As a Christian, and a pastor, I’ve received many looks of concern when I explain that my artwork is “non-representational”, or to put it incorrectly but more recognizably, “abstract”. One seminary student laughed, and flippantly disregarded me, when I mentioned the work of an abstract expressionist. One pastor has said that a Christian artist cannot or should not paint in the vein of abstract expressionism because of its historic un-Christian underpinnings. More recently I have simply received blank looks when the subject is mentioned, because people in Mississippi are too polite to say what they think to your face (unless you mess with a family tradition). Because of this, I’d like to present an explanation for what my “genre” or “style” of artwork is, as well as why I work in my particular “genre” or “style”. This article in particular will cover the philosophy of art and works of art that have influenced me over the years. The next article will cover why I think a Christian can work in contemporary styles or develop his own.
First, we need to clarify some terms. Representation or representational art is the type of art that attempts to imitate or approximate objects, people, or places from the perspective of a human. Representational art encompasses a variety of styles so vast that it is impossible to detail it all here. Different civilizations have possessed different standards at different periods for how to best or most acceptably carry out representational art. For example, I’ve been studying the life of Franciscus Junius, and have learned that his son, Franciscus Junius Jr., was a philologist and artist. During Franciscus Jr.’s lifetime, the favorable style of representation transitioned from Mannerism to Baroque art. Simply put, each culture develops its own styles of representation as a variety of factors influence it.
Abstract art is the type of art that intentionally seeks to abstract representational objects, people, or places. The term itself isn’t entirely helpful because, in a sense, all representational art is an abstraction. In general, theorists use the term abstract to explain a work that has intentionally altered the visual appearance of a thing. Take, for example, Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” While vestiges of a figure remain, the majority of the painting is splintered into forms. In this work it is clear that Duchamp was interested in the work of the Cubists and Futurists, who also employed abstraction.
Non-representational art is the type of art that does not represent objects, people, or places. Frankly, the term only tells you what a work of art isn’t, rather than what it is. Consider the work, “Canyon” by Robert Rauschenberg. While the piece contains a few elements of representation, such as a photograph of a child, a painted-over picture of a statue, a photograph of an automobile, and what looks like clippings from a magazine, the overarching artwork isn’t seeking to represent a person, object, or place. Or perhaps more clearly, take a look at Barnett Newman’s “Onement I”. While you can suggest that the line on this work looks like something, you can only do so by strict analogy. The line is not an attempt to represent or abstract a person, place, or object.
Having defined these terms, we can move on to what exactly my artwork isn’t. My work is not abstract, nor is it representational. That said, it is much harder to define what it is. Within contemporary art movements I clearly don’t fit into a representational school scene like that of Yale, nor with a movement of conceptual artists like that of the Young British Artists. Further, I don’t consider myself an expressionist, and I don’t think my work fits into the expressionist schema. My work isn’t an attempt to resurrect fauvism, expressionism, primitivism of any kind, or minimalism or its contemporary offshoots. It might have connections with contemporary expressions of pop-art (since I’m immersed in popular films, tv shows, and music), but it lacks the mass-production, the stylization, and the fact that the artist actually made it. It is much easier, however, to explain the influences behind my works of art.
