No message

I used to stare at abstract art and think: I don’t understand this. I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to be seeing here. They’re talking a language I don’t understand, and there doesn’t seem to be a dictionary available.

And now, here I am, making this stuff. How did this happen? And is there anything I can share from my journey that could be of help to others who would like to understand? This is what I’m going to try and do in this post. I want to share something of my journey of discovery, of how I got from “what on earth is this stuff” to being able to actually enjoy it on a very deep level.

The key thing that I learned was this: forget about questions like “what am I supposed to be seeing here” or “what is the artist trying to convey to me” – there is no message you’re supposed to get, it’s not a riddle, you won’t get points for getting the answer right.

Now, I’m saying this and I’m conscious that there may actually be artists out there who view things differently and who do create abstract art in an attempt to convey some kind of message. I can’t speak for them, and I can’t say anything much about that sort of thing. If there is such art out there, I have no idea how it’s supposed to work. What I can talk about is the sort of abstract art which I have learned to engage with. (and which I have found myself beginning to make)

I think of it as “deep calling to deep”, or: right brain talking to right brain.

Do you know about the right brain and left brain and their different functions? The left brain is the logical, rational side. It does things like maths and the stuff we call thinking, it’s good with verbal coherence – it’s that part of my head that doesn’t wake up before I’ve had enough coffee. The right brain is where imagination and creativity take place, and I feel such joy just talking about it – I love my right brain, it’s fun and wild and does crazy creative stuff. It’s not that the left brain doesn’t have its uses – it’s great for sudoku, for example. (Ok, I’m not being totally serious here. I use my left brain a lot. But I love those times when I can switch it off for a bit and let my creative juices flow.)

So, what happens when you’re looking at art? If you’re looking at realistic art – or even semi-realistic (where you can identify objects though they may not be presented in a totally realistic way), you can use your left brain and ask questions like: what is shown in this picture? why did the painter include a duck/colour that person blue/make this thing look bigger than it is in reality – questions that you can engage with on a rational level. You can also engage with it on the level of aesthetic pleasure – enjoying the beauty of a work of art that is nice to look at. But if these are the only ways you’re used to enjoying art, then when you see an abstract painting you might think: I don’t know what the artist is trying to show me, so how can I relate to this? (and if it doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing to you then you can’t even engage with it as a thing of beauty.)

Next time this happens to you, try switching off your left brain. Don’t try to analyse what you’re seeing, don’t do this kind of squinting that we sometimes do, when we look at something really really hard, concentrating and making a huge effort to try and somehow see the hidden message. Let go of the idea that there is a message you’re supposed to be getting. Relax. Chill. Let go. Allow your imagination to go free.

Remember when you were a kid and you’d see shapes in the clouds, or a bunny rabbit in the moon? Wouldn’t it be fun to do that again? You can do it when looking at abstract art. It’s okay. You’re allowed to.

Or just look at it and let yourself feel. Let what you’re seeing impact your emotions. Allow it to come in and to speak straight into your guts. Some abstract paintings can do that.

These are the keys I was given along the way, through artists I’ve been getting to know online. I’ve learned a lot through hanging out on Google+ and getting to know creative people who share not just their work but also their lives, their thoughts and feelings. There are several I could mention, but I want to talk about two key players in my learning process:

I got one important key from Max Rubenacker, who went through a phase of posting photos that were abstract in the sense that they were just bits of paving/walls/etc carved out of context, so all you saw was patterns/shapes/textures and you could look at those images the way you’d look at clouds, seeing whatever your imagination comes up with. Max was posting these images with the question “what do you see?” and inviting us to let our imagination go wild. It took me a while to realise that that’s what he was doing – at first I approached these images with my left brain fully engaged, trying to decipher the riddle, but at some stage I twigged: this wasn’t about whether or not we can guess or work out what it was really a picture of, it was about having fun with the image, imagining an alternate universe, aliens frolicking around, whatever. It helped me to loosen up – and later on, as I was exploring the world of photography, it gave me permission to do that kind of thing too, to carve out images out of context and present them as they are, leaving the viewers to see whatever their imagination will let them see.

The other key came from Abigail Markov, who paints, and presents her abstract paintings without any expectations from her audience. It is very clear to me that Abby pours her guts into her work, that her paintings come from the very depth of her soul – but she is totally accepting of reactions like: ooh, that looks yummy/I see a rabbit in the bottom right hand corner/I don’t know why but I just love looking at this. She creates from the guts, but she doesn’t expect you to guess what she was feeling when she painted the stuff, or to somehow magically get some sort of message through looking at it – she’s perfectly ok with each person engaging with her paintings in whatever way works for them, taking from it what they can get from it, and – oh yes, she’s ok with people commenting on her work without using any special jargon or teminology. Pretentiousness just doesn’t seem to exist in her world.

There’ve been others too, people who have shared their photography or drawings or all sorts of visual creativity and allowed me to enjoy it at whatever level I can, at the same time giving me ideas and inspiration for my own creativity. Part of my journey has been about simply getting used to this stuff – being so immersed in imaginative art, surrounded by people who are constantly pushing at boundaries, so that crazy creativity has become normal to me. (I use the word “crazy” as a positive descriptor when I’m talking about art.)

Deep calls to deep… there’s a deep part of my soul that expresses itself through abstract art, a part that was woken up through being exposed to the fruit of other people doing the same thing… though differently, of course, because each of us is unique and the stuff that comes out of the depth of my being will not be identical to what come out of someone else’s.

Last night I did some of this. I used one of Max’s photos (with permission) and, using digital tools, I painted onto it, creating something that was in the end visually pleasing to me. It was something I felt a deep need to do, and the process was what it was about for me – I wasn’t trying to paint anything in particular, I wasn’t trying to convey any message (even if I started out thinking in terms of writing on a wall) and if you look at it and ask me what you’re supposed to see there then I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that. But if you enjoy it at all, on any level, even if it’s just aesthetic pleasure, that would be seriously cool.

Here’s this thing I made. Switch off your left brain, that analytic side that wants to think about stuff – you can promise it a sudoku later if it shuts up now and lets you engage with this thing using your imaginative right brain. That’s how I created it – by letting my right brain go wild. There is no dictionary or phrase book, it’s not in any language really. The way to “read” it is through the same means that I used for “writing” it – switching off the left brain for a while.

Graffiti on Max’s Wall

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