What Makes Painting Abstracts So Thrilling?

January 14th, 2020

I love looking at abstract painting and I love painting abstracts. It’s so thrilling to experience the raw energy the artist put onto the canvas. It’s even more fun to create abstract paintings.

A big part of what makes painting abstracts so thrilling for me is that it helps me understand and tap into the language beneath the language we all know. It’s a complex, wordless language that goes deep into our collective subconscious. Yes, it’s kind of mystical and Jungian. And I’m fine with that.

It’s challenging for me because I have to break past the layer of the more or less “literal” way of thinking that I grew up with.

In that sense, abstraction is a “pure” form of art unencumbered by the language of realism.

100 Days of Abstracts, Day 30

100 Days of Abstracts, Day 30, acrylic on canvas

The language of realism tells you “this is a tree” or “this is a person.” Abstraction allows you to hint at those things, or do away with them entirely, favoring composition over referencing real things. (This is called nonobjective abstraction. DeStijl pioneer Piet Mondrian was a master of this sort of abstraction.)

In the past few years I have grown more obsessed with the color field paintings of Mark Rothko. I have yet to see one of his works in person, but I hear they are deeply moving. There’s something about a large canvas flooded with subtle variations of a single color that stir something deep in your soul.

Since so many of us in the West grow up looking at art from an objective point of view, it is sometimes difficult to understand abstract painting since it doesn’t fit your frame of reference. To that, I say to think of it like music. Look for texture, rhythm, loud and quiet. Music rarely references things in the real world. Painting doesn’t have to, either.

By painting in an abstract manner I am able to explore my emotions and find answers to those wordless questions deep in my soul. The more primal a piece of art is, whether it’s music or painting, the more it resonates with our core.

Realism tends to be obvious in its interpretation

"Hoth" painting surrounded by jingle bells and twinkle lights

Hoth, acrylic on canvas

Sometimes a realistic painting is just a painting of whatever you see, nothing more. Other times, the artist adds symbols with personal meaning, or the subject matter is intended to inspire the viewer to consider a certain worldview. (Brian Rutenberg would argue that all paintings force the viewer to look at the world differently, if only for a second.)

Of course, some surrealists have fun with objective visual language, especially when their paintings are realistically rendered but full of double meanings and visual tricks on our our perception of space. Painters like Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Donny Smutz come to mind.

Abstract painting invites the viewer to participate and interpret

Brad Blackman's custom painting "Silver Lining," shown in a living room.

Silver Lining, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 x 1.5 inches

I love hearing all the things people say they see in my abstract paintings. Most of the time I have a landscape in mind. Personally, I often see clouds and a horizon, littered with landforms and foliage.

But lots of people tell me they see something else, and it’s amazing. It’s a lot like looking at clouds with a friend: sometimes you see something whimsical, and sometimes you see something profound that changes your life. And your friend sees something else entirely.

All paintings are abstract in some way.

Bob Burridge says that under every great painting is a great abstract painting. The rules of composition apply to abstract painting as representational painting, perhaps more so since that provides a frame of reference.

Sometimes abstraction looks like an unfinished painting that invites the viewer to invent their own story. And that’s what I find thrilling.

3 Surprisingly Powerful Factors That Make Up Contemporary Art

October 1st, 2019

I’ve found that contemporary art is dominated by 3 factors: place, politics, and personality. This really is not new. They’ve been part of art for hundreds of years. But I’ve seen a lot more of them in the past 20 years or so as contemporary art (art since 1970) has evolved.

The art movements of the early-to-mid-20th Century still have a lot to teach us. To be sure, the wider culture’s visual language has evolved since then, and contemporary art embraces the conceptual over all else these days, even if it is highly rendered (realistic). It’s less about style and more about social consciousness.

Brad Blackman, Hope, 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Brad Blackman, “Hope,” 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Most of the art I see today features three P’s: Place, Politics, and Personality.

