Extra-cultural reviews by synaesthetes, symbolists, and strangers.
Today, I saw a vast expanse of some strange material, like the three-dimensional instantiation of some impossible section of the ocean surface captured in a layer of rippled skin. Some places were thin as a tendril. Disappearing into the wall, brittle as an ancient paper wing, its creases looked as if they were rubbed with soot, ash, fine grit and char: some deep dark powder that resides in the air and at the base of every dying flame.
Its presence was that of an entity, a quality enhanced by its visual intimations that the waves were crashing over the arms and hands of their creator (in motion across the surface of the wall) as they formed and were culled from time. It had one quality from each of my favorite works. An ominous delicacy. The sensation of impossible forces, hovering. Some mysterious connection with the artist’s body as a force of nature. The ashen color in all its variations, encoding baroque references to the sublime in every ripple and fold. The wrinkles like those of flesh and floodwater and thermodynamics, the gruesome tint a gentle film of gravitas over an impossibly captured form, merging with and emerging from the wall. Bound in places by the artist’s movements, he, the limiting force on a gallery wall, instead of the other way around. Conflagration from a role in the art world, to the world and man’s role in the art, and its role as an entity, acting upon the world, and us in it. A reclamation of intimacy in art, as it struggles against the erasure of the cold wall. An artist coming into his power as the maker of myth. A myth whose pallid, Vesuvian nature seems to have man’s mortality embedded in its epic form.
Yes, it is elegant. And yes, it is not representational in the way we have come to expect illusionism to be representational. But it has transcended the frequent pitfalls of “non-representational” art. It does not “re”-present, strictly. It Presents. It presents a direct line beyond image, allowing us to be transported directly into the realm of mystery. All of the qualities that have fed my bias against certain types of abstraction were absent here, allowing this exquisite form to eliminate my resistance in one fell swoop. It was truly something to behold.
In order to describe why Edward Riley’s mysteriously emotive piece was able to destroy my lifelong resistance to abstract art, it seems most fitting to touch briefly upon some of the most famous ways of seeing abstraction that his piece was able to successfully avoid referencing.
Piet Mondrian wrote, “If unity is contemplated in a precise and definite way, attention will be directed solely towards the universal, and as a consequence, the particular will disappear from art– as painting has already shown. For the universal cannot be expressed purely so long as the particular obstructs the path. Only when this is no longer the case can the universal consciousness (intuition, that is) which is at the origin of all art, be rendered directly, giving birth to a purified art expression.” Mondrian believed that purity could only be attained in the medium of painting by directly rendering the universal consciousness. He subscribed to Platonic Realism, which claims that ideas or forms (the purest essence of all things upon which relationships, qualities, and physical objects in the material world are based) make up the ultimate reality, and that people are born with a priori knowledge of these universal forms or ideas. That inherent knowledge is what Mondrian referred to when he wrote about intuition or universal consciousness. That ultimate reality was thought to have an independent existence outside of time and space, and although the forms that make up the ‘pure’ reality are abstractions which cannot be perceived directly by the senses, an intuitive knowledge is what would allow us all to mentally connect the things we perceive with the abstract ideas (forms) upon which they are based. Since it is these abstract forms that make non-physical connections, and therefore any kind of conception of unity possible, Mondrian believed that the careful contemplation of unity would inevitably lead to thoughts of the universal. “The particular” (or material representation) in our world was considered to be a mere shadow of forms in some higher level of pure reality. To Mondrian, intuition, or universal consciousness, was the a priori knowledge of the forms that exist abstractly in that pure reality. Mondrian thought of that knowledge as existing “at the origin of all art”, so for him, any attempt at reaching purity in a painting would really be an attempt to render the pure origin of art; the universal consciousness. It would not make sense to to Mondrian to use the particular to express the universal consciousness because the “pure” Platonic universal reality cannot be perceived directly through recognizable material objects in our world. According to Mondrian’s ideas, the particular was an obstacle between man and the rendering of the universal consciousness, and that obstacle had to be removed in order to have any chance of successfully achieving purity in the medium. Since Mondrian believed that painting material objects would be detrimental to any attempt to directly render the universal consciousness, abstraction in art became the only rational way to strive for his idea of purity in the medium.
