Abstraction vs Representation

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Erik ReeL, #1354, acrylic painting

 

Perhaps Picasso said it best:

“From the point of view of art, there are no abstract or concrete forms; there are only forms, and they are all lies that are more or less convincing.”

The End of Historicity

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1287, The Wheel, acrylic painting

There were painters who I felt had  come close to what I had in mind such as Twombly, especially in his graphite and paint work of the 70s. But these painters and their mark-making were always eventually subsumed by historical, literary, even mythic referential concerns that I not only considered retro-grade–if not outright Romantic in a specifically unnecessary way–but as compromising the more radical aspects of the marks as marks.

Not that this is evil or anything. In Twombly’s case, for instance, it is usually a personal and  refreshing tactic to bring in latent emotional and historical content that deepens and expands our experience of the image. It works, but is also contrary to what I wanted to do.

The truth is, this referentiality, this re-presentational, representational modality detracted from the, what was to me,  more core, possibilities of exploring marks for their intrinsic mark-making characteristics as marks in and of themselves. This leads to exploring marks in terms of cognitive processing, rather than history.

Yet, there is a line not to be crossed on the other side as well: when, instead of deeper forces and cognitive processing, a sort of emotive, self-absorbed, bathos-logical processing leading to amorphous content-free therapeutic effusion is indulged. The superficiality and emptiness of the results of this approach are frequently all too apparent.

A key test: when work descends to this level, it can be exhausted in minutes, if not seconds; while people stand for hours arguing in front of mine, or call me months after buying a painting to tell me how much more they have seen in it.  In short, there is living proof of the depths, richness, and  communicable meaning to be found there..

The End of Inner Life

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Erik ReeL, #1377, acrylic on paper, 22 x 15 “

In the world today we are confronted with relentless pressure to externalize everything, to live for the external world and its purpose. In America, with our traditions of pragmatism and materialism, this pressure is particularly deep-seated.  Every part of you is to be re-imagined into something that serves an external purpose, image, or use.

It is a totalization, where only that which is external has meaning. You only count if you are involved in, or focused on, or seen in, or known within, an external context.

Our electronic and media environments and devices only accelerate and extend this externalization. People become lost to any sense of their inner self. The external continually interjects and distracts us from the inner.

I paint for your inner self, for your inner experience.  My greatest fear is that people will become unable to even relate or see art in this way anymore. That they will become emptied out to the point that it is no longer even possible to sense that someone, an artist, or an image, is speaking to or trying to interact with their inner core.

The final result of all this externalization is an emptying out. Once you are fully external, you are empty, hollowed out. It is an emptying out that no amount of additional external inputs can fulfill.  At that point, you will have to seek art that speaks to your inner life, or you will be no better than dead.

 

Swinging 4

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1277, acrylic on paper

Abstraction. New endpoints. Subsequent diversion into pictorial means. So it goes.

Around a personal praxis or process that insured a unique image vocabulary, at each point the initial impetus to abstraction is driven by something genuinely new, quickly followed by a sense that everything possible has been done so far as is possible via abstract imagery.

Once this endpoint is accepted, artists move off into more pictorial– or, alternatively, into non-two-dimensional concerns. The latter initiating what one could call the “concrete” alternative.

So we move off into the pictorial or the concrete. Either way, re-affirming the deep-rooted Materialism within our culture.

Then, something happens. Someone, someone tired of feeding the materialist monster, someone fed up enough with our material world, says, “Wait, I see there is more to be done.” and further, “I don’t want to refer to anything in this material world; I am sick and tired of feeding the materialist monster.” From there it is less than a quark to total abstraction.

We seem to be at such a point again.

Swinging 3

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1275, acrylic on paper

In America as it came onto the edge of things, it did not take long for Tobey, then later Pollack and an entire generation or two [followed by another in Europe with Art Informal, Tapies, etc] to come up with an entirely new approach to abstraction. Approaches primarily centered on improvisation, an emphasis on scale, broadly brushed expressiveness, and a certain approach to materials and paint, process and gesture.

But once this abstract “expressionism” if you will is  seen as exhausted, a more pictorial means is sought, and used to subvert representation. Thus we see Pop emerge and pictorial tactics intended to critique media and advertising and other coercive modes of representational pictorial production.

But wait.

There’s more to be done, abstraction-wise.  After the pictorial retrenchment of Pop, we see a new generation of “format” abstraction, from Stella to Bridget Riley, where each “signature style” claims a very specific, rather small, highly constrained territory of format, technique, and idea.

This heralds a generation that sees the most ruthless reductivist tendencies since Malevich: All black paintings and minimalism exploiting both pictorial and constructive means of extreme visual reduction.

The 70s sees a matched triumph of an ancillary aggressively formalist art criticism emphasized in art magazines such as ArtForum.

From there things swing so far as Coplans  declaring the eternal triumph of photo-based, thus pictorial, imagery forever more, and the consequent rise of Flash Art magazine.

New endpoints. New subsequent diversion into pictorial means. And so it goes.

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1276, acrylic on paper

Swinging 2

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1271, acrylic on paper

Once Kandinsky and other modernists  go abstract,   the highly reductive Malevich and the Supremacists,  and  Mondrian find what seemed like suitable end-points for non-objective painting, that is, painting that is so abstract that it no longer has a motif, or represented object.

Mondrian systematically took himself step by step through the whole process, from an initial reduction from representation, through increasing abstraction of that representation from the motif, to the total abstraction of his signature style.  At the end of his life, he injects an abstract referentiality, if you will,  back into the mix in the final Broadway Boogie Woogie paintings..

Once the abstract end-point is found, it seems to shunt the next generation off into other concerns. To the Modernists, from there, it only remained to find abstract means to paintings that still contained recognizable motifs, or to move to more figurative and hence, pictorial, means, albeit for purposes that still intended to subvert traditional representation, such as the multivariate tactics of the Surrealists.

For Picasso, who lives and flows through several generations, he carries out these swings within his own work. Sometimes within a single day.  This has also been  a tendency in the current generation [Humphries, Josh Smith, Christopher Wool, Richard Prince, et al.].