“Place” in Contemporary Art

Graffiti art has exploded the past few years, especially in Nashville (where I live.) What used to be a sign of gang activity is now a sign of commerce (and on the downside, gentrification). Bachelorettes line up to get their photo taken in front of giant wings. And it’s not just “graffiti.” Toronto has a famous “TORONTO” sculpture that tourists love to get on their instagram feeds. Incidentally, the “3D Toronto Sign” was a temporary installation, but it got so much attention on social media that it is now a semi-permanent feature of City Hall. (I believe there are plans to make a permanent version of the sculpture.)

Contemporary art and place: 3D Toronto sign

By { pranav } from Hyderabad, India – Toronto sign, CC BY 2.0

Politics in Contemporary Art

Art has long had ties to politics, either in the service of or in opposition to the prevailing ruler. It can be propaganda, or it can state a specific view that may or may not be popular or “safe.” Brian Rutenberg argues that all art is political — even his abstract landscapes of South Carolina swamps.

The Cult of Personality in Contemporary Art

KAWS is an example of personality in contemporary art

Again, this is nothing new, and perhaps less outsize than in the past, but in recent years I’ve seen artists exploit their strong personal brands on social media with the likes of Ashley Longshore, Joyce Pensato, KAWS, and more. Warhol and Dali set a precedent for this decades ago. “Personality” might better be thought of as a “personal brand” these days.

Conclusion

While my own art doesn’t blatantly possess these characteristics, I agree with Brian Rutenberg that all art is political by default since when a viewer looks at it, they are seeing from your eyes, even if for a moment. What I try to show is that the world, for all its brokenness, is a beautiful and hopeful place.

“I laugh when painters claim to make political painting because all painting is political. The very act of making a work of art is a political act. Whenever you see a play, or read a poem, or look at a picture in a gallery, you are submitting to and and investing in the entire political belief system of that artist. Art can only be political because the artist is subverting and undermining the way the viewer sees the world for a moment. So I think it’s kind of sad when younger painters are led to believe that painting has no real value in and of itself, that it’s only a delivery system for some other message, which sounds to me like propaganda, There’s a lot of clever, witty work being done out there, but we must never let semiotic wit replace dreaming.”

Brian Rutenberg, Studio Visit 58

Abstract Art Has Been Around Longer Than You Think

July 22nd, 2015

In 1915, abstract art was the front line of Modern Art. It was cutting-edge stuff.

But in 2015 it is pretty normal. But a hundred years ago, geometric shapes, Cubism, and the first non-objective paintings were avant-garde.

Picasso was sticking rectangles together to make harlequins in 1915.

A hundred years before that, abstract art was virtually unheard of, though you see hints of it in J.M.W. Turner’s work. Here’s something he painted in 1817, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Yet if you fire up your TARDIS and go back to 1656 and look at Diego Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas up close, you’ll find it is abstract splotches of paint that loosely suggest reality. It’s practically pointilist.

If you back away it all fits together and resolves. There’s a lot going on in the painting. There has long been a debate over who is the actual subject and whether the piece represents a mirror and if you are viewing it as the King and Queen. Diego even put himself in it.

So when you think about it, abstract art actually existed over 100 years before the United States was founded. Except it really wasn’t a thing, but the groundwork was already laid.

It would take about 200 – 250 years for artists to experiment with abstraction outright. Like Vassily Kandinsky, a Russian artist who applied musical concepts to painting.

I find it interesting that abstract art in 2015 is far more socially acceptable than it was 100 years ago. It’s almost expected now. It makes me wonder how abstract art will be regarded 100 years from now. It’ll probably be tame or boring.

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When Pop Culture and Flemish Portraiture Collide

December 9th, 2014

You might have already seen this on the interwebz, but I recently came across this cool mashup of Elizabethan dress, Flemish portraiture, and superheroes.

I think this is pretty cool, given my past interest in remix.

Remix In Visual Art

June 30th, 2013

If you’ve been on the Internets™ a while, you might’ve heard of a nifty little series of videos called Everything Is A Remix, where Kirby Ferguson takes a look at how a lot of music and movies borrow heavily from each other, sometimes to the point where copyright and trademark infringement becomes a matter of debate.

There are some pretty notable examples, such as Led Zeppelin’s music, which borrows almost verbatim in some cases from old blues songs, and the huge influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai on George Lucas’ Star Wars.

