A friend recently asked me, somewhat rhetorically, how do you teach about abstraction in a workshop? It's a hard question...although in the few days allotted to me, I show the work of a number of abstract artists, talk about my own process and ideas--and, in my Level 2 classes, address conceptual concerns directly--there is no time to delve deeply into this topic.
Yet without background knowledge and a context in which to place it, abstraction can seem fairly meaningless… limited to moving paint around until something looks cool. Which is certainly a start, but where to go from there?
A conceptual basis of some sort seems to me the key to working in a fresh and original way –the work needs to arise from a personal center —perhaps rooted in specific, definable ideas, but more likely in a synthesis of source material of multiple origins...personal experience, memory, emotion, intriguing aspects of the visual world, perhaps some area of study such as science or mathematics...plus an awareness of art from other times and places, and that of accomplished contemporaries. (See last week's post for further thoughts on the importance of knowing a bit of art history.)
The artist must also bring into play all the basic elements of art—color, composition, alignment of form and content, and all the rest--since technical accomplishment is a given for strong work.
To me it is this synthesis that marks a mature artist. The ability to create an interesting visual stew from the many ingredients of a complex life is a skill that takes years. It’s a compelling challenge—at its heart is the powerful idea of creating meaning out of one’s own experience.
Sean Scully’s work (above) is an excellent example of this synthesis of many aspects of life, distilled into powerful painting. It works as strong formal abstraction, as process oriented painting, and as personal expression. His sources for ideas are as diverse as the stone walls in the Irish Aran Islands, the way that Irish society has in his words become more “chequered,” his many travels worldwide, his sense of spirituality, impressions of historical painters, human relationships, and many other aspects of life--some of which I'd guess are difficult to define, if he is anything like the rest of us! (For an interesting, in-depth interview, click here
Knowing something about how Scully works and thinks opens up a broad view of abstract painting that is inspiring and energizing. It is this exciting, encompassing view of what abstraction can address that compels my own work.
(Above, a recent 20”x16” painting, as yet untitled…sources for this painting are in the process itself, the rich textures of the Irish landscape, rust and weathered wood, thoughts about aging...)