Although Greenberg and Mondrian both saw abstraction as a way of trying to create a “purity” in the medium of painting, they had very different ideas about what purity meant. In the context of Greenberg’s description of Modernist painting, a “pure” painting would be one that did what only a painting (and no other type of art) could do. By eliminating any qualities that could be achieved with other mediums, painting would carve out a distinct place for itself as a justified, and therefore necessary and “pure” art. Purity of material in Greenberg’s description meant a critical stripping away of every connection with any other art form until painting had clearly outlined the service it offers that no other medium is capable of providing. Representation in art in general wasn’t inherently problematic, but since three-dimensional representation was considered to be the natural domain of sculpture, the elimination of recognizable form in painting was simply a way to further delineate the uniqueness of painting. In this case, Greenberg saw abstraction as one possible kind of tool that Modernist painters used divisively in their efforts to isolate (and therefore purify) the medium. In Mondrian’s version of “pure” painting, abstraction is more than just a possible means to an end, it is an absolutely crucial element. To Mondrian, purity of the medium meant stripping away any material illusions in order to directly express the universal consciousness from which he believed all art stemmed. Since he saw recognizable form as an illusory veil that separates people from the universal (the higher level of reality), the only possible way he could hope to achieve purity was by eliminating all recognizable representations of the particular. This necessity of eliminating the particular applied not only to painting, but to all mediums of art. The resulting abstraction was not intended to separate painting from other mediums, but rather to unify the piece of art with the higher level of reality from which art stems. Even though Mondrian and Greenberg both recognized abstraction as a means of attempting to achieve a purity of the artistic medium, the purity Greenberg discussed was one that specifically separated painting from all other mediums. The purity Mondrian described did not demand that painting be completely different from all other forms of art. The goal of Mondrian’s purity was to separate art from the entire material world, as a way of connecting with and expressing the universal. Greenberg’s description of purity was rooted in the functional, and Mondrian’s description of purity was rooted in the metaphysical, but both “Modern” men wrote that abstraction might eliminate ‘re-production’ in art and purify the medium of paint.
In “Nature of Abstract Art”, Meyer Shapiro writes, “The ideas underlying abstract art have penetrated deeply into all artistic theory, even of their original opponents; the language of absolutes and pure sources of art, whether of feeling, reason, intuition or the sub-conscious mind, appears in the very schools which renounce abstraction.” Striving to express or instantiate these conceptions of artistic purity and absolutism may be one of the most significantly uncreative mistakes Modern artists made in America. When we attach abstract art to idiotic and completely extremist ideals, it becomes difficult for contemporary non-extremists to appreciate the art for its own potentially evocative qualities. Applying flawed ideological dichotomies to what could be perceived as a beautiful work of abstraction is as effective as slapping a Nike logo on the Mona Lisa. The logo would not be so offensive if it were used where it makes sense, but on the Mona Lisa, it detracts from an artwork that is far superior in quality to its brand. One of the glorious qualities of Edward Riley’s non-representational wall sculpture is its complete lack of pretension. Although its presence dominates an entire gallery wall, there is none of the machismo purist zealotry that large abstract objects can so easily embody. What this piece does embody is a reference to its makers body: as a figure in space, and as an artist in time.
Because of the fine details of the surface, the sensual tonal variations, and the obvious involvement of chance in the creation of the waves that coalesced over the absent artist’s arms to form this strange topology, this piece escapes the weight of purist notions. It is a piece clearly rooted in the exploration of an artist’s body to his work, and as such, his relationship with the world as he participates in creating it. Although the materials and location are not outdoors and raw, this piece manages to evoke the majesty of earthworks. Like “Spiral Jetty”, it places a familiar material (plaster in this case, the salt and dirt of the gallery’s ecosystem) outside of its own habitual context and allows the viewer to experience a new involvement with its emanations in a way that has the potential to drastically alter our future perceptions, both of what is, and what could be.