Monday, February 17, 2014

Abstract Musings

Tomorrow evening in my weekly Tuesday evening painting workshop we’ll be pushing paint around with the goal of creating what I'd like to call delocalized beauty. 

Delocalized (adj.): 1. To remove from a native or usual locality; 2. To broaden the range or scope of.

Modern art generally dispenses with the conventionally beautiful as unreal, uncourageous, outdated, superficial, sentimental, and an impediment to doing what modern art is supposed to do: Wake people up. Beauty as Western art has known it flees from tough-guy talk like that.

So we'll use a floral theme to try to get the jump on it.  We are going to let go of figuration (the element of image) and paint the feeling of appreciating flowers rather than painting the flowers themselves. 

My own abstract floral, "All the Sweet Tints," a 14" x 30 " floral abstract (the allusion is to a garden, actually)

“I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them," said Jackson Pollock.

Is abstract art, then, about feeling? Were the abstract expressionists like Pollock just painting their feelings? No, they were also hurling themselves against a wall that Pablo Picasso had built right in middle of Western Art. After Cubism, where could "important" painting go? 

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

They discovered new territories and how to get there; their work further widened the definition of art's possibilities, insisting, like the Cubists and the post-Impressionists and the Impressionists before them, that art could and should accommodate more than the conventionally beautiful and the serene, making room for big ideas about civilization, time, eternity, powerful forces of natural energy, and the relationship between the human psyche and the universe at large. Most art history books talk about all this in terms of the formal pictorial elements and the history of Western art, giving ordinary viewers of art very little to go on. 

The Swan, Ryan Cobourn, from a series incorporating classical mythology
How can we, tomorrow night, credibly present the feeling of seeing flowers without painting the flowers? 

I like Brooklyn painter Ryan Cobourn's answer. In this essay/interview he discusses the WHY of what he does and also incidentally hints at the how (I think you learn more from getting the "why" of what artists do than you do from the "how" in any case.)

I like what he says about illusionistic painting (realism) vs. what he does when he removes the representational image but leaves in shapes and colors that, to him, are associated with and suggest - allude to - the subject.

"In abstract painting you don’t have illusion—like illusion of space—but you have allusion. Allusion is way more interesting to me than anything else.- Ryan Cobourn

This distinction strikes me as analogous to that between prose (illusion) and poetry (allusion). It’s what I like about Eric Aho’s recent landscapes too.

For me, paintings like these have an extra dimension of pathos and significance; because of how they're painted, they also allude to the act of painting itself - the very human need to explore perception and our relationship to nature by scratching our little images out on the wall of history.

I also think the work of a different Ryan, Ryan Coleman, has something relevant to say about our purposes this week (abstraction with floral motif). 

Season of Light, Ryan Coleman

Untitled (Commission for the Ritz-Carleton Wash. D.C.)
This painterly work is lush with the colors, textures, and above all the feelings associated with flowers and plant life - all without painting an image of a single leaf or petal. 

Perhaps you think some of this contemporary work doesn’t get much beyond the "Ab/Ex" guys, de Kooning, Pollock or Frankenthaller… 

.... should that matter? No, you say? Perhaps you’re very right. Just as it wouldn't matter if you're painting landscapes and not "going beyond" Aldro Hibbard. Yet, this was very important to the Ab/Ex guys - they did what they did specifically to "get beyond" the precedents set by the artists that immediately preceded them. Can we have it both ways?

To me, most of these paintings work just as well as much of what I see out there and in many cases much better. What do you think? 

Ryan Coleman, Limey
A lot of people, even painters, look at art like this and, because it puzzles them since it doesn't look like or do what they assume art is supposed to, they say “meh - my kid could do that.” But painting effective abstract art is probably more difficult than painting realistically; it demands that the artist approach all of the basic tools and techniques of painting with a super high degree of knowledge and sensitivity to their inherent properties and their raw emotional value.

At any rate, learning something of the language of abstraction cannot but help you as a painter, for I firmly believe you DO need both, the language of realism and that of abstraction, in your toolbox.

I also believe it’s not that some folks just “know what they like,” as they say, but rather that, in many cases, they really just like what they know. The general public didn’t really understand or like the French Impressionists as they do now until after at least 1950. By analogy, that would put the beginning of mainstream appreciation for abstract expressionism at about 2035. I'm convinced that we're well on our way.

Ryan Coleman


  1. Thoughtful and interesting. I love "All the Sweet Tints".

  2. Thank you Chris, interesting indeed. I think Ryan Coleman has it spot on - His paintings are gorgeous.

    1. They are. The newer ones are as well, only they no longer seem tied to the natural world.

  3. Some great ideas! . . . about your workshop, but also your thoughts and reflections on "abstract art" . . . Even though I'm thousands of miles away, I'm going to do the same: create a painting according to your class goals. (/our class has become "virtual" !!)

  4. Replies
    1. Ha! That's great, Grant! If you like, email me the result and I'll include it in a follow up post!

  5. This has been a fascinating blog posting....don't know how i stumbled upon your blog but i'm so happy to have found it, and you! your paintings are amazing and beautiful!

    i'll keep following your words and images for sure...thanks!
    cheers, Linda

  6. Hi Linda Thanks much for your kind words. I'll try to live up to them :-)

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