Of course, remixing is a huge part of the creative process. (Copy, transform, combine.) So much of what an artist creates in any medium is influenced not only by the world around him, but the work of other creators.

Monomyth

Again with Star Wars — it follows very closely the idea of Monomyth, which is the concept of a basic story that takes on about a dozen variations. In Star Wars, you have a young hero who goes on a journey, meets a wizard who gives him a special gift or ability, he has the blessing of a beautiful princess, and he defeats the black-clad villain in the end. It’s classic storytelling.

So how does this work in visual art?

Since I like to talk about visual art so much, let’s dive into some of the ways themes recur and are remixed from a two-dimensional perspective.

Madonna and Child

This is one of the classic themes of all of Western art: some variation of mother and child, whether it is religious (depicting Mary and Jesus) or simply a mother and child. It’s probably one of the most emotionally charged themes. While Madonna and Child themes were common in the Renaissance, especially for Raphael, it was a huge part of Mary Cassatt‘s work.

Landscape

Ones’ physical surroundings are a constant source of inspiration for many artists, whether various scenes, or repeated looks at the same scene in different kinds of weather. Claude Monet painted Rouen Cathedral in all sorts of weather and lights, and the result is extraordinary.

Self-portrait

Rembrandt probably popularized the self-portrait, but it’s been done forever: you are your own cheapest model.

Nudes/the female form

There’s no denying the beauty of the human figure. It’s also easily distorted and sexualized, and can symbolize so many things. Shown here: Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Man Ray’s Ingres’ Violin, and Jenny Saville’s Hyphen.

Las Meninas

In 1958, Pablo Picasso created a series of 58 paintings that reinterpreted and/or recreated Velázquez’ iconic 1656 painting “Las Meninas.”

Dutch Masters

In recent years, I’ve seen quite a few attempts by photographers to recreate the iconic works of the Dutch Masters. It’s relatively easy nowadays to mimic Vermeer’s sumptuous lighting. Why not go all the way and recreate Vermeer’s paintings altogether? Or turn the Dutch Masters on their heads and swap class, race and gender within a form we are already familiar with?

Hipster Antiquities

The most recent thing I’ve seen is Photoshopping modern hipster-style clothes onto classical sculptures. It’s a little silly, but at least it exposes the great sculptures in the Louvre to people who might not otherwise know this art even exists. What’s funny is those wooly beards and curled mustaches are right at home in today’s hipster culture.

Art and Truth

June 6th, 2013

Truth is one of those concepts that is so simple, complex, and profound at the same time.

It seems there is always some debate over what is true, as well as the nature of truth itself. I think Truth (capital “T”) is some kind of entitity closely related to God. In fact, Jesus calls himself “the way, the truth, and the life” in John 14:6.

I think where a lot of us get stuck and disappointed is we have this idea that if something is true, it is also beautiful.

There’s merit to that. John Keats in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” declared that truth and beauty are one and the same:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
There’s a big part of us that wants truth to be beautiful, pretty, and uplifting.

The sad reality is that life is not always so.

Lies

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth …” — Pablo Picasso, 1881–1973
I think what Picasso was getting at is that art is an edited version of what we see, feel, hear, taste, smell, or otherwise experience. Empiricism can only tell us so much, because our human condition colors so much of what we experience.

And if beauty and truth are the same thing, why are the realities of war and the world we live in so horrifying?

It’s like the scene in My Name is Asher Lev, where Asher’s father asks him why he doesn’t paint pretty things:

It’s not a pretty world, Papa.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ my father said softly.

And it isn’t.

There will always be horrors. There will always be war, sickness, pain, poverty, extortion, death.

But there will always be beauty: redemption, love, grace, hope.

Life is beautiful

“La Vita È Bella” (Life is Beautiful) is about a family torn apart by the Holocaust in fascist Italy. There are some funny scenes, some touching scenes, scenes of heart-wrenching beauty, and scenes of heart-wrenching horror.

The most beautiful part of the story is the father’s love for his son, and the sacrifice he made for his boy.

And that redemption — heartbreaking as it is — is beautiful.

