Not all art puzzles me. I think I get some of it, at least I know I get something out of it. Whether or not the artist intended me to get what I “get” is another issue altogether. I suppose that that issue by itself is quite perplexing to most people who bother to even look at visual art. That is, if the artist intended one thing and the viewer is getting something else entirely, is the art therefore, unsuccessful? And the answer to that question is surprisingly, “not necessarily.”
The artist John Ridgway (now deceased) formerly of Brattleboro, Vermont, created a very literal and amazingly realistic, life-sized, metal sculpture in high relief. It was a representation of the front of a female torso. The top end of this sculpture ended in an arching edge against the wall, just above two well-formed breasts that curved around and met at the cleavage. The torso also showed a smooth abdomen, a smooth pubic under-curve and the very tops and fronts of two, well-rounded thighs.
Not long after Ridgway created the piece, I looked at it and complimented him on his creation. The craftsmanship and the draughtsmanship were both excellent. I gazed upon its smoothly curving forms and commented that for me it was the essence of the female form. The artist expressed surprise and told me flatly that he’d intended it to be phallic! I looked again and sure enough – the breasts and cleavage formed a good translation of the glans of a penis as seen from the underside, the abdomen became the extension, the penile shaft, and the thighs represented ovoid testicles on either side. The new mental image he provided to me was as clear as could be, and yet for me it was still entirely an expression of female form. Unsuccessful? Hardly. This piece was doubly successful and in succeeding two ways, that success became its third way of succeeding. It could be seen either way and both ways.
That was my experience with a piece of art work that was only abstract in its isolation from the greater context of the full figure. If artwork with very literal and clear figurative references can be so abstracted, what then, do people make of abstract expressionist painting which may not have any figurative or narrative reference at all? That is, when art work makes no attempt to represent anything, what are the viewer’s touchstones? How can they make anything of it?
Making great art during the Renaissance was straightforward. In saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that it was simple to do, just that it’s goals were straightforward and in that sense easy to understand, easy to evaluate. Baroque artists developed sophisticated techniques for rendering natural phenomena and engaged in increasingly complex compositional arrangements. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the goals of art had dramatically changed and it seems that only avant-guarde artists understood that the essence of painting was to be found within the paint itself, rather than in manipulating paint to appear to be something other than itself. The purpose of creating a visual illusion, by itself, had been stripped from art by other imaging technologies.
The French Academy continued to produce excellent draughtsmen capable of alluding to any number of heroic or mythological themes, but they didn’t understand that their efforts in that direction were no longer needed. Today, it would be akin to being proud of being able to dial a rotary-dial phone. Yes, people could still admire the artist’s technical ability, but that was no longer what the essence of painting was about.
From about 1850 to the present, painting has been about the total freedom of artists to say whatever they wished to say in whatever way they wished to say it. (Though it took until the 1913, New York Armoury Show to fully establish the legitimacy of that claim.) Self-expression was the new object of art. The best of the artwork expressed itself directly in the material plasticity (the physical properties) of the medium regardless of figurative reference or non-objectivity. Yet viewers who have not bothered to look beyond the obvious persist in believing that artists, all artists, have the goal of representing some view or some object. “What’s that supposed to be?” is an oft overheard comment. I often feel like responding, “It’s supposed to be a painting. What can you get from it?”
As I look at painting today, first comes an objective examination of the visual inventory presented to the viewer. That involves seeing the shapes, the colours, the configuration, the overlapping and the underpainting. In that process, I also ask myself many questions. How was the paint applied? Can the viewer fruitfully engage in a mental reconstruction of the making of the artwork through careful attention to layering, to brush strokes, to sharply defined or feathered edges, to dry-brush, to drips or spatters, to gestural slathers, to the underlying composition that formed the basis for whatever followed, whatever was applied last and hence, in de facto form, “was left at the surface?” Can the viewer figuratively “touch” the spirit of the artist by visually following the artist’s gesture? Can the viewer “be there” with the artist as he/she declares his/her intention to be? Can we comprehend the expressive effect of paint as presented by the artist – the artist as the expressor, the viewer as the one who “gets” the expression?
Hand-writing analysts can trace all manner of expression, from mood to personality through the careful observation of loops, dips, slants, apparent speed of application and even punctuation. So it is, for the trained eye in evaluating painting. The artist, just like the cursive writer, does not need to consciously direct his/her expression. They only need to apply the medium with which they are familiar and the expression will assert itself.
“Bowerbird,” by Robert W. Rondeau
Perhaps I am like an outdated form of humanity – an earlier form of homo-erectus in the process of giving way to the more advanced homosapiens, but many current art exhibits that concentrate on photo-documentation leave me thirsting for the mark of human expression. Mind and concept seem to have superceded expressive potential. Documentation of process is supposed to satisfy my desires to see product. Generally speaking, it does not satisfy me. I want to be in touch with process through understanding and observance of process as revealed by product – to mentally “feel” its humanity by seeing the expression as it was applied by a tool, a medium manipulated by a human hand. Seeing the painting, the product, I feel that I am in touch with at least the spirit of the artist as he/she made choices, and I can see the choices that were made.
I see the application of paint in the manner in which it was applied. Is it covering another layer? Was there once a figurative reference that has been covered over? Are the early passages completely obliterated or are they left to tantalize the viewer with possibilities? Are there passages of paint that bear upon some narrative, some story, some configuration that is alluded to? Perceived horizon lines often play into such analysis, but not always. Are shapes amorphous in nature or are they geo-structural? What are the architectonics of the painting? What moods or references can I draw from my reactions to the work? What can I draw upon from within my experience to bring understanding (my own understanding) to this work?
In other writings about the nature of abstraction, I have written that audiences will happily be guided by an actor into seeing that a simple broom, once it is seen as an abstraction, can become any long, stiff thing that the actor may choose to portray. It may become a rifle, a flag on a pole, a sword, a crutch, a dancing partner, a surprised person, the hand on a clock face, a drum major’s mace, a penis, a horse, the list is almost endless. Audiences that receive the coaching that the actor provides, delight in having their perceptions so expanded. They delight in recognizing so many possibilities. But faced with abstract art, people generally blanch or turn disagreeable because they get no coaching. They don’t know what may be made of the thing, so they assume that nothing may be made of it. They assume that it is a failure. I ask, “Whose failure is it?”
Artists do not want to limit what a viewer may see by itemizing references into specific interpretations. They depend upon viewers having creative, open, perhaps even educated minds to bring their own references forth and to see possibly many things in a single work. Just as the audience and its reaction to a theatrical performance helps to complete the piece, the viewer’s reaction and participation in seeing well helps complete the purposes of the art work.
Challenge yourself. Say to yourself, “If I suspend judgment on this piece that I am seeing, if I simply look at it, the piece will have an affect on me. It will evoke a mood or suggest some reminiscence. Why does the work do that for me? Is it in the colours, the configuration, the scale, the depth, the application of paint? Visual elements in the work have caused me to examine personal references. What are they and why are they being evoked in me?”
Understanding creativity and being able to bring some creativity to the process of viewing abstract art helps, but suspending judgment until the work has been fully read, fully seen, is the vital first step toward getting something out of your own creativity which has been prompted, but not specifically guided, by someone else’s creativity.
I have enjoyed the process for many years. I hope you can enjoy it too.