“By removing the content from my work, I shifted the visual reality of painting to include the space around it.” Ellsworth Kelly.
I encountered the above painting (I didn’t make note of the title of it, sorry) and quote from the artist during my museum trip on Friday. I stared at this piece for a long time. I don’t like it. I’m not a fan of this kind of abstract art. I inherently don’t get it. My art form, if I can be so arrogant as to call myself an artist, relies on content. When I imagine opening a book of blank pages and explaining it with something like the quote above, it makes me … well, sort angry actually. (It also makes me think of Todd Snider’s brilliant Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues. Now that’s alternative to alternative!) It is precisely why I dislike this painting that I spent so long looking at it and even longer thinking about it.
I suppose what I really spent time trying to see and thinking about is the removal of content calling attention to space. The write up on the plaque beside the painting said something about shadows and the light from an opening door. Okay. In a way, I get that. Intellectually. There’s more to the world than the objects in it. The absence of things–we have shadows where there is no light (but we have shadows because we have light)–is just as important as the presence. I’m a huge fan of altering perception. Why see a simple flower when you can break it down into shapes or colors or scents or the very space where these things merge to become the flower? Well, okay, that sounds as pretentious and silly as Kelly’s quote sounded to me when I read it for the first time. But art, any art, is a matter of observation, and if you really pay attention to what you observe, you can begin to mentally break a thing down. The joy of this is that what you find in the interstices is not what the person standing next to you will find. Which reminds me of a poem of mine that ran on the Piker Press long ago. Someone made a comment about how she related to the poem (I’d link, but comments have been turned off and on a couple times since and it’s no longer there). Whatever it meant to her, though, it meant something entirely different to me when I wrote it and likely would mean something entirely different to me now, six years on. I think that’s beautiful.
That’s kind of a sloppy segue to my point, but eh, what are ya gonna do? If I meant for this to be a coherent, well-thought out essay on the nature of art, I’d have written this in a notebook somewhere first. Anyway. Here’s something that may resemble a point. Kelly’s painting, while I can and do appreciate it intellectually, leaves me emotionally cold (as does most abstract art of this ilk). And shouldn’t art evoke something more than intellectual understanding? Shouldn’t I, looking at a blue shape on a white wall, have some kind of emotional response? Instead of standing there going what the fuck is this shit, wouldn’t it be better if I was all like, oh, it’s like when you open a door on a dark room and the light from outside bleeds in and slowly fills the space with just that shape and it reminds me of X or O or makes me want to tell a creepy story of a child peeking into a dark room he’s been forbidden to enter? Because that’s what art’s supposed to do, right? I’ve always thought so. Of course, emotionally, I am pretty flat line. I have emotions, but they run extremely deep, and I’m not keen to tell the world about them. So it could be a failing on my part to emotionally connect to Kelly’s blue shape. It is a lovely shade of blue, though.
Thing is, I don’t think it is my reserved nature preventing me from appreciating the piece. I think it’s the lack of content, which isn’t, in my mind, translating into another sort of content. Because I am a writer, because I think from that place that develops content, I have trouble taking a lack of content beyond face value. It’s a fucking blue shape. Okay, and? What’s in it? If you have the nerve to pop a piece of your vision onto a canvas, fucking show me something. I know the guy who came up with the ideas behind the art would be far more engaging than the art itself.
Then again, can I say that the piece fails if I’m spending this much time and energy thinking and writing about something I don’t like? I don’t think so. I’m thinking now how this concept applies to fiction and poetry, if it can be applied at all (I think it can). It doesn’t directly tie into my newly discovered lack of patience for longer fiction (I want to edit out scenes that have nothing to do with the story; I do this for movies, too — X-Men First Class would be maybe 90 minutes long if they let me edit it, but I digress), but I think it’s tangentially related. Remove unnecessary content. But what’s unnecessary? Do you need the dark room, the door, the light outside and the shadow? It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
What are you trying to accomplish? What am I trying to accomplish? A blog entry nearly 1000 words long that comprises less than an hour’s worth of work and contains absolutely nothing of significance. Hurrah. I feel gratified.