September 16, 2003


A young lad, an artist in Texas and I have been exchanging a few emails lately. I appreciate the conversation and the opportunity to reach out across the generations.

At the same time, my gallery Chac Mool has been crafting the press release. That's got be a tough project, sketching someone's lifework in two paragraphs.

Toward this end, I'd like to upload my recent email (with a couple of nips and tucks) to the young artist and maybe there might be some gold in them thar paragraphs in inspire the lovely and talented writer at my gallery in LA for the press release.

" Question for me is, what is the question?... I would really like to know what you where planing to talk about on figuration and abstraction? What are your thoughts on abstraction? How do you define it?"

Hello *****:

Sorry for the delay. I gave my full attention to the last painting to be done for this cycle or brace of work to be done for the upcoming shows. It was consuming. Now, this week is all about cataloging, photographing, documenting the work. I don't put much stock in astrology, but they say mercury is in retrograde, causing many glitches and goofs this month. So far... all true.

Thanks too for the emails. It's good to see you in the mix.

Now, for the big fish: abstraction.

Much have been said and written about abstraction. The best way to start is straight ahead into a dictionary definition: "having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content " and therefore it is material form, in-of-itself as opposed to the imaginative conveyance of representation. This is the simplest, most direct way to think of it.

Now, there are plenty of curlicues to ponder. The base of the term is latin for to pull away, to drag from, to draw.... and this leads to the first definition: "disassociated from any specific instance" and isn't this what the conscious mind does in the act of apprehending representation? Or if art has a destiny away from representation, then isn't Judd's "specific objects" the ultimate in this regard? Or are the monochromists on track with their pure opticality and purportedly unbiased eyes? Or is the act of representation itself the acme of intellectual apprehension? I mean, our normative idea of the world isn't the "real" world at all: we filter out many inputs and groom a lot of information to smooth out our everyday conception of the world. We would vomit if we dealt consciously with every-single-thing we experience.

I worked in the operations center aboard ship, and it was only in the later years that I thought of the ship metaphorically as an individual groping his way into the world, assembling a picture of that world with the various sensors at hand. Later, as I graduated from architecture school, I read Gombrich's "Art and Illusion", where I had a vivid impression of the feat of how we assemble a picture of the world in our heads, one that we update moment to moment through our various sensory inputs. A couple of years later, I remember drawing an interior design for an office building where I wanted to convey the design through a series of perspectives shown as one steps out of the elevator. As I mechanically drew the successive perspectives, I realized how the edges go wacky, and how the mind must interpolate these wild vectors constantly. Representation is a marvel.

So why would an artist want to evade it? It's not that representation is something to avoid, it's a choice among others... and the one I apparently chose is abstraction, intrinsic form. Or better, this: I think that our Western minds are formatted to make distinctions. Remember my grandfather's strange benediction? "I forgive you for being half American." We in the West give primary value to the individual, not to the family as in the rest of the (pre-modern) world. Our engineers have a conceptual tool called the "free body diagram", where they can take a beam and isolate it from it's context and analyze the forces that act upon it. This tendency to individuate a member from its' context (family) is the marvel of Western engineering and science. It gave us this modern world. But it compels us to make hard distinctions that are tough to shake.

To wit: abstraction and representation are parts of a singularity. Like the back of the hand versus the palm of the hand (a model I love to truck out in presentations to art audiences), abstraction (the back of the hand like a bitch slap: "WAKE UP!") and representation (the caressing palm of family) are two sides of a larger reality: PAINTING.

My favorite Joan Didion quote:
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live... we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of the narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." (from "The White Album")

Where does this lead us and what relevance does this have for your questions? Your experience, your insight, your epiphanies are critical, primary. And the entirety of the art-academic-historical is secondary. This doesn't mean it is lesser, but that the legacy of the chatter should serve your curiosity rather than form it. It should reinforce it, it can strengthen it by questioning it, it can widen it with other arenas for experience.

When I taught, I would tell my students that I was the serpent in the garden. They were the first people, innocent and ignorant of their nakedness in their bliss. I was there to give them the apple of knowledge, to facilitate their fall from grace. For it is only after they have assimilated this knowledge and have fought for years to reclaim their innocence, to recapture their grace, can they claim to achieve a status as creative agents. This is the struggle. It is good that you are reading widely. Take big bites out of the apple.

One of my last architecture studios was taught under the regime of a department chair who was new and wanted to remake the school according to the legacy of a theoretically hip school nearby. He paired me up with the theory teacher, and the mandate was to import ideas from the new canon and verify the installation with architectural designs that conformed to them. This made my skin crawl. My ideal is opposite. Every student has a unique perspective, a singular consciousness. As a teacher, the task is to shine the gems. As an artist (and too for young architects), our duty is to realize one's affinities and make them vivid to others. The entirely of the history of philosophy, aesthetics, art and everything else must serve this curiosity.

Here is your question: what are you curious about?


Posted by Dennis at September 16, 2003 4:33 PM

1 Comment


?Here is your question: what are you curious about??


I am a year late on this one (I just recently discovered your site...which rocks by the way), but I liked your thoughts on abstraction and wanted to throw in my two cents.

I always felt that Magritte pretty much ended the representation vs. abstract debate with ?Ceci n?est pas une pipe.? For me, what I am curious about is in what way abstraction can move forward and be a vehicle to create meaning out of the intense visual environment of today.

I think there is a distinction from the Western tradition of abstraction (Greensberg) where it was all about form vs content, where beauty and the decorative were considered superfluous and a distraction (womanish?) to be avoided like the plague in the name of some high art platonic ideal versus the European tradition, which held form and content as two sides of the same coin. The problem is that all the PO-MO critiques on modernist abstraction were based on the Greenbergian version, so for years, abstraction was tainted buy a kind of guilt by association. Fortunately, I think the terrain has transformed quite a bit over the last 10 years or so and opened everything up.

What I like about your stuff, and it is an idea I am interested in in my work, is that there is an integration of the formal and conceptual in a seamless way. I always think about it in terms of high modernist architecture, which also stripped away the decorative for an elegant formal purity vs Guadi who at the same time as this movement was reaching it?s apex, was doing these crazy buildings where the decorative elements actually was the structure. What a wonderful and open model for painting eh? I think Gaudi points the way for abstraction today, at least for me. Factura instead of facture?

If you get a chance, check out my show at the William Turner Gallery, Sept. 18, 2004.


Arron Sturgeon

Leave a comment