I think the bottom line is this: the truth is beautiful. It just depends on which side of it you are on.

Photo Credit: Seattle.roamer via Compfight cc

Art & Beauty (Or: Why Modern Art is So Ugly)

June 4th, 2013

You’re in a museum. You’re surrounded by a lot of famous paintings and sculptures by famous 19th and 20th century artists.

But there’s one thing that really jumps out at you: a lot of the art is, well, ugly.

Colors clash, faces are distorted, and images are disturbing. There are themes of violence and sexual abuse. Sometimes the art hardly looks like art at all. Almost all of it is depressing.

How is this even art? Why isn’t any of it beautiful? Why don’t I feel better after looking at it?

To understand this, you have to understand how and why art got the way it is today.

A little history goes a long way

There are two big things that completely changed art from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. When you look back at it, you can’t imagine art going any other way.
  1. Photography
  2. Global war

Photography

“Painting is dead,” said Paul Delaroche, upon seeing the first Daguerreotype. Advances in photography did a lot to make the role of painters as documenters or portraitists outdated and outmoded. With cameras able to quickly, more cheaply, and more accurately reproduce what is seen, artists had to move beyond just portraying what they could see with their eyes.

This also coincided with Romanticism, in which art became more inwardly-directed. It’s a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, which placed importance on science and technology. The Romantics put imagination at the forefront. Emotions ruled over logic and rationalism.

Romanticism in this sense isn’t sappy emotionalism, but a focus on imagination and internal truth and the idea of the mind as the ultimate thing that makes us like God, if reality is first conceived in the mind.

Global war

By the early years of the twentieth century, I suppose it all came to a head when rationalism and for lack of a better word, Romanticism, clashed and culminated in the first world war. I know that’s not the official story, but but when when you look at the rationalist underpinnings of fascism, you can see what I’m getting at.

You can’t deny that two world wars made man’s brutality unmistakable. We keep inventing more efficient ways of killing each other on a massive scale. And that’s a lot of what Romanticism was against, the development of technology for the purpose of killing or otherwise demeaning humanity.

The world got ugly and so did art

It’s said that art imitates life, but life imitates art as well. Art and life imitate each other, really. Everything was turned upside-down. People in power took philosophical ideas and twisted them into justifications for controlling and destroying those they didn’t like. The world got ugly, and art followed suit. People were stripped of their humanity, and massively destructive weapons were created.

There have always been bleak aspects to life, but up until the past 100 or so years, said bleakness was often a matter of course, due to famine, disease, and war. Now, massacre on an unprecedented scale was seen every day. Out of what can be boiled down to plain old meanness justified “rationalist” principles.

So it’s only natural that art became more distorted, more inwardly-focused, and more brutal. And more “rational,” ultimately so rational that painting was reduced to a single color spread on a canvas.

Just like our society. Self-absorption may be at an all-time high now. Everyone tries to justify their actions based on some rationale that makes it okay.

But where do I stand?

I hope this explains in part how we got here. The full story is much more complicated, of course, but it should give you some idea of how why art today is so “ugly.”

Personally, I think there is a place for beauty and a place for ugliness. I think in a hurting and uglified world, beauty and redemption are necessary. At the same time, one of the functions of art is to be a mirror and show the world to itself. A lot of the time, we don’t like what we see.

Let’s look at it another way. Think of your favorite songs or your favorite movies. Chances are pretty good that they’re not all uplifting. I bet one or two make you cry, and one or two make you feel like dancing and shouting.

The point is that good art will change you in some way. This is pretty widely accepted in the art world, whether artists and critics will admit it. A lot of artists take adopt a platform that is more complex than this, but this is what you will find at the core.

If there’s some sort of emotional impact, whether it makes you mad or thrills you or shocks you, a work of art is considered a success. A movie that has no effect on you is considered a failure. If it makes you laugh or cry, it’s done its job, right? Things are more interesting at the edges.

Plus, in this day and age where “happiness” is so accessible in the form of TV, drugs, food, and sex, happiness is a cheap commodity. So making art that raises people’s spirits is seen as a waste.

That’s my take on it.

