for 18:30h! My son decided to skip the hyper-moderns and stroll down to the harbour instead. A wise choice. The modern show was an eye-opener and left me wondering if an exhibition put on by the mentally challenged would have been much different or even better (OK, artists are mentally challenged!). Many rooms were done up like cubicles and showed inane films, some of entities committing suicide or indulging in misdemeanours such as smoking pot on the loo or pot-shotting light bulbs with a revolver - there's no limit once you start down that "artistic" road. On one corridor wall there was a scrappy, typewritten missile. It said that there was no actual exhibit, but that the artist had thought a lot about his "abstraction". In other words, he hadn't actually produced anything apart from the message! I think that was when I went back to painting flowers!

There's abstract art everywhere. On the daily TV reality shows you see abstract paintings on the walls of moderators, judges, psychologists and even patients, victims, winners, losers. Of course, they have usually bought rather than painted them, so what is the motivation for hanging them? Does a tall canvas in orange with a brownish streak down the middle have something that moves (or impresses) the person who hung it there, presumably by choice? If I painted a canvas orange and added a streak of brown paint would that make that canvas meaningful, even if it has no meaning for me?

What would you interpret this as:


If I were to tell you that it is an account of my heart complaint (atrial fibrillation) and expresses exactly how it feels when the heart gets out of control, would you believe me?

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