Comprehending Abstract Art

In the last couple of years my propensity towards abstraction has become more prevalent in much of my photography. After hearing me use the word abstract to describe some of my work, people often ask me just what abstract means. They recognize it as art jargon, and may have a vague notion of what the term means, but can’t quite grasp a solid command of the vocabulary to use it with confidence. Some aren’t quite comfortable viewing abstract art, either. I’ve observed how some people react positively to the mysterious nature of abstract art, while others are uncomfortable with visual stimuli that they can’t easily place into literal context or relate to a tangible experience.

Abstract Long Exposure Architecture by Johnny Kerr
Signs of Life, 2014

I want to offer some thoughts that might help to enlighten anyone who is interested in extending their artistic vocabulary. Most of my examples will be photography-based because that’s my primary medium. The goal here is not to change your taste in art, but to open you up to new ways of appreciating beauty. All forms of art—from literature to visual and performance art, and the many sub-genres within each—have the potential to edify the viewer if he or she is receptive. By learning, at the very least, to appreciate various and diverse forms of art, you open yourself up to new ways of experiencing beauty. You don’t necessarily need to invest in a piece, take it home and hang it on your own wall in order to benefit from it. I’m often surprised when visiting art galleries just how frequently I am impacted by works of art that are outside of my typical taste. Taking the time to view a work of art adds something to me, even if it’s not a piece I would want to buy and take home. You just have to be open-minded, take some time, and put forth the effort to process what you’re seeing, hearing, reading, feeling, etc. You might be surprised at what it has to teach you.

So, what does abstract mean? First of all, abstract art is non-representational (see example below). It embodies a departure from reality, by varying degrees, which obscures the contextual clues a viewer would typically use to draw inferences and connections from. This could be as simple as removing color from a photograph. Humans see the world in vivid color so removing that particular stimulus from a piece of art is one small degree of departure from reality as we know it. Photographing an object from an unusual or extremely close-up point-of-view would be a further departure from reality because the viewer’s notions of proportion, environmental context, and perception of the whole are distorted to emphasize a specific characteristic of that object. One of my favorite photography techniques to achieve abstraction is long exposure. It distorts reality by allowing us to see many moments consolidated into one image, presenting visualizations of blurred movement that are physically impossible for the eye to perceive in reality.

A Comparison between Representational and Non-Representational Art
The image on the left is photographed in a traditional architecture style. Its purpose, while very aesthetically pleasing, is more utilitarian; it documents the completed building and shows the surrounding environment for context. The image on the right is not about the building. It is a purely aesthetic exploration of line, pattern, space, form, balance, movement, etc. that may inspire a variety of emotions or ideas from the viewer.

With abstract art you may not always know what exactly you are looking at because it is not meant to be a literal representation of the physical world. That’s okay. It is more about the artist’s expression of an inner experience, or the exploration of a concept that might not be easily investigated within the constraints of reality. Depending on the artist, this expression could be the result of a calculated and intentional visual communication, or it might be an uninhibited subconscious expression that flowed naturally and took form spontaneously. Sometimes an artist may not be making a definite statement at all. Maybe she just felt like making something beautiful. Or, she might be inviting you to contemplate along with her; an invitation to see the world differently, to reflect, and to possibly gain some personal revelation in the process. To appreciate abstract art you may need to free yourself from the notion that you are supposed to get something specific out of it. Stop letting art textbooks and museum docents (no disrespect intended) do your thinking for you. Be free to find your own meaning. If you look up at a cloud and see a teddy bear, but your neighbor sees a chair on fire, neither of you has to concede to the other’s interpretation. Just enjoy the experience for what it’s worth to you and allow others the same.

I would liken abstract visual art to poetry in literature. Many people find poetry difficult to process because it is often full of metaphor and esoteric language that isn’t as apparent in, for example, literary fiction. When reading fiction it is easy for the average reader to form a mental picture of characters and places, and to follow a chronological storyline without trying too hard, even if they miss the underlying themes and allegory. Poetry is often less rooted in time, place and chronology and requires more mental focus (at least to those not already adept through practice) to process and derive meaning from. But it also opens you to a new way of seeing, experiencing, and understanding. Poetry (and even fantasy or science fiction) has the ability to transcend preconceived notions that might limit our perception by removing the subject from reality or using metaphor to derive conceptual connections that might not have otherwise been seen in a literal context. Sometimes reality is just too distracting. Abstraction can help to facilitate deeper philosophical investigation.

Children are actually very good at creating abstract metaphors. When my three-year-old daughter tells me that my photograph of an ASU dorm building (Triangularity, pictured below) looks like a snake, I don’t need to tell her that it’s actually a building, or that I saw something different in it. I just affirm her unique interpretation and enjoy that glimpse into her beautiful mind. Unfortunately, rather than experiencing this same encouragement, many children are gradually steered away from seeing the world through metaphor by well-meaning parents and educators. They are taught to take the world more literally at the expense of their imagination. I suspect this is why so many high schoolers struggle with processing poetry; as children they had their ability to interpret metaphor beat out of them by the very system that is trying to get them to appreciate it as young adults. Pragmatism certainly has its utility in our world but I don’t believe it has to cost us our imagination.

Abstract Long Exposure Architecture by Johnny Kerr
Triangularity, 2014

One of my favorite things about abstract art is the infinite possibility for interpretation; it is purely subjective. Each individual is going to project their own feelings, experiences, values, and personality into the viewing experience as they attempt to process what they are seeing. I love it when I share one of my abstract photographs in which I see a specific metaphor (sometimes suggested in my title), only to have someone else come back and share something totally different as described by their mind’s eye. What a wonderful experience to share with another person. Hopefully this article has encouraged you to give abstract art forms a fair shot; to reclaim and exercise your imagination, and to find beauty in the seemingly impractical or absurd.