“I don’t get it.” Finding beauty in abstract art

One of my favorite parts of my job is talking about art—or, rather, listening about art.  With a casual remark, a guest to the gallery can make me think in a new way about a piece I’ve looked at every day for a month.  We look at the same thing, but what we see is different.  Every work of art is an ink blot test. 

Joel Sager’s current series of portraits is especially rich fodder for people’s imaginations.  The subjects of the multimedia pieces are rendered in a realistic though slightly exaggerated fashion.  They gaze back at the viewer with enigmatic expressions, and people enjoy guessing at what the faces are trying to communicate. 

Interpreting faces is well within most people’s comfort zones.  We have a lot of practice doing it.  Almost everyone who looks at Joel’s portraits is intrigued by their ambiguity, but no one says, “I don’t get it.”  They just keep looking and keep guessing.  That’s the fun.

It is more difficult to bring the same spirit of openness to interpreting non-representational art, where are no footholds of familiarity.  Rather than seeing something that already has a label —“face” or “apple”— the viewer is confronted with the medium itself, ordered only by abstract principles of art.  It can be intimidating.

But abstract art offers us a unique opportunity to think about art both conceptually and sensuously.  The absence of recognizable objects encourages us to think beyond them. 

Joel’s portraits are beautiful artifacts that give us the chance to think about the inner worlds of strangers.  But Brian D. Smith’s oil paintings, which are also part of the current exhibition, do something else.  They directly beseech us to think about color and composition, and also about oil paint itself.  He trowels sherbet colors on thick, and undercuts them with harsher tones.  Somehow, this communicates both forceful energy and a sense of the places for which the paintings are named:  “Ivory Coast;” “Mother Russia;” “Roatan.”  Pondering this deepens one’s understanding of art. 

If you like art, but think you don’t “get” abstract art, please give this a try:   Stop by the gallery and treat Brian D. Smith’s abstract art with the same attentive curiosity as Joel Sager’s portraits.  Actually, I would recommend juxtaposing the two collections even if you love abstract art.  Even if you MAKE abstract art. 

In addition to offering its own bounty, Smith’s work will help you to appreciate Joel’s work in different ways—as pieces of craftsmanship, as well as representations of something else.  When I first looked at the portraits, I thought about the faces.  After considering Brian D. Smith’s work, I looked again and noticed that gestural application of India Ink is responsible for the lifelike impression of hair, and that the subjects’ shirts are actually wallpaper overlaid with pencil shading. 

 I once had a very wise literature professor who told his students that we didn’t have to like everything, but we had to take the time to understand why we felt the way we did.  That’s something I’ve carried with me, and I will apply it now to art: 

There are many different ways to look at art, and the only wrong way is “too quickly.”



2 Responses to ““I don’t get it.” Finding beauty in abstract art”

  1. August 20, 2011 at 1:03 am

    i was really quite taken with the brian smith works – easy on the eyes and truly feel-worthy; materiality and speed to the hilt. a nice experience.

  2. August 20, 2011 at 2:24 am

    Most people enjoy some kind of abstract art. However, there are those who don’t understand and don’t enjoy non-objective art. Abstract art is simply art that doesn’t “represent” a “realistic” likeness of a person, place or thing. Cartoons are abstract art. A painting by Tom Benton is abstract art. Now, there are many who aren’t fans of Picasso, Bacon, Sleadd, etc.–not their kind of abstract art. These people just won’t let go and enjoy. They will, however let go and enjoy a colorful sunset, moss on rocks in a creek, a field of wildflowers, etc. These things, if painted, might take on the look of “non-objective” paintings. These non-appreciators will stand in front of an abstract/non-objective painting with bold colors and expressive lines and say they “don’t understand” while wearing abstract prints on their neckties or dresses. It isn’t that some people aren’t capable of understanding or appreciating abstract/non-objective art… they just don’t want to relax and enjoy. As the saying goes, “fear no art!”

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