So when we drove out here to Maryland, a good fried of mine, Ike, drove one of our cars so that I could drive the moving van. After Ike and I arrived, we took the opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art, which was great. We wandered through museum, enjoying the impressive but expected displays of the names you learn in middle-school art history class. But where things really got interesting was in the “modern” art section. Ike is a painter and print maker who recently earned his MFA, so he made the ideal museum perusing companion. Ike’s work builds on the tradition of the abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollack
and Mark Rothko
I admit, I have a hard time interpreting abstract art. On the one hand, I feel sure that the impulse to identify some mimetic referant for the work is a mistake, or misses the point all together. On the other hand, if you don’t judge a work of art based on its ability to capture effectively that which it seeks to represent, how do you judge it? Trained artists might talk about elements of composition like the use of colors, shapes, blank space, or whatever, but the uninitiated would be at a loss if asked to interpret a work of art based on those criteria. But if only trained artists can understand or appreciate abstract art, then that would suggest that abstract art is simply a mind game for the elite, those who have nothing better to do than wait for their trust fund money to come in and dribble pain on canvas.
I don’t know how to resolve these conflicting feelings about abstract art. For my part, I approach it with three ideas in mind. First, I recognize that the historical context for this art is as a reaction to the realist movement that preceded it and that abstract art is pointing out the failure of realist representations–or at least the failure of the artist to achieve via paint what the photo can do better, even in the hands of an amateur. This recognition that even the most “realistic” paintings fail to actually capture “the thing in itself” helps me get past my impulse to think of abstract art as simply random.
Second, I think of Poe’s argument that the aim of literature (and by extension other arts) is to generate an effect. He writes:
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view- for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest- I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone- whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone- afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
While I may dispute his treatment of the artist as a fully autonomous actor, I think he is exactly right to point the reader/viewer away from what a poem/painting may represent and towards what a poem/painting does. In fact, I imagine that even traditional, representational artists would appreciate this shift in a viewer’s perspective.
Third, and finally, I consider an abstract painting in terms of piercing. (See Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida.) I begin by observing the piece as expansively and as passively as I can, and then I “allow” some element to reach across the distance between the image and me (sorry for the metaphysical language here) and “pierce” me (again, I’m using Barthes’ language). Said another way, I let some element of the work stick out for me and draw my attention to it. I then consider why and how that particular element affected me and what that might say about myself and the work.
Let me give you an example using one of Ike’s prints (since showing off his stuff was the point of this post in the first place). Consider Rontgen III, an Digital print, Acrylic on Masonite:
This is a photo of a wire sculpture printed onto a piece of masonite with addition painting added to the print by the artist. What strikes me (pierces me) in this piece is the plastic tube that circles the sculpture. The wire sculpture is a three dimensional object, but by being photographed it has been turned into a two dimensional object. To be sure, it retains many of its three dimensional elements, but not all of them. The tube, on the other hand, exudes its three dimensionality in spite of the process that now renders it a two dimensional object. It is as if possesses some essence which refuses to be flattened, which resists the (perhaps) excessive processing of the sculpture that seeks to reconstruct it from one type of media to something else.
Anyway, that’s just me. Here are a few more of Ike Bushman’s pieces. You can also see his online gallery here, which I highly recommend. In the mean time, give my method of approaching abstract art a shot and let me know what you come up with. I’m curious to know if my method is useful for other viewers who, like me, are not art historians.
Higgsboson- The God Particle, 2009
Rontgen IV, 2009
Higgsboson – The God Particle V, 2009
Gods will be Gods I, 2007