Most of us don’t have trouble deciding what we think is good or bad in the case of food, music, or movies, but art is a special case. Even opinionated people can seem to lose their powers of speech the moment they walk into a contemporary gallery. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin wondered about this phenomenon while visiting a current show of abstract paintings in Ballard, and he joins us now with his thoughts.
Years ago, I taught a figure drawing class across the hall from an abstract painting class. Each abstract painter, I noticed, was working in a different style of abstraction, and I would sometimes watch the teacher wander from easel to easel making comments, though I couldn’t hear what he actually said.
Here was a mystery. On the one hand, there was my class, where the goal was simple: draw what you see. My job was simple: point out an arm too long here, a head too small there. A “good” drawing was one that was accurate in both shape and form, with light and shade used to create an illusion of three-dimensionality.
On the other hand, there was the class next door. How did my erstwhile colleague sort out the “good” abstract paintings from the “bad”? What did he say in his critiques? “It needs more red?” “It needs less red?” “It’s too abstract?” “It’s not abstract enough?” “That little squiggle should be bigger/straighter/thicker?” “Turn it sideways?” And how did he know he was right?
These thoughts were inspired by my critical task this month, reviewing a show of spare, painterly abstractions by Seattle painter Pirjo Berg. I found myself with mixed feelings about the work, but I also found myself wondering, what criteria was I employing to make those judgments? If I liked a painting, did I know why? And if not, could I justify my opinion based on something other than a gut response?
Not to disparage the power of the gut. In fact, our instant, intuitive response to a work of art is the key to everything else that follows. Something about the piece must first capture our attention, drawing us away from the enormous range of other stimuli in our visible environment. We are organically attracted to novelty, to pleasure, to certain sorts of visual energy, and a piece of art has to offer us some intriguing optical reward to win us over.
With the painting of Pirjo Berg, what first got my attention was the image on her announcement card that looked like a row of colorful books on a shelf that were in the process of melting and fusing together. The “books’ were, in fact, vertical stripes of slathered-on chartreuse, cherry, and burnt violet paint that had been layered and blurred like stiff wax. This molten core was framed above and below by dull, horizontal bands of brown paint; brown like a strip of blond wood above, earthy brown below with tints of moss and rust, and flaking away onto a solid grey ground.
It was this contrast of color and monochrome, detail and flatness that I initially found intriguing. The effect reminded me of Nik-L-Nips, fruit-flavored syrup contained in tiny wax bottles, that I loved when I was a kid. Berg was building containers for visual energy, with lots of wax on the outside, focused and concentrated syrup within.
Once artwork has passed this first test – attraction - one enters the courtship phase, where we test our first impression as we get better acquainted. In the case of an exhibition, we experience the paintings as a group, where we can better appreciate the way the artist develops – or fails to develop – their major ideas. Do the paintings hold together as a set, while at the same time demonstrating an intriguing set of variations on a theme? Are their certain mannerisms or weaknesses in the works that become more obvious with repetition?
Here was the source of my first serious issue with the work of Ms. Berg, viewing the 30-odd pieces on display. The muddy colors that framed the bookshelf on the announcement card, while effective on a small scale, became heavy and monotonous when experienced in large quantities. Dung browns, raw meat violet, and leaden greys dominated a great many of the works. These deadened colors are blade-spread onto their supports like cake frosting, with random paint ridges and a slab-like texture that is much less thoughtful than the view-into-a-blast-furnace color strips they enclose.
Big picture aside, I found myself engaged by a number of individual works, and the variations Berg played out on her principle theme, being and nothingness. In Moment Between Winter and Summer, for example, the molten color bar has been turned sideways, with the bands running horizontally rather than vertically. Less like books and more like a film strip, it has alternating frames of vibrating grass green and Seattle sky silver, alternating with a series of tiny square color intrusions like film sprockets (remember film?). Two large neutral grey panels squeeze in on the green strip from left and right, but it is stable against the pressure. The picture strikes a balance between color/no color, space/no space, and action/stasis. It’s upbeat about rebirth, the strength of cycles, and the resiliency of nature.
It’s also good that Pirjo’s abstraction comes with a sense of humor, since abstraction can be the most deadly serious of painting styles. Take, for example, the series of tete-a-tetes between what looks like chromatically energized cell phones hung on blue clotheslines. There is a whole subplot going on with these thickly painted, tiny images, with the phone shapes sidling together here, sliding partly off the panel there, and finally dissolving away into a colored pencil fog.
There’s also "Pink Moment," where a heavy caramel slab with a ruddy color strip on top also hangs on a string, blue paint carved into the white background. Here the string sags as it supports the heavily painted slab, a moment where the artist allows the laws of the real world to intrude on the world of paint.
“Love that melting paint thing you’ve got going”, I imagine saying to Pirjo, “but easier on the mud”. I then go on to add, channeling my former teaching colleague, that abstraction is the product of intuitive solutions arrived at through pure trial and error, getting to that elusive point where the painting “works”, and attraction is followed by seduction. These paintings are part way there, but they haven’t yet closed the deal.