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Approaching Abstraction: engaging with abstract artworks

Do abstract artworks confound you or leave you cold?

Don’t let your lack of understanding prevent you from engaging with abstract art.

Through analysis of the pictorial surface, we can begin to engage with abstract artworks, discovering new connections previously unseen. Greta Laundy, Flinders Walk (detail), late March 2017, oil on canvas, 76 x 91cm.

Like many artists, abstraction is a fundamental way of working for me. Often I will begin my drawing/painting process with a degree of representation, an idea of a place / a memory / feeling, or more often a combination of all of these. Recognisable forms will appear, I will begin to use tone to develop those forms, I will get caught up in the pretence of creating illusionary space on a two-dimensional surface. I will begin to get tight and self-conscious in my technique, and I will feel like I am merely scratching the surface of my creative intention.

Then I get frustrated. Very frustrated. Frustrated with the very human desire for recognition of our world, for an easy literalness that doesn’t take too much brain effort and is somehow comfortable and reassuring. Yet bland. Boring and tired.  Dont worry, I feel this desire for recognition too, I like to see shapes in clouds or shadows, like most people do. Perhaps it is an evolutionary survival instinct? Back when we were hunting and gathering, we probably needed to be able to pick out friend or foe/ to discern shapes on moonless nights on wild plains (or in murky streets late at night) so as to not get eaten or attacked.

But the frustration I feel in this stage of painting stems from my deep desire to connect with myself and painting at another level. This is difficult to describe in words, which is probably why I paint! For me, abstraction is very much like poetry or a beautiful piece of classical music, it is something felt and experienced, yet difficult to articulate. It whispers softly rather than yells; it suggests (many) a route instead of showing the most well trodden path; it is open, instead of being closed.  Like many abstract artists, I have always felt abstraction is a metaphor for life and very the experience of being; and don’t be fooled: it is damn hard work, with a constant and evolving process of editing, adding and changing, until somehow, the painting is at the golden moment when it is finished. It is bloody difficult and intellectually challenging. And that is why I love it so much, it pushes me every single time.

Yet, I know many of you find abstraction perplexing, if not downright inaccessible. But, if you can hold back your immediate judgement, and approach abstraction with an open mind, you may well be pleasantly surprised.

So what should you do the next time you come across a piece of abstract art? The entry point for any artwork is simply looking at the artefact: in the case of painting, the surface. Here are some questions you could ask as you engage with the artwork:

  • What colours are used? Are they clashing or contrasting or harmonious? How do the colours make me feel?
  • What type of marks have been made? Are they soft or hard? How much energy did the artist use to make them? How much energy is embodied within the brushwork/knife-work?
  • What shapes are coming out? Are they hard or soft? Open or closed shapes? What do those shapes remind me of?
  • Is there lots of texture and/or partially hidden layers, or is the surface smooth? Why would the artist cover some areas and not others?
  • Now, think about if there is one focal point: where is your eye drawn too? Or does your eye get drawn across the surface in a particular way? Why might this be?

Lastly ask yourself these two important questions:

  • What does this artwork remind me of (a place, a journey, a specific moment in your life etc)?
  • How does the overall work make me feel (peaceful, joyful, apprehensive, excited, calm, afraid, thoughtful, meditative etc)?

This list of questions is a simplistic method of art analysis which can be used on any artwork, representational or abstract, and of course, there is a wealth of information out there if you wish to pursue your own studies. When you use this analysis process, you will not only see, but also experience, far more than by just giving an abstract artwork a cursory glance. Let me know how you go!

My (incomplete list) of favourite abstract artists (most of these artists are Abstract Expressionists):

  • Lee Krasner (USA)
  • Ann Thomson (Aus)
  • Joan Mitchell (USA)
  • Grace Hartigan (USA)
  • Phillip Ball (Aus)
  • Franz Kline (USA)
  • Robert Motherwell (USA)
  • Louise Bourgeois (France/USA)
  • Elaine DeKooning (USA)
  • Perle Fine (USA)





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