All-in-all, I think that there are five main influences behind my work: 1st, Dada [and from Dada: installation art, minimalism, and conceptual art]. 2nd, outsider art. 3rd, Japanese zen paintings. 4th, Abstract Expressionism/Color Field. 5th, Symbolists, Imagists, and Aestheticists in poetry. First, I say that Dada is a main influence behind my work because it is probably is true. I was first exposed to Dada artwork in high school, and though I reject the atheistic philosophy behind it, I value some of its quirky aesthetics. I also enjoy some of its thought-experiments. For instance, to ask whether a painting of a pipe is or is not a pipe, and where the “pipeness” resides, is fascinating. Although Dada artwork seems to get giddy over the supposed fact of the absurdity of “where meaning or value resides”, I think the question itself is interesting. Personally, I don’t approach that question with the same skepticism as the Dadaists, and I’m not concerned about it. Meaning is complicated, and we don’t need to say that it solely resides in an object, the artist, or the perceiver. I’m much more interested in the Dada aesthetic. Most of their works are simple and fairly banal, and created this way for the pointed purpose of questioning whether fine-art is a real, objective thing, or merely an invention imposed by viewers. “Remove the frills that make people imagine the piece is ‘fine art’,” they say, “and perhaps it doesn’t really exist!” Just as an aside, the YBA, Damien Hirst, has clearly been influenced by Dada as well. I recall the story of the time a janitor at a gallery threw away one of Hirst’s pieces, believing it to be trash. Hirst just laughed, and said that this way basically the point of his work. Hirst, like Dada, wants to challenge the notion of “fine art” as a thing that objectively exists (though all of them are certainly willing to exploit the idea of “fine art” to make a living!). Though I disagree with this thought, I do believe it is important to recognize the continuity of fine art with “real life”. It isn’t some detached, sterile realm where things can be coldly analyzed, and the meaning distilled into a few lines on a page. Art is part of the culture of a people. It can’t be severed from the motives or life of the artist. At the same time, I reject Dada’s overarching assumption that “fine art” does not or cannot exist. Despite this, I still enjoy the manner in which the Dadaists arranged their art. It is simple and plain, and whatever meaning is derived from it must be derived from the relation of its basic parts.
Second, outsider art is clearly an influence. I’m particularly impressed by the architecture of Howard Finster, the pottery of George Ohr, and the sketchbooks of Walter Anderson. These three men are clearly more provincial than the Dadaists, confined to their particular southern towns (though Anderson is an exception), and none of them seemed to care for the contemporary standards of aesthetics. If I’m correct, Ohr wasn’t well-recognized in his day, though he advertised himself heavily as the “Mad-Potter of Biloxi”. Finster, on the other hand, became popularized, but only by being “discovered.” He was a Baptist pastor, and painted religious scenes and messages in whatever style he thought would work. Walter Anderson was different than both Ohr and Finster in his art education. He willingly chose to adopt an outsider-art style and lifestyle. All of them seemed to view their work as a process rather than a finished product, though they definitely desired to sell their work. I appreciate different elements of each of these “outsider artists”. I’m not an outsider, having been trained at an institution for art, however the basic direction I was given in undergrad was “find your voice”. The only style or philosophy of art I’ve been pressured to have is one of my own making. This reminds me of the aesthetic of the outsider-artist. Either with a firm belief in the worth of their own style/method of art-making, or without a need for income (and therefore without a need to conform to popular styles), these outsider artists developed their own methods for art-making to suit their personal goals. They rejected the popular style of the day, not categorically, but simply in regards to their own methodology. I feel similarly. I don’t categorically reject contemporary op-art, minimalism, conceptual art, abstract expressionism, or tribalism, but I simply don’t find these categories useful. Sure, I like various elements of each of these movements, but I wouldn’t consider myself a member of any of them. Further, my teachers heavily emphasized the idea of process over product. Like outsider artists, I highly value the process of creating art, viewing it as a part of daily life, and not as an esoteric or transcendent time where I escape from reality. Many of the things I create are not of high enough quality to be deemed “fine art”, and they end up either as trash or hanging in my studio. But this is part of the process. Out of the process, jewels emerge–but not everything is a jewel.
