Abstract thoughts

Abstract thoughts have been occupying my mind lately and I thought to share some with you in the hope that you might do likewise.

Preparing for a day’s workshop on Thinking in the abstract for the Lundy Art Group in Appledore I confronted once again the old chestnut of what exactly is abstract art and where the boundary lies between this and figurative (or realism, if you prefer) painting. Maybe with the exception of some bizarre anal-retentive form of photo realism, ALL fine art is an abstraction of perceived reality. Painters and even many photographers select and edit all the time. It is merely a case of degrees. Perhaps Rodin on his 172nd birthday would agree.

Philip Guston the great American expressionist towards the end of his life became increasingly infuriated with (‘pure’) abstraction and returned to a more figurative style. In a notebook found after his death in 1980, he said “American abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for poverty of spirit..." He went on...

"A mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be.”

Now, there’s a thing. Some of us might have privately come to a similar conclusion. There is some abstract art which is exhilarating but there is an awful lot just plain bad: masquerading as something better than it is; often sidestepping criticism because how can you criticize an unknowable? Despite Hodgkins’ mischievous titles you have to assess and respond to his glorious smaller works purely as assemblages of colour and form.

But wait, Guston wasn’t finished! His rant continued (and remember these were private notes not intended for publication), “It is laughable, this lie. Anything but this! What a sham! Abstract art hides it, hides the lie, a fake! Don’t! Let it show! It is an escape from the true feelings we have, from the ‘raw’, primitive feelings about the world – and us in it.” As Andrew Graham-Dixon, the eminent art critic, says, “Guston had more than earned the right to his misgivings.”

So when I got to thinking about this over again, I tried to refine my own doubts and put into some kind of perspective personal reservations and misgivings. If pushed, I always describe my work as semi-abstract (or semi-figurative, if you like, it’s the same thing) and judge progress on that whimsical balance between abstract marks colliding with Guston’s raw primitive feelings about the world and our place in it.

Anyone who knows my background (vid. Biography) won’t be surprised to learn that I see human beings as specialised primates first and civilised beings second ! Or, indeed, if you’ve read Desmond Morris’s classic The Naked Ape. It is exactly our place in the world that I believe should exercise the mind of any person with delusions about being an artist. If not, then you're probably a jobbing picture maker. There’s nothing wrong with that but if you’re selling those, you’d better understand that you are in the entertainment business. And galleries selling them aren’t really galleries but picture shops.

The ‘balance’ mentioned above becomes apparent if you look at a painting in detail, which I why I always include a detail on this site. [It is the sort of thing which television can do extraordinarily well, but doesn’t nearly enough.] In detail you can see the construction, doubts and uncertainties, the trials and thought processes and, if lucky, the resolution. It’s one reason why fakes are utterly dispiriting, with that slick gracelessness of ‘sham’ written all over them.

Have a look at two details from recent paintings Pine trees against a blue sky (detail) and Tree trunks against a blue sky (detail), then compare with the complete image Pine trees and Tree trunks. It might make it clearer than these poor words can. Any thoughts? You might agree or disagree, that's all part of it. You might not even have any view at all, though I doubt that.

Stephanie Y
- 14 September 2017 at 12:13pm

I love you sharing the detail of these two paintings before inviting us to see the whole. That is a very useful exercise and only reminds me that I respond to something wordless and nameless in art that strikes me viscerally and says 'This is real.' Your trees feel real to me. You paint from some place beyond ideas of what is abstract and figurative and so these trees live. Thanks.
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