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Monday, March 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on Approaching Abstract Paintings

By Keith Garrow

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? …people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” -Pablo Picasso

What Picasso says about understanding art is very relevant to how we approach abstract paintings. Many people think that abstract paintings must have a specific meaning of some sort, which could be clearly understood and articulated if only they knew how. This misconception is not helped by the endless supply of people prepared to spout nonsense about what they think the artist was trying to say. The almost inevitable consequence of this situation is that people can either feel as though they are being excluded from sharing in some secret knowledge, or alternatively conclude that abstract painting is in fact all a sham. Either way, the result is that many people do not feel well-disposed towards modern art or abstract paintings.

I certainly identify with Picasso's remark as far as my own paintings are concerned. If I had a specific message or a meaning that I could articulate in words, then I would articulate it in words – the painting would have no purpose. The whole point of creating an abstract painting is that it embodies something that only it can, in a way that cannot be put into words. It is not an essay it is a painting – it encompasses and expresses things in a language that is unique to the medium of paint. That is why we should not try to ‘understand’ abstract paintings in the way people sometimes feel they ought to be able to.
The viewer should not look for a clear narrative in an abstract painting - it is not going to tell a story, or refer to an external ‘subject’ in the same way that a figurative painting will. But that does not mean there is no meaning or no subject, or that abstract paintings cannot communicate with and move people. When asked about subject matter, the Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock said,

“I am the subject”

Pollock’s statement is not just true, it is inevitable.
The experiences, personality, memories and mood of the abstract artist cannot help but be fed into the painting if the artist approaches the work in an open and honest way. I do not need an external subject or idea before I can create a painting – I simply begin. The fact that I am me and no-one else is what makes my work different to anyone else’s, and the same is true of all artists. The colours I choose, the marks a make, the accidents I choose to leave, or to obliterate, these are all things that I choose because of who I am.
If you were to present several different artists with the same basic design on a canvas and ask them to pick up a brush and develop the painting, the differences in what they would choose to do would be enormous. I have watched other abstract artists at work on paintings and thought “I would never in a million years have chosen that colour and put it there.” Not because I think it is wrong or bad, but because they are who they are and (to quote that other leading artist, Morrisey!) “only I am I”.

Having said all that, I would not wish to defend absolutely all things that are referred to as abstract painting. I am no academic and would shy away from attempting to define what is and isn’t art, but these ramblings of mine are intended to refer to what, for the sake of convenience, I will call fine art. There is an increasing quantity of work around today where the approach is not that of an artist, but an interior designer (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t get too confused about the difference).
The ideas on abstract painting which I have been discussing, are clearly not relevant to those thousands of paintings that are churned out to a series of set formulae, patterns and colours, with the primary intention of being quick to produce and looking cool above someone’s sofa. I don’t believe that the approach to abstract painting that I have been trying to expand on is relevant to this area of work, where the paintings appear to be carried out to a pre-determined plan, to create a known and safe design, rather than something new and unique, which embodies something of the artist. Please understand that I have nothing against this work, it just isn’t the kind of painting I am concerned with here.

“My five year old kid could have done that!”

An often raised criticism of many types of contemporary art, not just abstract painting. It is useful here to refer to our friend Picasso again, who said

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”.

I think one of the main reasons for this criticism is the assumption that any artist ought ideally to be painting like Raphael, and is trying to but failing badly. So it is largely a misunderstanding about the artist’s intentions, often based on a lack of information about developments in modern art. Of course Picasso didn’t literally paint like a child, but he was referring to the direct, unfettered approach with which a child is able to express itself. What a child cannot have is the tremendous facility with paint that Picasso had, which enabled him to express himself without any breakdown between the urge to express and the means of doing it. What Picasso and other artists had to work at was the child-like directness that we all have before we are told what is pretty, ugly, incorrect, proper, etc.
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