Abstract Notion, abstract nation

 The Cllyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado.

The Cllyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado.

Our nation is, without question, an angry and divided one. This state of affairs scares me as mother, and as an American, but I am coping by thinking a great deal about rage –how to diffuse it in my own life, and in my broader community. But sometimes you stumble onto it like a landmine, and it takes a long time to piece yourself together.  

Years ago I taught a class at the Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was ungainly and pregnant, and far enough along that I was just about to lose my flight privileges. I remember being cold in that raw April and staying alone in a spooky cabin. But what I recall the most is my first encounter with a certain kind of rage from a complete stranger. There was a timid young man named Stephen in my class who wanted to tackle my assigned still life with a fresh perspective. I suggested he “blow up” a component of the still life , in this case a gourd, and paint it. He was delighted by this one simple exercise in abstraction and immersed himself in painting for the rest of the week.

When his mother came to see the student show at the end of the week, she took one look at his painting and stomped over to me. She said: “This is crap. You cannot tell this is a gourd. How can I hang this on our wall? What kind of teacher are you? You taught him nothing!”  She was shaking with fury, and as the adrenaline and fear swept through me, I grew a little frightened for my safety –and my unborn daughter’s. I tried to explain my approach, but I might as well have been talking to a windy Lake Michigan — she refused to even look at me.  She turned, swearing, and went to get her money back–or so she said. Her gentle son gathered his things, head down, and slunk away after her.

Although the mother’s reaction was extreme and loony, I am still startled by the anxiety, and occasional hostility, that abstraction can produce. While the high end art world has long embraced and cultivated every kind of expression, there is still a disconnect and a constant need for better education about art, process and art history in our schools, in our communities. We naturally tend to pull away from what we don’t immediately know, or don’t visually recognize as an object.  It’s safer to choose from known images, from landscapes to still lifes. You don’t have to explain that cow in the pasture or the bird or the bowl of fruit. Abstraction has a spectral range –, from the abstracted, to the thoroughly abstract to the purely conceptual. Without a narrative, and subsequent education, people will fret about abstract painters and their work — what if they are tricksters who are taking some kind of shortcut and flipping the viewer off?

My own work moves between representational and abstraction, but I still field apprehensive questions, even at my age and at my stage in my career. “Why don’t you paint trees, or faces, or mountains?”  “How long did this take?” Or “I don’t get it.” One internet critic even told me I painted like a child and that I was a fraud. These encounters do knock you back on your heels for a moment, or an hour, or maybe a day.  But I have finally learned to act, not react (thanks to my husband’s influence), by asking my own questions of the viewer, and by offering my backstory if the title and artist statement do not resonate. For the most part, this simple strategy works for maneuvering all kinds of terrain. John Cheever put it best:

I think I can conclude that life, as it passes before our eyes is a creative force — that one thing is put usefully upon another — that what we lose in one exchange is more than replenished by the next–that it is only us, only our pitiful misunderstanding that makes for crookedness, darkness and anger.