I suppose my bottom line is this: the existence of beauty and ugliness in art really just depends on what the artist is trying to do.

Personally, I want art that makes me feel something, whether that is happy, sad, uplifted, or claustrophobic. I want to make positive changes in the world, but I am aware of the fact that sometimes I may have to make people uncomfortable with the realities of life.

What about you?

What’s your take on beauty in the arts? Is beauty necessary? Or do you think beauty in art is a waste? Let me know in the comments.

Photo Credit: katmary via Compfight cc

How can you tell if art is good or bad?

May 16th, 2013

In my early twenties after I had moved back home from college, I asked my parents what they thought about a painting I was working on. I can’t tell you what piece it was, but I remember my frustration that they had no means of objectively looking at the art and giving it any sort of merit beyond the fact that their son did it. While I know that’s hard for a parent to do (I’m a dad of three now), there are plenty of objectives at stake when it comes to looking at art.

It’s easy to think (and even want) art to be some subjective thing that is good to one person and bad to another. (We also live in a society that wants to deny absolutes unless it is convenient. See how we give students trophies for half-attempted work?)

And I think a lot of people confuse taste or preference for merit or intrinsic goodness. They aren’t the same thing.

So what is good?

Without getting into a fundamental philosophical discussion, there are a lot of ways to approach this question.

1. Technical Skill

The first approach is perhaps the most common: how well-executed is the piece in terms of technique? How realistic is it? A lot of early or experimental works fall apart quickly because the technique is bad. Maybe the paint is not mixed right, so it falls off the canvas or the sculpture collapses because it isn’t well constructed.

This happened with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” fresco in Milan. He used an experimental technique for mixing the pigment and plaster. It started decomposing almost immediately. But, even though it was already needing repair at the time of his death, it’s one of his masterpieces and an icon of the Italian Renaissance.

I’ve seen some of Salvador Dali’s early work and not been that impressed with how he applied the paint. It’s clumsy, and you can tell he really struggled with creating the refined, smooth, dreamlike images he is famous for. It took him decades for his skill to match his ambitions. After a lot of hard work and study, eventually he was able to create the sublime, giant “atomic” paintings of his later years.

2. Composition

Remember the elements and principles of design we talked about earlier? Line, shape, value, texture, color, and so forth. Another way to evaluate artwork is to look at how the formal elements interact with each other. Is the art clumsily composed? Do elements barely touch each other in weird tangents that make it awkward? Sometimes this is done on purpose, just like some songs intentionally have discord and jarring contrasts to create a mood or make a statement. Most people find a lot of beauty and pleasure in harmonious compositions, so in most people’s eyes that is artistic success.

3. Content

Of course, no discussion about artistic merit is complete without talking about content. What message do you think the artist is trying to send, and how well does that message get across? If the artist deplores the atrocities of war, is it likely to have soft, pastel colors?

Picasso’s “Guernica” is a reaction to war in his native Spain. It is over eleven feet tall, black-and-white, and filled with writhing, jagged figures: a mother clutching her dead child, a startled horse, a trampled soldier, a traumatized bull. News of the battle was plastered across Paris newspapers, where Picasso lived at the time.

It’s not a beautiful painting. It is a powerful painting that poetically talks about the horrors of war.

“I like it”

Now that you’ve been through this objective evaluation, you can form a personal opinion of the artwork in question. It’s at this point where you can safely say whether you like it or not, because you can back it up. You’ve done the work of actually looking critically at the art and deciding for yourself if it is successful.

This is why artists are often offended if you just say, “Oh, that’s pretty,” or “how nice.” Because it’s pretty easy to tell when someone hasn’t really paid attention.

The same goes for people who have a knee jerk reaction to whatever they don’t consider “art.”

Taking the time to objectively consider a piece of art goes a long way to create a richer and more rewarding experience.

My friend Matt says that “really studying art is the difference between glancing at the night sky, and actually getting a telescope and charting the stars.”

So, the next time you are at a museum, gallery, or an opening, pick two or three pieces and spend some time getting to know them. Figure out what makes them work and why. Then, form your own opinion about it beyond a mere like or dislike.

I promise it will make your time more memorable.

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