Friday, October 18, 2013

Call of the Abstract: Truth or Lies?

Galaxy - acrylic - 17'x17" -1999
Knowing that my painting activity this year was likely to be interrupted by trips to England to deal with family matters, I set myself a modest assignment: a series of small non-representational paintings on canvas boards. It had been a long time since I did any abstract painting--here's one example that I still like--and it felt like the right time to try it again. I had learned a lot from painting from photographs, but my last year's work--a series of artists painting or drawing ( Please see Meet the Artists, this blog, November 13, 2012) had taken me as far as I wanted to go in that direction. Apart from a pair of landscapes for a group show, all my painting time this year has been spent creating images that have no basis in reality and not even a mental picture as a starting point. Copying, whether from the real world or from photos, plays no part in this process. My initial intention with each new piece is simply to create . . . something. When it seems to be completed and I can sign and frame it, it is . . . what it is.

This all sounds nebulous and hard to defend. Yet I am certainly not breaking any new ground. Abstract painting is a hundred years old, and Jackson Pollock, perhaps the most famous--or notorious--of the American Abstract Expressionists, died in 1956! My modest little efforts are in the tradition of artists who sought to escape the limitations of realistic representation by creating something from scratch, with as little conscious forethought as possible. It sounds as if it ought to be easy, and occasionally it is; but my experience has been that, while nothing could be simpler than to produce a bad abstract work, creating a good one (and who's to say what that is, anyway?) is almost unbearably difficult. The problem is that there are no external reference points as there are with representational images. A building that won't stand up, water that flows uphill, clouds pasted on a sky . . . all look "wrong" in a landscape. And everyone has a mental picture of how people's faces and limbs should "go" --which is probably why Picasso's distortions continue to cause such bewilderment and derision. But in an abstract work there are no guidelines apart from one's intuitive sense of colour, composition, line, balance--the elements of painting.

Having decided that I needed to do the opposite of painting realistically, or even interpretively, from photos, I was looking for a way to get started when, as often happens, one fell into my lap. An artist called Anita Nairne came to a meeting of the Vancouver Sketch club to give a presentation on her approach to "Intuitive Painting." Anita had her audience members cover a surface with splotches and streaks of paint, working without thought or planning. Next we propped up each piece and studied it from a few feet away, turning the rectangle in all four directions and discussing what images we "saw" in the chaotic mess. The next step, after choosing the preferred orientation, is to pick out the images or shapes one wants to keep and develop, and outline them in chalk. These form the basis of the composition, which can then be completed however the artist wishes.

Anita is not an abstract artist, as you can see from the work on her website, . However, I saw right away that her method could be applied to abstract shapes, and I began to try it. I used the leftover paint on my palette to daub on my first canvas board, with the results shown.

View 1
View 2
 I settled on View 2 and began a back-and-forth process of over-painting and redrawing as I tried to wrestle the raw beginnings into a finished product. I constantly heard in my head the voice of Lucy Hogg, one of my first painting instructors, as she exhorted her students to "listen to the painting," but to be very careful, because, she would add with a wicked little smile, "It will tell you lies!"

Any artist will tell you that one of the most difficult decisions is when to stop working on a painting, and I've found that even more of a challenge with this way of working. There's the constant danger of pushing the composition too far and losing what one liked about it before. Nevertheless, I do reach a point where I feel comfortable about quitting. My first "Intuition" ended up like this:
Intuition 1 - acrylic - 11"x14" - 2013

 I decided not to give the paintings individual titles, even though I like naming things and some of the images are suggestive of living forms or of quasi-narratives. Just giving them numbers seems to liberate them from specific meaning and to give free rein to the imagination. Here are the next two, the same size as the first:
Intuition 2
Intuition 3 
Intuition 5
At this point I made a mistake and bought a packet of boards that I thought were the same size but were in fact ten inches high instead of eleven. I am at present working on Intuition 9. The process continues to be exasperating, time-consuming, and fascinating to the point of obsession. Each time I have absolutely no idea what the finished product will look like. Now I have them grouped together on the studio wall I am pleased with the effect. But I don't really know what to make of them. What do you think: are they telling me the truth, or lies?
Intuition 4

Intuition 8
Intuition 6


Intuition 7 - acrylic - 10"x14" - 2013