Identity Crisis: Am I an Abstract Painter?

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine that went something like this...

“How do you know when a painting is finished?” (I get this question often) Then I reply: “when all the elements are in balance and the painting makes sense visually” Her: “But if it’s an abstract piece, who else is going to be able to tell if the  makes sense? Aren't you the only person who can see that?  Which leads me back to my original question: how do you know when a painting is finished?” (actually it was longer and more involved than that, but that was the gist). 

…and this had me stumped.  I've always believed there is a human visual-balance gene that innately allows us to recognise when something is OUT of balance. When something is in balance, it’s so natural to us, that we don’t see it. It doesn’t occur to us to notice balance. To try and translate this anthropologically, I’d say it has something to do with proportions in the human body (i.e. Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’), or it could be referred to scientifically as something to do with the Fibonacci sequence found everywhere in nature. I don’t measure this when I’m painting, I’m just working until I no longer have this sense of visual disharmony.

This is all just a theory though. And my first question is: is this true? Do we all have this visual-balance/imbalance gene? I don’t know, and maybe some of you have thoughts on this, and if so, feel free to discuss below. :) 

The second lot of questions raised was: can I really call myself an abstract painter if I place so much importance on balance? Is my more representative work (the stuff that’s clearly "something") even close to abstract? There are so many reasons why I shouldn’t classify myself as an abstract painter, yet I relate strongly to others who do.  Am I an abstract painter? What is abstract?

Abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.
— Wikipedia

I have classified my work as numerous genres - surrealist, semi-abstract/representational, psychedelic, organic abstract, organic psychedelic, abstract expressionist. To some, I must sound confused! It’s not necessarily because I’m cantankerous over being pigeonholed, or that it’s just hard to pigeonhole my work, it’s also, and perhaps more so due to the pigeonholes being hard to pigeonhole. But you know what? With the advent of the online art market, categorisation is becoming increasingly important. When uploading art to any online gallery, including Saatchi, eBay or Artfinder, or even 'tags' here on this blog/gallery, we are asked to categorise. And why is this? Because this is how Google finds us. 

Always, on these online galleries, when selecting a category for your work, there at the top of the alphabetic list, is ‘Abstract’, right above Cubism, Dada, and Expressionism. But is 'Abstract' a category? Should it be labelled as a genre? 

Admittedly 'abstract art', in Western art, does represent a time/movement that coincided with changes and advances in science, and philosophy that began in the late 19th century. And the genre that we now know of as abstract art, connotes to that period of time. But abstract art, abstraction, and even something so totally (so I thought) contemporary as organic abstract (ie. allowing the materials to flow and form under their own steam) have been around since - well forever (see below vessel - dated 25 B.C.). 

Greek or Roman, 25 B.C. - A.D. 25 Glass 5 1/8 in.

Greek or Roman, 25 B.C. - A.D. 25 Glass 5 1/8 in.

Nonetheless, 'abstract' is thought of as a genre, and 'abstract' and 'representational' in this world of genres, are antonyms. It’s this notion, that then identifying as an abstract artist has left me felling uneasy. After all, many of my works are obviously representational, and those that aren’t are still so thoroughly obsessed with balance that the elements within take the form of traditional landscapes. But then again, and here is the conflict, this notion feels limiting, and 'abstraction' by definition should be limitless. Abstraction is a very abstract concept… naturally the most abstract of all concepts :)

All art is abstract. A painting of a person or a still-life is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional reality and therefore infinitely abstract.
— Jerry Saltz
'In a Heartbeat' 140cm x 120cm, Acrylic on canvas. 2014

'In a Heartbeat' 140cm x 120cm, Acrylic on canvas. 2014

Let’s take the example of my most recent piece ‘In a Heartbeat’ (above). I caught myself saying this is the most abstract piece I’ve ever painted. But why? Because it plainly fits the criteria. It “uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.” But then a friend and fellow artist visited the barn and said “It’s like you’ve painted living tissue. I can almost feel it beating off the canvas”. This painting is a representation of living tissue… or of ‘life’. For my most abstract painting, it couldn’t be more representational. 

Here’s another example to add to the confusion. In this case of ‘Sticky-rice Landscape’, my most representational work, couldn’t be more abstract. It is fundamentally a painting of clumps of sticky-rice. Yet I spent laborious hours making identical marks in rows of abstract patterns and layers. It was stripped down to the very basic element of white elongated ovals. 

'Sticky-rice Landscape' 110cm x 80cm, Enamel on canvas. 2012

'Sticky-rice Landscape' 110cm x 80cm, Enamel on canvas. 2012

So, it seems abstraction and representation, although antonyms, seem to coexist. But it's more. I've come to regard abstraction not as a thing, but a process on a thing... an element in a painting, representational or not, can be put through a process of abstraction to point that it's unrecognisable, and then brought back again, similar but for ever changed. A metaphor that comes to mind, is when you double translate an english phrase. i.e.. write an english phrase into Google translate, translate into another language, then translate it back to English.. you never do get quite the same phrase. So abstraction is not a genre, but a process. 

Abstraction is one of the greatest visionary tools ever invented by human beings to imagine, decipher, and depict the world.
— Jerry Saltz

I think this led to my biggest recent realisation, which in retrospect seems obvious - The abstraction process breeds innovation. 

Take the Sticky-rice example. From this process of stripping down, I formed patterns that I then went on to use in all my other works, including representational works. It was painted in 2012, but I use those same patterns today. Interestingly, it was in the limitation of this piece (working with white elongated ovals), that forced me into abstraction.

And then take ’In a Heartbeat’ - by being utterly free-flowing and forming, non-representational, balanced elements, it was revolutionary (in relation to my own practice), aesthetically, materially and conceptually. This is a very new piece, so I'm unsure of how it will influence any future work, but it was the freedom in painting this piece, it's abstract intention, that has highlighted new directions for future works.

So, I guess, in answer to my question “am I an abstract painter?” the answer is yes, but what’s most important to me as the artist, is not how the end product is categorised, but how it came to be. I am an abstract painter because the process of abstraction is vital - it’s the innovation resulting from the abstraction process that nourishes all other areas of my painting practice, including representation. 

Thank you for reading my rather lengthy, self-indulgent post :) I hope it was of some interest to you... perhaps you can relate? Or maybe you can answer these questions differently. It's a very big topic, I know.