Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Musings on Abstraction and Texture

I've been thinking recently about what makes good abstract art.  Abstraction can occur on a continuum from "almost real" to completely unrelated to reality.  I think I have a general understanding of how to abstract something from reality - either slightly, or so much that the original subject is not recognizable.  This piece is pretty far from realism, but still easily recognizable.
Floral Abstract by Angelo Franco

I also think that at least intellectually I understand how an abstract art work can represent a feeling or mood or emotion....  Guernica comes to mind.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

I also understand how a work can be purely abstract, only "about" shape, color, line, etc.  (at least apparently purely, maybe the artist thought differently).  For example, this piece called "Intro" by Frederick Hammersley, 1958. 

Josef Albers' work is "about" colors and shapes.

I started thinking about this after my last post, and the doodle/sketch of a composition that was made up of relatively random shapes on grid paper.  My first criticism or concern was that it was too irregular and didn't have any focal point, hierarchy, etc.   It did have balance, in a sense, I guess, because the pattern was equally dispersed over the entire field, (or would be if I finished it).

(The pink is only because I forgot the orange marker, but I might like the concept)

Can a work of abstract art "just" be an overall interesting surface pattern?  I tried to find examples of this in art quilts.

The first one I thought of was  Benedicte Caneill's work.
Units #23: Lights in Blue

I've seen her work in a number of different books and exhibits.  It ranges from figurative, to repetitive blocks, to more overall pattern, which this piece seems to be.  However, as I looked closer at it, I saw that it is made up of various blocks or units, but I think the effect is still overall pattern or texture.

Earth Quilt #1 - Celebration of Life II

I've selected one of her more homogeneous examples to illustrate my point.  Again the overall impression is of a continuous texture.  So maybe my question really is "When is overall homogeneous or non-focused texture Art, and when is it just a really cool texture?"  

Nelda Warkentin was an artist that immediately came to mind as I considered this question. 
Here is Sea Ice: 

Her signature style is a recombination of similarly painted, multi-layered blocks, usually square, into new configurations.  While there is less homogeneity than the first two examples, the overall effect is still one of texture, not object, shape or focus.  Her artist's statement says: "My work, which can be representational or abstract, is about color and pattern. Design elements found in Nature are my inspiration.  Color is used to convey light in a landscape, a mood or emotion. "   

I didn't find too many more examples that I thought qualified as "purely" homogeneous texture. Nearly all quilts that have a textural feel at first impression are composed of small, similar repeated blocks.  This is the nature of an art quilt - unless it's painted...  Here are some other examples I considered.  Ann Brauer creates texture and color gradation in her pieces, which are often vertical columns of very similar small strip sections.  But instead of the pure texture, which would be pretty boring, she brings a simple shape in, which becomes so much more interesting, for its uniqueness.

 In the next piece, Sea Spray, by Valerie Maser-Flanagan, the first impression at a distance is of a texture that graduates from greenish gray through blue to blue-gray.  The viewer is immediately drawn in to see how the effect is achieved, by a repetition of small and medium sized blocks, which are themselves each compiled of a number of similar but not exactly the same blocks.  This adds multiple levels of interest to the piece.

There are an unlimited number of art quilts made up of square or rectangular repeated modules.  If the modules are similar enough and there are enough of them, texture is created.If I were to try to define it, I would say that the definition of texture in art is: repetition of a similar shape, color, or pattern applied consistently over an area.  In Nancy Crow's Sets and Variables class this year we learned this lesson  by experience. These don't look very texture-y up close but seen from a distance they definitely blend into a fairly homogeneous blur.  But I don't particularly think they are works of art in their own right.  

Here's a really cool example by Melody Johnson where figures are just barely discernible within the texture.
Four Square Circles
I started to look for examples in other media where the dominant design element is overall texture or pattern.  There are lots of them! Jackson Pollock, of course.
Jackson Pollack: Lavender Mist, No. 1 1950
Mark Rothko makes you look very hard to discern pattern within the texture.
Red on Maroon, 1959
There are all sorts of examples from Ellsworth Kelly.  This one reads as texture, I think:

But when the number of squares becomes smaller, it doesn't. 

This one is texture-ish, but also had great figure/ground.

Meschers, 1951

Sean Scully creates subtle shape and color patterns within his overall pattern.  This really looks like it could have or should have been a  quilt.  I would like to try that out....
Red Light, 1971
I like this piece by Klee, even though it isn't exactly homogeneous texture, it does have overall balance.  I particularly like it because it incorporates mark making that begins to represent symbols or language, another pet topic of mine.
Signs in Yellow, 1937
Wandering farther down that path, here is a piece by Elina Asins titled Scale (diptych).  Very oddly, when I found this on Pinterest, and only half was shown. I love the way it starts to look like an architectural plan.  It is interesting to try to identify the point where the brain stops trying to discern what the "thing" or shape or structure is, and just says, "Oh, that's just a bunch of random stuff."  By having it repeated positive/negative it reinforces that it is "something," because they are both the same, and you  (Or actually I) want to figure out if they are exactly the same.

Athos Bulcao was a Brazilian artist best known for his blue and white ceramic tile work in the new city of Brasilia.  Here's a shot that I really loved for it's asymmetry and pattern. most of his other work appears to be more decorative, repeated patterns.    I have not found an image that shows all of this installation yet, I would love to see it in context.  It seems like he created himself a vocabulary of half-circles, straight lines, Ts and L's and then just went crazy arranging them.
Sort of like a Nancy Crow assignment,  "Make 7,500 of each, and then I'll tell you what happens next."  :)

I think that's enough musing for awhile.    Perhaps I should take a class on abstraction, but I don't really want to follow someone else's exercises.  I guess I'd rather just study abstraction on my own.  I'm really interested in what others might have to say on the topic.  Please leave a comment!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Some sketches

I am really having fun with grids.  And which figure is in front or behind.  But this has no focal point...  It's just a random combination of shapes.  How can it be more interesting and less random?
I need to look more at other successful abstract artists.  

