Assignment 2: Abstraction: Serendipity


I’m defining abstraction rather generally. Yet, I understand abstraction as a process: abstraction FROM something… But my problem with abstraction is, what subject matter do I begin with? Or do try to come at abstraction from another route? I identify three basic types of abstraction which do not rely on observation: geometric, intuitive and serendipitous.

Obviously, if, rather than being inspired by those artists who were trying to make visual sense of their world, Cubists, Orphists, Futurists, the terms of reference are those dogmatists of “pure” abstraction- Mondrian and Plastic art, Malevich and Suprematism- then anything which seems to imitate nature would be considered mere representation. What was left to those artists as their subject matter then? The language of art- pure form: balancing shapes, colours, lines. Those elements belong only to art, and thus define its being. Renaissance art provided idealised images of man, but Plastic art paints itself in its own terms. These could become spiritual and mystical – symbols of an eternal language.  Or geometry.

The course designer suggests looking at renaissance art to identify the “pure” forms that underly its compositional structure: the triangle, the hemisphere, shapes which are symbolic of the beliefs in the holy trinity, of the dome of the heavens above. Lines of congruence which direct our eye in a painting, which tell us how to “see” what’s more important, the truth of the universe.

Personally, though, I don’t privilege maths over nature, and when Coleridge writes of “that eternal language which thy God utters”, he means the natural world, and this chimes much more with my emotional instincts. Besides, some abstraction, such as Hilma af Klimt’s, seems to have been illustrative- symbolic representations of a system of belief- or in other words, what we would now term graphics. Agnes Martin, however, is one artist who has put the mysticism back into geometric abstraction, by privileging the process of line-making as meditation. This is something I have experimented with, and find satisfying.

Influenced by the claims of psychoanalysis, painters such as Kandinsky created abstract images inspired by dreams, or music- in this case, putting on canvas images which were “seen” in the mind, not based on external observation. This is a more intuitive approach, which could be seen as the precursor of abstract expressionism, of action painting, gesture, or of colour field painting. This is an approach that puts emotion and instinct in the forefront.

Max Ernst used frottage as a way of making patterns, which he then developed into fantasy images, responses to what he saw in the patterns- the frottage process being a kind of randomising process to get him thinking out of the box. Ernst is considered to belong to the group of Surrealists, for whom random juxtapositions challenged perception and remade reality. This was serendipitous, and opens the way for seeing the familiar strangely, for repositioning and reinterpreting the world of our direct experiences.

If I consider abstraction without the capital A, though, it is a process of distancing. That may mean distancing in time, or place or space, or emotionally: it may mean generalising, or conceptualising. It may mean shaking off the normal associations that objects have. And in doing so it may create new ways of seeing, rules and laws, like those of Plasticism, Cubism or Suprematism. To that extent then, it is the process of modernisation of art at the start of the 20th century, and the forerunner of all the movements and -isms that rejected photographic realism. Which makes the topic of this assignment rather broad.

These “abstract” shapes are made by inking squares of tarlatan, and folding them, fraying the material, using a mask, duplicating- it’s a type of collograph technique in that it’s a relief made from material placed onto a surface, but the transparency of the object, and the lightness of the lines make it suggestive of something floating in space or swimming in liquid. But is this abstract? Its clear what the material is, even though the way it has been printed is suggestive of something other than what it is composed of. I could use the patterns created to make another abstract design, an arrangement of shapes. but am not sure how I could improve on it. The fine lines would be hard to achieve in any other way, but I could try something labour-intensive and  meditative. Or these random patterns could become part of another image, reminiscent of the way Ernst used frottage.

What is clear to me though, is that there is a link between process and meaning: if the lines are made laboriously, that is part of their meaning, if they are light- like these, and have touched the paper for only a brief moment, which has captured a particular arrangement that is actually temporary, then that is part of their meaning. And that, I think, is what I’m trying to work out here in this foray into “abstraction’- a match between the way the marks are made and their meaning.





Author: chrisocaprintingblog

Studying visual arts part-time with the Open College of the Arts

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