Abstract art really is a contentious facet of the art world. Though it dominates a vast proportion of major galleries around the globe, the lingering response to its rejection of realism, is: “my five year old could have painted that!” Whilst it is so important that everybody speaks their own mind, when it comes to art – hating or loving whatever they like – that won’t stop us from making a case for the sheer power and wonder of abstract art. We think that writing off vast proportions of art off as juvenile, overlooks some of the best stuff out there! With this in mind, this post marks the first instalment in our Abstract Art mini series. We’re going to open by discussing shapes – those flat areas of colour that make up the surface of many abstract works. They’re such a fundamental part of everything we see, and yet we never think too much about them. From Mondrian, to Matisse, to Malevich – shapes can be manipulated in a multitude of different ways – with infinitely differing results.
What Is Abstract Art?
The word abstract points to the idea of something conceptually fluid – detached from solid, graspable things and ideas. As a result, abstract art doesn’t try to literally depict things as we perceive them in the real world. Rather, it is a more suggestive mode of expression, that gives a subjective form to anything in the universe – tangible or intangible.
The origins of abstract art is hard to empirically pin down (as most things are in the world of art history). Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, is now regarded as one of the very first abstract artists. As a female artist, she hasn’t been given the same level of attention as other major abstract artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky; however, in recent years there are many scholars and institutions trying to redress this imbalance. She was painting predominantly towards the end of the nineteenth century, and into the first few decades of the twentieth century. She stands as the perfect exemplar for abstract art because she wished to surpass the physical world in her art, and speak to the internal world of her audiences; and she chose to use an abstract arrangement of shapes and colour on canvas to do so.¹ Look at her 1915 work The Swan, No. 17, for example. This work is not a photorealistic painting of a swan. Rather, it is a composition of geometric shapes, that speaks to a world of symbols, and conceptual ideas. It is an aesthetic representation of all of the things that a swan represents, in the mind of Hilma af Klint. We may relate to this metaphysical representation, or we might just like the way that it looks! Whilst abstract art may seem more complex than a realist work of art, it can have many more points of access to many more people. So, abstract art is varied, open, fluid, pretty much always subjective – and as Mondrian described it: it “ignore[s] the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary it […] find[s] its expression in the abstraction of form and colour”.²
With all of this in mind, we would now like to show you a few of our own abstract artists, whose work is dominated by the use of shapes. Each of them demonstrates that shapes can be used, in art, in a multitude of ways, for a multitude of different reasons.
Emily Foley – DJCAD.
The clear-cut, graphic screen prints of Emily Foley, place the concept of ‘shape’ conceptually, and literally, at the centre of her work. Fitting with our definition of abstract art, her work does not depict tangible things, or clearly defined narratives. Rather, she fuses together minimalist plains and “complicated structural mazes”, to create unique, illusionistic designs. She references Lionel Penrose alongside her work – co-creator of the Penrose Triangle illusion; an illusionistic form described as “impossibility in its purest form”. This speaks to Foley’s pursuit of a very similar paradox – the creation of designs that are at once satisfyingly simple, and, at the same time, entirely impenetrable. For example, in her Untitled 4, there is no differentiation between a beginning, a middle and an end – this is a tortuous mass of brightly coloured shape, of which the viewer has no chance of properly unpicking. Yet, its contrast with the block-white background tames the “impossibility” into a fixed place – this is deeply satisfying. As a result, Foley’s work demonstrates that a work of art, made up of abstract shapes, can have a truly visceral effect on those viewing it; as well as being a gorgeous aesthetic sight.
Sophia Pauley – ECA.
Sophia Pauley’s influences stem from water environments: lakes, swimming pools, and the sea, especially. She gives solid, geometric form to the fluidity (literally) of water; extracting interesting forms, and bringing them together as cohesive, three-dimensional abstracts. She brings together elements of moving water and reflections, and fuses them with the architectural forms that surround these watery places. For example, Emborio demonstrates her ability to see a vibrant, living place, and deconstruct it into its fundamental form – a composition of geometric shapes, that the eye fuses into the image of a place. Even its most natural elements, are rendered as geometric shapes. This work is not a realistic landscape painting of Emborio, but ultimately it is an arrangement of abstract shapes that expresses her perception of the scene. Furthermore, this work demonstrates something about human perception.
The shapes she uses are, of course, two dimensional forms of acrylic paint. However, she has placed them in such as way as to create a convincingly three dimensional scene. As a result, she highlights the fact that we discussed in the introduction of this post – shapes are a fundamental part of our universe – they make up the forms of everything we see. Thus, it seems that in the process of creating an shape-based abstract work of art, Pauley has created an image of the skeleton of Emborio. The shapes that exist behind its living, moving reality.
Taylor Lyle – ECA.
Taylor Lyle uses shapes to express her experience of Dyslexia. Personal, cognitive experience is not necessarily best expressed through the perfect rendering of realistic forms, or stories. Thus, Lyle constructs the “ultimate illusion experience” of Dyslexia, for the viewer, by making us feel the process of disrupted cognition. For example, in Vvvvviiinnn has attempted to disrupt the cognitive processes of the viewer in two dominating ways. Firstly, she has disturbed the action of linearly ‘reading’ the painting from left to right. The horizontal lines, starting from the left of the painting, draw the viewer’s eye straight across the design. Over half way across the scene, the eye is led into a severe vertical drop, which jars the comfortable linear progression; and which, additionally, creates a visceral sense of dizziness – as the lines start to move and wiggle. Secondly, her use of luminous pink and green penetrates the eye so strongly, that it is almost painful to look at. We know that Lyle won’t take offense to this statement, because she claims that she wants this response from her viewers. It is her ultimate aim, to produce a work of art that is too much for the human brain to process. By proxy, this gives the viewer a fraction of an idea of what it is like for her to experience Dyslexia on a day to day basis. Thus, she has used abstract art to evoke the experience of her brain – something that a realist work of the same subject, may struggle to properly express.
So – abstract art can express many different things, ideas, and concepts. The beauty of it is that it really is the aesthetic embodiment of freedom of speech – using any of the form and colours available in the universe, artists can evoke the things they think, feel, and see in absolutely any way that feels right (or wrong!) to them. There is never an expectation to like any kind of art – we do not believe in the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art dichotomy – but personally, we feel that abstract art really is an incredible facet of the art world, that we absolutely love.
That is all we have for you today. We really hope you’ve enjoyed reading a little bit more about abstract art; and a few of our incredible new artists, who are doing justice to that facet of the art world. As always, thank you for reading!