Posts Tagged ‘abstract art’

The art of looking and writing

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

How do you write about another art form? Can you really convey the visual in words?

Poets use language to evoke a visual image for the reader all the time.  But somehow, writing in response to another art form has always seemed a little problematic to me. I was not sure why one would do it. If the reader has not seen the work of art you’re writing about, how is the writing meaningful to them?

Ekphrasis (the term used to denote writing that responds to another art form) is an old practice. The Chicago School of Media Theory’s glossary says this about its origins:

Initially, ekphrasis was a rhetorical term like many others taught to Greek students. Teachers of rhetoric taught ekphrasis as a way of bringing the experience of an object to a listener or reader through highly detailed descriptive writing. …  The student of ekphrasis was encouraged to lend their attention not only to the qualities immediately available in an object, but to make efforts to embody qualities beyond the physical aspects of the work they were observing.

In contemporary practice the meaning of ekphrasis is stretched further, becoming a sort of conversation with a visual work, and eventually leading toward a poem that goes beyond the original image. (more…)

Getting a handle on the abstract

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Russell Smith’s latest column in The Globe and Mail describes a documentary called How To Explain It To My Parents, in which nine Dutch artists sit down with their parents and try to explain what they do. Not surprisingly, some of the parents don’t get it. While they take a benign interest in their children’s work, they don’t necessarily see the significance of, say, deliberately making a video with a lot of static in it. The artists do a great deal of explaining, but not in terms their parents can understand.

Abstraction in art continues to have a perception problem, despite having been around for most of the last hundred years. In mid-20th century art, abstractionism reached the point where some artists tried to keep a painting free of any connection to anything outside itself. As this YouTube profile of Quebec painter Claude Tousignant explains, it was a move away from the long tradition of representing the world in art, away from the painting as a picture of something. Tousignant himself has said: “What I wish to do is make painting objective, to bring it back to its source – where only painting remains, emptied of all extraneous matter – to the point at which painting is pure sensation.”

This will not be news to anyone who’s studied art, but it was a bit of a revelation to me. Once I actually saw this written down in black and white, many of the abstract paintings I’ve seen suddenly made more sense. Or rather, I was more comfortable with their not making sense. They are not about anything— or maybe you could say that what they are about is geometry and color.

I still don’t get certain types of art— a series of solid black panels, for instance, or videos purposely made with a lot of static. But one of the Dutch artists, Harm van den Dorpel, doesn’t think that’s always necessary. He tells his father that he doesn’t mind if viewers don’t get the full significance of his work. He’s happy if they are simply intrigued by an image they don’t fully understand.

(See some of Claude Tousignant’s paintings here.)

Irritating art

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I enjoy modern art, with its profusion of styles and techniques. Some abstract art is a bit of a stretch, like monochrome painting, but other works are fascinating plays of color, texture, line and movement.

Then again, some art is simply irritating. Well, to be more accurate, what’s irritating are the descriptions attached to works of art in gallery exhibits. It makes sense to have some commentary on an exhibit, since a lot of contemporary art is baffling to a lot of people, and it’s useful to get a hint of what to look for in a work. At the same time, I often find that it’s more helpful to view a work without reading the accompanying commentary. If, for instance, I’m looking at an object that appears to be a blotchy mirror and then read that I am supposed to glean some elaborate sociological meaning from it, it’s more than likely that I’ll stare at the object for a minute or two and then say, “Nope. I don’t see it.”

Dan Siedell, in an interview with Image magazine, says that looking at art “is not about receiving a meaning that the artist intended. The artist isn’t intent on ‘communicating’ with me some idea that he or she is wrapping up in paint that I then need to unwrap.” A work of art, he says, is not so much an essay as a poem. I find this a helpful way of thinking about art. And maybe what I’m really irritated with is the sense that at times I’m being told what I ought to see — that some artists or gallery curators do see art as an essay.

But that’s still not quite it. Sometimes art-as-essay does work. For instance, last year the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina showed works by Kent Monkman, including a silent film that uses role reversal to question the idea of history, and whose history is authoritative. It works because it addresses a fairly straightforward question, and while not subtle, it is clever satire executed with skill and flair.

On the other hand, there’s that blotchy mirror. This is an extreme example from an exhibit called Let Me Be Your Mirror, also shown at the MacKenzie Gallery last year. According to the description, in this exhibit “the viewer’s position before mirrors, both real and represented, is placed in question as part of a larger inquiry into social structures that govern desire and its production.” Looking at the works in this exhibit may well raise questions about images, how we see ourselves and what is real, but you would not get to the level of interpretation in the description without reading the piece, and furthermore, knowing something of the theory behind it. On the whole, the exhibit did not seem able to bear the weight of the complex meanings attributed to it.

Then again, Dan Siedell points out that looking at art takes time and work. Maybe I should have spent more time looking into those mirrors.