Why do artists choose to work in the abstract?
Why do I?
It’s not that I can’t render objects or scenes realistically, though that is a common misconception.
Usually that idea comes from a lack of understanding.
I often explain that if I want to simply record what I see, a photo would accomplish it faster and likely better.
It goes deeper than that, though.
It goes to using art to communicate.
I’ve always used art as a means of reaching out to others, ever since, as a small child, I found I could impress by coloring in the lines or making a nice picture. As a severely shy introvert, it was a way to invite interaction.
In college, I studied the works of Van Gogh, Gaugin and Cezanne. Realistic, everyday subject matter, but never denying the process or materials. That, in every art form, is what appeals to me. I don’t want a drawing or painting to look like a photograph. Likewise, with clay work, I don’t want it to look machine-made. The magic comes from the obvious use of the medium to render a believable object or image. The hand of the artist should be evident through stylistic choices, brushstrokes, lines, or any number of other ways that allow the creator to show through the work.
I love the intense drawing of Kathe Kollwitz. Her dramatic line, smears and erasures bring her right into the present. When you view her work, she is also in the room. You can sense her strength and feel her despair though she’s been many years gone from this world. Her line is still fresh and immediate. You can see the “bones” of her images:
Kathe Kollwitz, “Outbreak”, 1903
When I went through a particularly difficult time, I imagined communicating my sadness, depression and pain through my work. With Kollwitz as my inspiration, I did a series of dark, graphic drawings.
They were quite beautiful, really, as drawings alone.
The trouble was, I was embarrassed to show them. A private person, I was not comfortable putting all my misery out there for the world to see. Because they were so definitely about my own pain, I was offering nothing to share. Only if someone shared my life experience, would they find something to relate to in these very personal images.
Beautiful or not, they reflected self-indulgent wallowing.
I was not comfortable with that.
After much deep thinking about how I was going about working through my issues, how I wanted to reach out to others and what I wanted to work on in my art, I changed strategies.
I chose a simple triangular shape. It was the shape of the roof line of my parent’s house. My childhood bedroom had been tucked into that upstairs space. With my sister, Brenda, sharing a bed with me and my parents in charge, it was a time in my life when I felt very safe.
This was the feeling I attempted to convey with the colors and textures I added to that basic shape.
Open to interpretation (the way a realistic piece rarely is), viewers said, “Oh, it’s like a temple,” or “It feels like a sanctuary.” Other comments included words like “cave” and “safe haven” and “shelter.”
I was ecstatic! By broadening my imagery, I was making it accessible to others, to form their own sense of reality with the work.
By focusing on and working with a healthier, happier time in my life, I was able to work through the hard times, rather than wallow in them.
This felt like true communication – through art – with myself and with others. It was the beginning of a long exploratory journey for me, with shape, color and texture at the center.
Abstraction, for me, is the best form of artistic communication.