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Abstraction, Imagery, and Thought

Heaven and Earth, by Estefan Gargost
Heaven and Earth by Estefan Gargost
Heaven and Earth: Erin Lee Gafill
Part of Heaven and Earth series by Erin Lee Gafill
Heaven and Earth: Judy Ueda
Heaven and Earth by Judy Ueda

Prior to the arrival of the impressionist movement, art was, most often, a realistic representation of the world surrounding the artist- whether in legend or actuality. Art in the 21st century, as it was in the 20th, can be devoid of obvious and concrete images, and their meanings are thus made more complicated.  Abstract paintings are, oftentimes, left to the interpretation of the audience.  Take for instance the paintings to the left of this text.  These paintings address the subject of heaven and earth, and each is titled in like manner.  The first one would not be so obvious without the name "Heaven and Earth."  


The second and third paintings, by Erin Lee Gafill and Judy Ueda, respectively, bear the same name as Gargost's.  The lines and images in these two paintings are more defined.  The earth is clearly presented in a foreground that detaches from the sky that forms part of its background.  Ueda approaches realism in her painting; whereas Gafill has a clear impressionist influence in her painting.

Using the words "heaven" and "earth" gives the impression of the sublime and the mundane.  The word "heaven" relates to things beyond the sky; a place where things remain hidden from earthly eyes.  An artist can best represent such an esoteric place through a "realistic" painting involving heavenly beings surrounded by fiery clouds suspended high in the firmament.  An abstract painting can provide the same effect, while being absent of anything tangible.

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Arnheim (1969) says:  

Rudolf Arnheim
Psychologist and Scholar of Art and Ideas

"This sort of incompleteness is typical of mental imagery.  It is the product of a selectively discerning mind, which can do better than consider faithful recordings of fragments.

"The paradox of seeing a thing as complete, but incompletely, is familiar from daily life.  Even in direct perception, an observer glancing at a lawyer... might catch little but the salient feature of an arm carrying a briefcase.  However, since direct perception always takes place against the foil of the complete visual world, its selective character is not evident.  The memory image, on the other hand, does not possess this stimulus background.  Therefore it is more evidently limited to a few salient features, which correspond perhaps to everything the original visual experience amounted to in the first place or which are the partial components the observer drew from a more complete trace...  It is as though... a person can call on memory traces the way he calls on stimulus material in direct perception.  But since mental images can be restricted to what the mind summons actively and selectively, their complements are often 'amodal,' that is, perceived as present but not visible...

"...  The realization that the image differs in principle from the physical object lays the ground work for the doctrine of modern art" (p. 105).

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That "partial component" mentioned here by Arnheim might be a color, a line, a symbol, or a shape.  That component might have been the main inspiration for abstract paintings.  The artist may then choose to omit all other details, place them in the background, or blur them until they are unrecognizable.  Only the forms and colors that impact the artist the most make it to the canvas. 

Abstract painting, however complex it might be, is an incomplete and fragmented representation of the real world; it is the world as the artist sees it or as he or she wants to convey it. 

References:


Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual Thinking. Berkely, CA: University of California Press.
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