North State Artists Describe the Abstract
By Richard DuPertuis
Medium... Well Done
Story and Photos by Richard DuPertuis
As legend goes, several thousand years ago, a primitive man marked the stone wall of his home with the end of a charred stick, rendering a work of art that another cave dweller could not understand. “This doesn't look like anything at all!” she cried, the first mouthing of a critique abstract artists would have to withstand for all time.
With this declaration came an unspoken challenge: Describe it in words.
Eons later, three modern artists came together for a reception in their honor at the Siskiyou Arts Museum in Dunsmuir, where numerous examples of their work were hung. The exhibit, “Expressions of the Abstract,” showcased paintings by McCloud expressionist Michael Wecksler, Mount Shasta impressionist fan Allen King and Cynthia Henderson of Dunsmuir. After the show, all three were asked to describe the abstract.
None of them could easily find the words Wecksler laughs. “Words describing art aren’t very helpful,” he says.
“To me, abstract is non-objective, more about the paint shape and color. People take normal objects and change them in a significant way.”
Why might people want to make these changes? “I have no idea,” he replies.
King doesn’t even use words other than “Untitled” to name his pieces. “It makes it much more refined that way. I don’t want to influence the viewer,” he says. “They can see what they want to see.”
Henderson says, “I don’t have words for it. Somehow I find that very pleasing and I don’t know why. It’s a big mystery.”
At this particular art show, the artists’ styles stand distinct from one another. So much so, that after you’ve identified one painting with its painter, you will likely know on sight all the other works by that painter in the gallery. This rule applies to all three.
With a glance at any of Wecksler’s works, for example, the viewer sees a portrait. Except for a self-depiction titled “MEanderthal,” these portraits are instantly recognizable as famous faces—Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe. A second glance reveals transparent splashes of paint – red, yellow, blue—some appearing to run in rivulets down the subject’s face.
King’s untitled pieces introduce a measure of uncertainty. One sees a few angular shapes and colors on a largely blank, contrasting field. Casual interpretation comes eventually, though one is not really sure what the artist intended. A painting could be a wide body of still water reflecting distant buildings on a faraway shore, all self-lit on an overcast night. But maybe not.
The artist himself claims no intent. “I don't start off with a goal,” King says. “I add and remove the paint. It’s as much subtraction as it is addition. I know I’m finished when there’s no more in there to come out.”
He, too, sees realism as a clearer artistic expression, but that’s not what he’s about. “Abstract is more amenable to interpretation,” he explains. “My interpretation of my own work can change, depending on the environment, whether it’s hanging in the studio or in a gallery.”
Hendson offers even less direction. Her works depict no recognizable shapes, no puzzle pieces to assemble into a picture easily found in this world. Her paintings are patterns, layers of brush strokes of color and contrast with only their titles, such as “Sylvian Landscape,” suggesting meaning.
“There’s lots of abstract in nature,” she explains. “You look at the area of a rotting log, at the patterns and shapes and colors, and some sort of communication happens. Out of the context of a log, you’re no longer seeing a log.”
Asked what is being communicated, she again has no words. “People say they see this, and they see that, but I don’t do that,” she says.
Yet sometimes she can see errors in her work. Pointing to the thick lines of brown, green, blue and flashes of yellow in Sylvian Landscape, she critiques, “I’m somewhat dissatisfied with it because the lower part lost the luminosity I wanted to keep. It’s too muddy.”
So, how to string together words to describe the indescribable, to summarize the views of three abstract artists so starkly distinct with, say, one sentence each?
Abstract art depicts a visual distortion of realistic objects – or not. The abstract artist authorizes the viewer freedom to interpret, to grapple color and contrast into the recognizable – or not.
“Some feeling comes up,” she says.