Abstract paintings are compelling. Many people find that whether they love or hate them, they cannot help but be drawn to them, to engage with them, and to have to contend emotionally with them. An abstraction is a unique concept. It sort of tinkers with our brains, spirits, and emotions in fundamental ways. It takes our minds and pulls, twists, and prods at them in subtle ways that sometimes have surprisingly not-so-subtle results. It is not uncommon for an observer of a certain art piece to literally feel so moved by the experience that they either laugh or cry. I have felt both, and am equally amazed and delighted by the experience. On the surface, abstractions on canvas are just that, something on canvas. There is nothing active or moving. It is, after all, just color and shape and texture applied to a surface.
Where the magic begins is when we begin to feel the impact that such things have on our own individual psyche. We start to recognize how the colors and shapes transcend our normal linguistic reliance, and how those things inform our selves in ways that the normal language simply fails to do. This is an elusive reality that makes it somewhat difficult to understand exactly what is going on because the use of words can only hope to merely sneak up on meanings that are really felt more than thought. It’s not a phenomenon that is entirely foreign.
If, for example, you encountered someone who had never tasted a banana before and they see you eating one and ask you what it tastes like, you would struggle to find the right words to adequately describe the banana flavor. You might make reference to other things that it sort of tastes like, but you would be hard-pressed to fully describe the banana flavor. The person would have to take a bite and make their own connection with the experience. True, the banana flavor is there whether they experience it or not, but it is not something that is easily described with language. Sometimes this aspect of our language goes overlooked, and when this limit is applied to our experience with abstract paintings we can then start to appreciate their real power.
Recently, I was visiting with artist Lea Kelley about one of her abstract paintings. As we stood there in the gallery looking at it, I quickly realized that the value of the experience was in the way I connected with the more primal aspects of the colors and shapes. This was without trying to put words to anything and was both humbling and sublime. The more I interacted with the painting, the more I recognized the transcendent nature of the experience.
As Kelley started to describe some of the processes she went through in creating the painting, I was impressed at the variety and depth of her own experiences that went into informing not only what she painted, but how she painted. Adding a shape or color here or there was much more deliberate and meaningful than I had imagined. I learned that colors and shapes help connect us with more global, or common, notions that all humans share. I learned that things like archetypes, numbers, common human values, and philosophy, all play into the way abstract paintings help us transcend our linguistic limits, but also how they connect us more as a community. I am thrilled to have been exposed to the wonderful world of the abstract and invite anyone to experience the same thing.