The Nature of My Abstraction

APRIL SHOWER, acrylic on canvas, 24×18

I HESITATE when people refer to my artwork as “abstract.” It is true — at least in the sense that all art is abstract. 

The most beautifully rendered portrait or landscape, after all, has been re-sized from its original and is two-dimensional, and, upon close examination, simply a pattern of brushstrokes.

The well-articulated nose combines several lines to portray the real thing. But it is not a nose. From across the room, a series of lines becomes a colorful lake. But they are just that: lines. 

However clever, it is all a fiction.

Abstract is defined as “disassociated from any specific instance,” “difficult to understand,” and “insufficiently factual.” These describe many of my images: nonlinear and mysterious colors and shapes rising from my subconscious, unscripted. 

Yet they are not a fiction. They come from a reservoir of experience: the people I’ve met, the books I read, the news I hear, the places I’ve been, and most of all, how I spend my days.

*          *          *

ON MY WAY to the Connecticut River, I walk dirt roads scored with tire treads separating oblong fields that never look the same;

through thick woods layered with intertwining limbs and clutching vines curling and climbing in all directions;

across meandering streams that ripple when startled mallards splash or a beaver slaps its tail, continually changing with current and light.

The benefits of walking are many. Fresh air and exercise, of course; thinking time; sensory perception. 

Walking provides a unique experience of my landscape.

Magnolia from afar is a ruffled flock of pink-and-cream feathers descending from the sky that swells in size and gradually comes into sharp focus, clearer and more bird-like with every stride, until I stand dwarfed by its side in sight of each delicate flower. 

Each step a slight kaleidoscopic turn to the tempo of my shoes striking dirt, air breezy, lightly fragrant.

At a distance, dark, flat tobacco barns punctuate the fields at angles, pencils in a lawn. Half a mile beyond, a row of giant oaks leaf out along the river, while 20 miles south rise the rounded, rolling hills of the purple Holyoke Range.

As I advance step by step, the nearest barn’s sagging joists gradually are exposed through rotting shingles like ribs of a mastodon. Bittersweet vines inflame its weather-beaten sides.

Drawing closer, a second shape appears and grows, a parallelogram: the behemoth’s black shadow.

Then I am even with the door walking through the shifting shadow, now a trapezoid, deciphering random knotholes, rusty hinges, toothy gaps. 

Birds and the odor of ripe soil flank my approach.

In a car, sound and smell are muted, sight a blur. Even running or on a bicycle, the barn comes and goes like time-lapse photography compared to my slow, steady zoom.

*          *          *

I MOSTLY PAINT to turn privilege into beauty; be a witness; face the future.

There are my inner truths that cannot be expressed in any other way. To access them, I must trust and follow my instincts.

The painting that begins in my subconscious is not a literal representation (which is a form of fiction), but what I take away from my experience. 

I draw symbols from my surface life to express some deeper thought or feeling that words cannot express or I’ve forgotten or repressed, from the morning news, perhaps, or originating months or years ago.

Like nature itself, they have the force of life but sometimes confound or contradict.

However mysterious or one-sided, a holistic painting begins with the heart and ends with the brain. Neither is complete without the other. 

The colors I choose, the textures I raise, the design I make combine to tell a story — not just any story, but my story.

I tell it to tell something of our story.

2 Replies to “The Nature of My Abstraction”

  1. The subconscious is indeed the source of all art. But does it know how to draw or paint? No. It speaks, if you let it, through the body to the page or canvas, yet it speaks in fragments, half truths, muddy and only partly formed. It is the task of the conscious mind to exert its will to fashion meaning from mud. The doodling of the subconscious must be tweaked into some meaningful form, which takes skill and experience, a visual awareness of art history and an openness to the time in which we live. The doodles of the subconscious form a feedback loop with the conscious mind and from this collaboration art emerges. In sum, I believe art is above all a self exploration. Whether it captures the imagination of the random spectator, whether it communicates some inchoate feeling, is of course to be desired, but it’s not the point. Rather it is the deepening of the artist’s own relationship to the world. A selfish focus that achieves an unselfish end.

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