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But What Does It Mean?:A Guide to the Perplexed

Tomorrow, six of my pieces will be shown at Belhaven University at an alumni exhibition.  These pieces are small, roughly 12″x12″, and are already framed.  As I prepare to talk about my work, I think that a question many people may ask is, “Well this looks nice, but what does it mean?”  

It seems to me that a majority of our nation either considers fine art unimportant, useless, or at least confusing.  This is especially the case with fine art that doesn’t contain a trace of representation.  How can a work that doesn’t “represent” something have anything meaningful to say to the viewer or to the community? Can it really be anything more than esoteric? I think that a huge stumbling block here is in the lack of a known language.  The realm of non-representational art isn’t language-less, it simply employs a type of language that isn’t based in the symbols employed by representative art.  My goal with this short essay is to explain how my work works, or how it “talks”.  My goal is to help people understand how non-representational art has a “language”.

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So then, what does it mean?  As we look at the painting above, titled, “Wound”, we start trying to analyze it.  With any work of art, a person should start by asking, “What is it made of?”  It is made out of beeswax, pigment, and wood.  The next question a person ought to ask it, “Why is it made out of these things?  Is the artist attempting to communicate something with the material he uses?”  While a person might ignore these first two questions when looking at representational art, which they shouldn’t, they must ask these questions when looking at art that has no imagery.  

In my case, the material that I use is very much related to the meaning of my work.  I chose beeswax after a long process of aiming at one thing: finding a medium that would both conceal and reveal its own history of process.  Oil paint, for example, doesn’t explicitly reveal the layers that are behind it.  Certainly, the under-layers give the over-layers their shimmer and final form, but an untrained person won’t be able to see the differing layers of development.  I don’t want this to be the case for my work.  I want the viewer to be able to see “the process” to some extent.  I care about this because I want my work to speak to God’s hand in providence.  He ordains all things that come to pass.  Often, we do not understand the way in which the hard times, the boring times, the dull times are being laid out in order for a more brilliant time to be built on top of it.  Without the preparatory event, the later event would be impossible, or insignificant to us.   Overall, God works all things to the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  The material of beeswax, then, serves to illustrate this point.  The material becomes an analogy for the providence of God.

Next, though, a viewer should ask, “What is the form of the work?”  They should be wondering about the composition, the design, of the artwork.  In the case of “Wound”, the artwork is slightly rectangular.  Asymmetrical blackish-blue brush strokes are visible beneath layers of pale green.  Over this background, large green nodes develop and spread up from the bottom right to the top left corner of the piece.  In any non-representational work, the form might be suggestive of something representational.  So, for example, some people have said that the top layer looks like coral, mushrooms, various fungi, or flower blossoms.  Basically, it is suggestive of growth.  But the bottom layer is also suggestive.  They look like deep wounds that have begun corroding.  

Last, a viewer should ask, “How is the title related to the work?”  Often, in contemporary art, the title is completely unrelated, unfortunately.  With my work, though, I always attempt to guide the viewer into a better understanding of the meaning of the work.  The name of this piece is “Wound”, hearkening to the bottom layer.  This title might seem odd to a person.  A work that seems lovely, or beautiful, shouldn’t carry such a harsh, almost gross sounding name.  But the point is found in the relation of the form to the medium.  The form suggests growth and wounds, while the medium suggests the idea of God’s providence.  If you put these concepts together, I think you do arrive at the idea of, “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities.”  The greatest blessing came out of the greatest curse.  Any who believe in the promise of Christ Jesus will be forgiven, because Christ died to bear the wrath of God due for the sins of His people.  The most profound moment in all of human history was when God was most displeased with His Son, pouring out His wrath, but simultaneously most pleased because Jesus willingly bore it.  Similarly, the wounds that the Christian receives, suffering under persecution or hardship, struggling under a hard providence from God, will inevitably bear greater blessings.  The glory that awaits us will far outstrip any struggle that we now face.  Our wounds yield growth and glory for us.

My hope is that this has somehow helped to serve as a guide for understanding not only my work, but also the work of other non-representational artists.  Though our work doesn’t “depict” an image, the material, form, and even the location of our artwork is inevitably symbolic, and meaning-laden.

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