“The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.”
– Lucian Freud
I’ve dusted off my oil paints and I’m about to embark on a long series of portrait studies. I plan to try out some varying approaches and ideas in the hope of developing my art practice and leading it into some sort of new visual territory (fingers crossed).
I’ve always been really into portraiture. I’m drawn towards just about every portrait I come across, no matter what style or technique has been used. Whenever I resume my own portrait painting practice though I find myself simultaneously looking at lots of abstract paintings, and the more I paint and think about art, the more I merge the two genres together.
During my early days of drawing and painting and throughout school I thought of art as primarily being split into two main categories – abstract and representational. I liked copying things and reconstructing something 3 dimensional using a 2 dimensional format. And to this day the challenge of doing this still fascinates me. So, naturally I gravitated towards representational art. It is also what I was mainly taught at school. Abstract art was thought of as being this strange but cool kind of art that was way over there. It was something completely different and separate, something ‘other’.
At the time it seemed that both categories served different purposes and I battled with this idea throughout my time at art school – the idea that you were either an abstract painter or a representational painter.
I remember coming across the famous painting by René Magritte, titled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” which translates as “This is not a pipe”.
The title/text serves as a reminder that you’re not looking at an actual pipe – it’s merely a representation of that object. It’s an arrangement of colour, tone and hue to create the 2 dimensional illusion of something 3 dimensional that is recognisable to us. Now, I know it’s obvious. Everyone knows it’s not an actual pipe, everyone realises it’s just a painting. But that got me thinking.. does a painting which represents something else only serve that purpose? Or does it become something unique in it’s own right? And can it become something else despite it’s blatant similarities to something we recognise in it? (Am I making much sense?!)
Then there’s the other way round.. it’s in our nature to apply familiarity to everything we see and experience. As humans we struggle with the totally unfamiliar, we struggle with something being completely abstract and alien and it’s not uncommon for us to apply some kind of visual or emotional association to an abstract image. We often see faces in images where there was no face originally depicted. Or we might perceive a blended wash of colour as being a sunset or the ocean. We rarely accept the image as just being all it is (or isn’t) in it’s purest form without even subconsciously attaching our own visual bias to it.
Since a very young age though I found myself doing the opposite – looking at something familiar and attempting to view it in an unfamiliar way. My love for basic physics (The Dummies Guide!) has played a part in the way I look at everything around me and I never accept what I see as being absolute. I see ambiguity in absolutely everything. Have you ever stared at your own face in the mirror for so long that it starts to look a bit weird? A bit alien? I kind of do that with just about every single thing I see. I look at the colours on each object and think about the group effort of the speed of light, my own eyesight and the colour’s relativity to its surrounding colours and how all of these things affect what I see, or think is there. So I reduce recognisable objects and imagery down to basic components of colour and shape and its surrounding environment/conditions and I (usually in the case of art) analyse the relationships between each component. I also think about that idea behind “If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one around to hear it, did it really happen?” Is everything a subjective simulation? No two human being experience the world in the exact same way and that extends to how we look at things, how we observe.
When I was in my final year at art school I gave some of my fellow students a smallish bit of primed board and I gridded them into small squares. I handed them all the same image of a section of a face (which was also gridded in the same way) and asked them all to paint the colours that best represented the overall colour within in each square of the face. When I placed the finished pieces side by side there were noticeable differences between all of them and no two palettes were the same. For example, some had a greener tint and some used a lot of purple and brown hues. The results highlighted just how subjective and unique our own senses are, even when looking at the exact same thing.
This idea propelled me forward through years of ‘documenting’ my own sensory input/output which is why, when I paint a portrait or a cityscape, I dissect it, forcing myself to consider each part of the image and surface area with equal value and attention. I also want the outcome to highlight the fact that it is ultimately just a flat object which I have projected my biased observations onto.
Anyway, I digress..
My first real interest in abstract art happened during my first semester at Art School when I went to see Bridget Riley’s exhibition that was currently on at the GOMA. Her large paintings left a lasting impression on me for several reasons. I was struck by the physical effect her paintings had on me as the viewer, since up until then I thought that art was more inclined to cause an emotional effect. The horizontal lines appeared to move on the canvas depending on how near or far I stood from the painting. They would blend and bump into each other and I struggled to keep the lines apart. After a few minutes of staring at those lines I started to develop a mild headache and my eyes began to feel a bit strained. Although none of the lines were touching, my mind blended all the colours together and created movement from a static image. The painting seemed to be physically interactive rather than just something that was already established without the viewer’s input.
My own art practice has often fluctuated between abstract art and portraits and other recognisable imagery like cityscapes. The more I go between these genres the more I see them all with equal value and status and the less of a ‘gap’ there is between them. I seek a sense of familiarity in my abstract work and in turn I try to highlight the abstract nature of my portraits and cityscapes.
Portraits are a biggie though. There’s so much going on in a portrait and they can be absorbed by the viewer in countless ways. Is the painting/subject matter dealing with certain emotions? Is it about the person in the image or is it purely aesthetic? I think it’s human nature to gravitate towards the more emotional aspect of the painting and that is another way for the viewer to seek familiarity, to relate. I tend to go the opposite way and study the piece more literally and superficially, I observe the brush strokes and how each colour bounces off another to create this fantastic illusion of depth, not only physical depth but emotional depth. I’ll consider the ‘story’ behind the subject matter’s gaze, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the emotional atmosphere in the painting but my mind always goes back to thinking about it in a purely structural way. I’ll finally remove the human element of it almost altogether and view the whole painting as just a new object (which, technically, it is). I will judge it purely on it’s own merits, as paint being very well organised onto a canvas to create something that’s good to look at, even if the artist intended more than that. The only human aspect that I really think about is of the artist themselves. The person who painted it rather than who they’ve painted. How many hours/days/weeks did it take? What music were they listening to, if any? What were they thinking about? I’m usually more interested in that side of it than the finished piece, hence why I’m just as appreciative of photorealism.
Anyway I digress, again.
In this series of portraits I’m working on I want to consider what goes into a portrait and what comes out if it. I want to try and improve my colour mixing skills and explore new ways of applying the oil paint. I want to flirt with the conflicting concepts of each piece conveying certain emotions while ultimately remaining inanimate and ‘of itself’. I want them to be near the ‘border’ towards abstract and maybe occasionally crossing over. Or I want them to be on both sides at once. Depth vs flatness. Face vs colours and shapes. Meaning vs structure.
I’ll end this slightly over-run blog post with a wee mention of another favourite artist of mine, Paul Klee. Klee often challenged the principals behind abstract art and went in the direction of declaring that there is no such thing as being completely abstract and that everything is based around perception. He would often paint his observation of the environment around him in a way that was reduced to basic form and selective colour and tone. He would break the building or view down to it’s most basic visual elements, including the way the sunlight might effect it’s vibrancy and appearance through time. The artist’s input was extremely perceptive and familiar, yet the outcome appeared abstract and sometimes random.
I realise that this blog post is all over the place but I guess I’m just venting and trying in real time to make sense of what I’m doing so apologies for leading you down that winding path! (If you’re still reading).
I’ll continue to bounce my own (often nonsensical) thoughts around on canvas as well as this blog, exploiting the paralleled levels of how art is received with its contradictions and ambiguity. Above any other analysis or overthinking, it mostly comes down to the fact that I love making pictures for other people to look at. So I’ll leave it there. 🙂