A Way to Look at Abstract Art
Published in the January 2017 issue of Nashville Arts Magazine in my column “And So it Goes.”
by Rachael McCampbell
How many times have you walked past an abstract painting without stopping because you simply didn’t get it? Or, perhaps a judgmental voice crept in—A kindergartener could have painted that! When you pick up your paints and try this yourself, you will understand how difficult this sort of painting actually is. For me, the reduction process of stripping away representational imagery to express thoughts or feelings is a struggle. I equate the difference between representational and abstract art to country versus classical music. With country, you can connect to a story and music, but with classical, it’s only the music. Without words, how do you know what the composer is trying to express? Not withstanding research into the artist’s intentions, you simply take the music in on a visceral level and feel it. This is a good approach to abstract art as well—only later getting more analytical.
To practice this skill, I have chosen abstract paintings by two highly accomplished artists—Rebecca Crowell and Anton Weiss. They are both painters who segued from a representational to an abstract style.
When I first saw Rebecca’s painting Swedish Red #1, it stopped me in my tracks. Since there was nothing there for my literal mind to connect with, I was forced to rely on my right brain to take in the colors, shapes, etc., to inform my feelings. I responded first to the overall juxtaposition of reds and cream tones—a flesh-and-blood combination that moved me. I felt something wordless, preverbal. The texture harkens to cave paintings, marks made by long-gone human hands.
As an art teacher, I studied Rebecca’s painting using the vocabulary of the elements and principles of art and design, which helps when observing all types of art. Where is the focal point or emphasis? My eye is drawn to the white scratches in the upper left quadrant, then moves to an arced line that connects the major shapes. The negative, cream-colored spaces help balance the heavier umber color in the upper left side, and the contrast of light to dark values gives the painting its punch. Rebecca’s brushy earth tones result in a unified harmony of shapes that evoke memories of landscapes, two hands touching, a heartbeat. Her intent to “evoke a spiritual and emotional connection through [her] memories and relationship with nature” succeeded.
After letting Anton Weiss’s painting Atonement wash over me, I felt energized yet peaceful. The maze of various sized shapes amidst equally toned fields of cool and warm colors are like puzzle pieces within a grid- like pattern. Being that it’s natural to look for identifiable forms within abstract art, at first glance I saw an aerial view of a desolate, desert town. Yet as is common with abstract art, when my gaze softened, I saw so much more. The focal point for me is primarily the red shapes in the upper left quadrant, but it’s Anton’s line and brushwork that give the painting its strength and life. Anton is a process-oriented artist who works intuitively without preplanning. This way of working shows, and, as a viewer, I feel I’m on this uncharted exploration with him, and it’s a satisfying journey!
What do you feel when you observe these paintings? Remember when viewing abstract art, try to stop— relinquish all preconceived notions, let go, and listen. You might be surprised by what you learn about art and yourself as a result.