Third, I’m definitely influenced by the artwork of Japanese Zen artists. Some of this artwork has come to me via the work of Makoto Fujimura, an artist living and working in New Jersey. He is particularly influenced by American abstract expressionism as well as certain schools of Japanese Nihonga artwork. His work impresses me for a lot of reasons, which I won’t detail here, but I was mainly interested in the form of his work. In the “West” (I hate to make the whole East-West false dichotomy) we really do seem to find a work “balanced” when there is visual weight on the left hand side of a painting. Meanwhile, the converse is true in the “East”. Mako’s work seems to flip-flop between having weighty visual sections on the left or on the right. This made me delve into Japanese (and some Chinese) artwork, where I found an interesting combination of poetry with visual accompaniment. As a poet, I am fascinated by the cultural acceptance of this combination. For Americans, it is only post-modern artists, interested in reader-response theory, who tinker with the interaction of text and image. Unlike most of these Japanese paintings, however, I did not want to combine representation with text. But then I came across some Japanese artists who combined text without representation! Some of the Zen painters in Japan used a form called ensō, which is a minimalistic brush-stroke, meant to be part of a daily process of achieving enlightenment, and symbolizing a number of conceptual ideas. Again, while disagreeing with the philosophy behind this, I enjoy the fact that such a beautiful basic form could be produced from a daily process, and with a rich conceptual background. I want to produce work like this as well–work with significant conceptual notes, and yet with minimal objects or forms to evoke ideas.
Fourth, I’ve perhaps spent the most time studying the works of impressionists, abstract expressionists, and color field painters. I’ve also been trained in plein air painting, which, though distinct from these movements, is slightly related. Historically, abstract expressionists and color field painters had, overall, a similar agenda, but differed as to how to accomplish their goal. Abstract expressionists adopted the agenda of the expressionists, but believed that abstraction better accomplished the goal of expressing subjective emotional response. Color field painters, on the other hand, followed Clive Bell’s argument that,“significant form is the only quality common and peculiar to all the works of visual art that move me” (italics mine). He goes on to argue that while some paintings use form to communicate something else–as in a ‘normal’ painting of an object, person, or situation–form itself is what truly evokes aesthetic emotion. He concludes, “The forms of art are inexhaustible; but all lead by the same road of aesthetic emotion to the same world of aesthetic ecstasy.” While Bell himself painted representationally, his thoughts were adopted to argue that mere form ought to be juxtaposed to evoke the greatest amount of “aesthetic emotion”, thus leading viewers to “the world of aesthetic ecstasy.” Some might attempt to correlate minimalism with color field, but the two really are quite different in their goals. Personally, I’m not interested in the goal of expressing or evoking the greatest amount of aesthetic emotion. I think that aesthetic experience is a vital part of fine art, indeed of all of life (as Dewey once argued), but I don’t make it my goal to find a formula to produce this experience. I’m influenced, rather, by the formal aspects of abstract expressionism and color field paintings. I consider many of the works of Rothko, Newman, Diebenkorn, and Hofmann to be exceptionally beautiful.
Fifth, and last, I am influenced by the symbolist, aestheticist, and imagist poets of the early 20th century. While I’m not a huge fan of symbolist paintings, it is the poetry that has affected my view of artwork. Though many of the symbolists seem to have bought into the aesthetic theories of Schopenhauer, I am unwilling (pardon the pun) to accept his mindset. I agree that aesthetic experience is important, but reject the idea that one can, or ought to seek to, escape suffering via aesthetic contemplation. I enjoy the movement primarily for the concept of what a later imagist, William Carlos Williams, says, “-Say it, no ideas but in things-“. Overall, I think I am attempting to develop the idea that aesthetic experience is a vital part of viewing fine art, and that things-themselves possess the “ideas” that we need to discover within them. This process of viewing artwork isn’t to be done to escape from reality, but rather to learn about reality and grow mature. Because ideas and meaning are complicated, it is best to explain that meaning is something that exists in relation between the artist, the artwork, and the viewer, and it is something that must be discovered. The meaning of a thing grows with it as it takes on historical significance (or insignificance), and ends up transcending the immediate intent of the artist, or the immediate perceptions of the viewer. This means that, again and again, we must look for meaning in the thing itself. Ad fontes.
In summary, this overview really doesn’t explain why I make things the way that I make them in a programatic way. I have shown my influences, and the various things that I appreciate or dislike about them. I’ve tried to be honest in showing the strands of art history that have made a significant impact on me. Next, though, I’ll need to provide an explanation for why a Christian, and a pastor, feels that he can work in the style/medium that I currently use.