More on realism and abstraction

The following is from an email I received from Tim Jones, followed by my response which his articulate notes inspired.

    Thanks for the tip. I have been planning to be at the reception for Makoto Fujimura for some time. We have briefly discussed him at our meetings, but lately we have been consumed with the JBU show.

    I have been reading some of his articles and interviews, hoping to get a little insight. I have not been convinced of the usefulness of abstract art as significant communication for some time, though I have held off dismissing it altogether. I consider myself an agnostic on the subject at the moment, and would be very interested to speak with Fujimura, though I know he has better things to do.

    When I say “abstract” art, I mean non-objective art. My main gripe with it is that I see nothing unique to abstraction that I don’t see in good pictorial art, and yet significant things are sacrificed. I see the losses, but no net gain.

    Art without imagery, to me, is like trying to write a novel without characters or a plot. Okay, you have words and ink and paper, a cover, so call it a novel, if you like, but can it be a great novel?

    Non-objective art at its best, to me, could be described accurately as “interesting”, but not significant. There is good abstract art and bad, but even the best has never truly moved me. I’m willing to be converted, though. I will be very interested to see Fujimura’s work in person, as well as your own.

    Thanks, yes I took home a small prize from the OAA show for Pomegranates, but I need to be more ambitious in my coming work, and really try to create some profound pieces. to that end I’ll be working soon with the U of A museum. They have agreed to let me have access to some of their collections, and I hope to find some truly exquisite objects to paint. I would like to work with some really ancient artifacts, stone tools, pots, etc… those things have always fascinated me.

    I also will be doing a lot of plein air work in the next few weeks, which I look forward to.

My response:

    My own work I refer to as non-representational, not abstract. Modern connotation, however, uses these terms interchangeably. I use them as I learned them in college seven years ago. Some of Fujimura’s work is abstract and some non-representational, at least to my eye.

    I don’t know why I’m now so drawn to the non-representational mixed media sculpture I find myself engaged in. I think a lot of the reason lies with my intense interest in architecture. Architecture is function, but also decoration and proportion (and, of course, many many other things). I suppose this is an odd combination for most “fine art” types, I suppose, what with the technical aspects of building design. I really am as interested in architecture and community planning as sculpture, but not necessarily more so.

    My work, though non-representational, is inspired by and visually refers to palpable things — or intangible ideas. This is where I believe abstraction and non-representational works exhibit real value, in its ability to draw people in to more ethereal ideas that don’t necessarily have any visual reference in the three-dimensional world. In the movie Pollock, the actor portraying Pollock talks about how his style came about: He felt as though this was the best way to represent the chaos (a rather enigmatic idea to present visually) in the observed world, the wars, the social upheaval, and so on. This makes sense to me. Sure, a realist work can also represent chaos. But the difference, I believe, is that abstract works can — potentially, not always — better convey a feeling or an intangible idea.

    A realist work might make a person think about or make an observation about the subject matter. An abstract work, it seems to me, is more probing. The abstract work can cause me to think differently about the topic, often more deeply. Or it causes me to think about the process and the material. A lot of what I think about, and thus hope some of my own viewers think about, in my own work is process and material. I know this is not going to serve every artists’ interest, but suffice it to say that Picasso’s Guernica causes me to think in a more profound manner about war than classical depictions of war. Maybe this is just a right-brain left-brain thing. It’s quite possible classical depictions of war are more profound to other people than abstract works.

    Francis Schaeffer, in his treatise Art and the Bible, pointed out that there was no practical reason for God to ordain the decoration of the temple’s pillars with chains and the priest’s robes with off-color pomegranates. Yet God did this, and therein we have certain precedence for abstract works — though not exclusively.

    I grew up drawing. In junior high and high school I started with fish and other animals, drawn from pictures in books. I began college as an architecture student, where we spent much of our time rendering. I know what it is like to spend countless hours on a drawing, (even painting still life). My drawings were better than my paintings, none of which meet the caliber of your own works. I know I still have this ability, though, and actually lament not finding the time to continue this discipline. I know to be able to do so would aid in the rest of my work, continually training my hands and honing my eyes. This is especially true of figure drawing, where the proportions of the human body are so precise that the slightest unintentional mistake looks grossly out of place.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

5 Responses to More on realism and abstraction

  1. jc says:

    Interesting viewpoint. Classical drawing, painting and sculpture is still abstracted. The realism of the work seems to make some folks gloss over it as mundane or common. However, the skill involved with creating this item of beauty alone removes it from the common. If people examined the classical rules, they would notice there is a great deal of abstraction and manipulation going on and in fact to a far deeper level than the more commonly designated abstract work.

    If you see the Polack works or Picasso or Mondrian, etc…these seem very much like a hypnotic process of repetition undulating with serendipity. Wonderfully hypnotic in fact. Look at classical/realistic art and focus on the abstract, use of space, decisions on turning the form in space and you will see the overwhelming power of the celebration of the universe in a deep way. Classical/realistic/representational art is a wonderful counterpoint to non-representational/abstract work. Both suggest the power of the other.

  2. st. Mars Eve says:

    I have heard many times on the abstraction of photography; any photograph simply captures a abstract 2d representation of a 3d space. Abstraction occurs through color translation, perspective warp, light diffusion…ect
    Non-objective work speaks to the psyche. The forms, colors, shapes and intersections speak to our conscious and unconscious mind, much like intersecting lines translate into letters as we read. An emotional reaction to an artwork is just as valid as an intellectual one!
    -st. Mars

  3. Tim J. says:

    “Non-objective work speaks to the psyche. The forms, colors, shapes and intersections speak to our conscious and unconscious mind”

    I know I keep hearing remarks like the above, which is why I have not just given up on the idea of non-objective art, but at the same time, this is where they lose me. ANY decent pictorial art speaks to the psyche and the concious and uncouncious mind AND IN ADDITION allows for representation, narrative, the illusion of space and form, etc… the ability to “speak” through the abstract elements of a piece are not diminished at all in the use of representation. The two are meant to complement and augment one another, which is what seperates great art from the mundane. Look at Nicolai Fechin.

    If art is about communication (which I know is a controversial idea in some quarters) then there must be some kind of thought, idea, emotion that the artist conveys through the work to the viewer. The thing is, I don’t see this happening very successfully at all in non-objective art. Rather, the viewer understands the work however they will, making the experience much more like a Rorschach test than anything else.

    This will happen to some extent with pictorial art, as well, and probably should, but the possibility of substantive communication, to me, seems much greater with representational art.

  4. TAE says:

    Tim J. said:
    ANY decent pictorial art speaks to the psyche and the concious and uncouncious mind AND IN ADDITION allows for representation, narrative, the illusion of space and form, etc

    So, are we as viewers most often just too lazy to find anything interesting in objective and realist works? It’s entirely possible; see my category called “Intentional observation.”

  5. Pingback: Abstract Answer: Semantic shakedown « The Aesthetic Elevator

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