Here's another Rockers sketch.

I'm starting to look sooner, rather than later, at how to piece something.


I wonder if I could make a tank like this one by Eileen Fisher with the silk I bought in China......  Since I know nothing about sewing on silk......  Ha!  I'd better buy some cheaper stuff at JoAnn to practice on.  I have no idea how to do that nice bound edge, but I'm sure it's not easy.

See what you've done Maria!?!!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

iPad sketches for week of 4/28 to 5/4/14

The limited color palette on Notability makes these seem simplistic, but I really enjoy doing them.
I need to explore more tools or apps...

Musings about Value, Flat & Glowing, Figure Ground....

I've done very little since the workshop, of course.  A friend and classmate wrote to ask for my thoughts on Nancy Crow's Flat & Glowin concept, and what started out to be an answer to her e-mail turned into a miniature dissertation, so I decided it made a better blog post than e-mail!

I decided when unpacking and reorganizing my fabric that I would sort it by value instead of color.  I didn't really want to, because I just love to see those pretty bins full of pinks, blues, etc.  It's not really as visually appealing sorted by value.  It was easy to pull out the very lights,  and the very darks, but everything else is sort of a mish-mash.  Did I ever give you my blog website?  I don't really post a lot on there, it's more a record-keeping function for myself and anyone who might be interested.  Here are some pictures of the value experiment: 

What we are supposed to know or do with value?  I know contrast is very important - more important than color (hue) itself.  You can have a beautiful design, but if all the colors are middle values it just mushes together and can't be seen or perceived.  Many of Nancy's exercises start with black and white first.  This way we focus on composition and can't mess up things using value.  Then once you have a composition you like you proceed to convert it to colors.  That's where I usually fail.  She tried to feed us a method for doing this in the final exercise where one side was supposed to be the value reverse of the other side.  If everything was to "middle-ish" the two sides would look the same...  Yet limiting your value range to something less than the full black/white spectrum can be very powerful.  I learned in my color class that light values are defined as "high value" and dark as "low value."  This seemed a little bit backward to me, but... I have collected on a Pinterest board many examples of "High Value" art.  I really like the subtlety of some of these pieces.

I also have a "secret" Pinterst board where I collect examples of quilts or art that just look Bad.  Not to be mean (that's why it's secret - I'd never want the artist to know I'd singled them out) just to make myself think about what makes it bad.  The answer is frequently no contrast.  So a range of values is important, allowing you to discern one figure or shape from another when you look at the overall composition.  Value also plays a role in figure ground as light values should naturally come forward and darks recede.  Yet when I tried a direct reversal, in this example, the figures seemed to come forward in both versions.  Maybe because they are lines, thin in relation to the space around them?  

 I've also been working on figure/ground, in my own weird way. I am not at all sure that I'm interpreting that concept in the same way she does, and I tend to drift off down various sidetracks.  But in my understanding, at its most simple, it is just "What is the object?" and "What is the background?"  Some of the realistic work she referred to, like Degas' ballerinas, were "just" figures and grounds.  I think what is great about them is the beauty of the shapes of the figures and grounds.  But then there seems to be another level, that when I was in school was called "figure/ground reversal."  The classic example is the profile/vase image.
I don't know if for sure if this reversal thing is something Nancy necessarily wants us to aim for.  Sometimes it seems so. Other times I think she says that is not necessary.  If the goal of art is to engage the viewer, then it is desirable to keeping them looking and thinking while their brain tries to decide which way is “right.”    In some of my sketches or studies I played with this, mostly just geometric forms with white backgrounds.  It is not hard to get shapes that you can read either way, but then to also make them beautiful, elegant shapes or "figures," as Nancy prefers to call them, is a little harder.
White shapes or purple shapes?

I have also made it one of my goals to "work on" flat and glowing.  But exactly how is a big mystery, so I have not done anything. Maybe writing about it will help me think about it...
The definition seems to change with Nancy's mood.  When we were at the start of those 10%/90% exercises, she seemed to be saying that you should pick the absolute dullest color you could find, and then she insisted that everything was glowing in comparison, and had to be thrown out of the 10% column.  Yet when we got to the review, she said, "I never told you that it had to be all one color!"  But she essentially did tell us that, because she told us that in any two pairs of colors one would be more glowing and one would be more flat, and to get rid of the glowing one.  
So what IS flat/glowing?  In past classes she called it warm/cool which totally confused everyone since the rest of the art world uses that to apply to red-orange-yellow vs. blue-violet-green.  At another point it was called dull/glowing I think.  I've tried to study color theory a few times, and every article I read seems to have different ways of defining the properties of color.  Intensity, luminosity, saturation, brightness, tints, shades, etc. etc.  I can get overwhelmed and bored with this pretty quickly.  What I really think “flat & glowing” means, mostly, is where a color or fabric is on the spectrum from pure color to gray.   Or how much muddiness of any color has been added, via black/white/gray/brown.  

In the 2012 class, she said something to me that stuck - "Why do you pick such flat colors."  I thought I was picking sophisticated colors, so that helped me see how she was interpreting flat.  And I realized it was true, my sophisticated colors were all equally muddy and nothing jumped out.  So I'm working on using a range of bright to dull, as I refer to define it.  

That's enough musing for today, it's raining so I'm going to the studio!

EDIT:  Here are a few pictures from my Flat/Glowing exercise in progress:

Of course my composition was too complicated.

This version was not flat enough to start.

I liked the rotational feel of the triangles, Nancy said she felt like she was being stabbed by daggers!