What in the world is abstract art about?
It isn’t just grown-ups painting like kids or gallery-goers admiring the emperor’s new clothes: good abstract art, such as Samuel Walsh’s, tackles the ideas behind things
Detail from Autumnus X (Bénodet) (2014), by Samuel Walsh
Visitors view Patrick Scott’s Space Light at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Photograph: Senija Topcic
Detail from Device (1971), by Patrick Scott at the Irish Museum of Modern Art
What do you see when you see a work of art? The answer might appear obvious, if it’s a picture of, say, a loaf of bread. But what if you’re confronted with what seems to be little other than a collection of colours, shapes and lines?
A frequent response from those not immersed in the wonders of the art world is: “What is it of?” They’re even more likely to say: “My five-year-old could have done that.” The latter remark comes up so often, there’s even a book: Susie Hodge’s Why Your Five -Year -Old Could Not Have Done That attempts to get to grips with what’s happening behind the lines, dots, lumps and bumps of contemporary art.
But the continuing presence and (even its detractors have to admit) popularity of abstract art means there has to be something more to it than grown-ups painting like talented five-year-olds, and gallery-goers admiring the emperor’s new clothes.
At first sight, Samuel Walsh’s exhibition Glance is at the impenetrable end of abstraction. The canvases are square, and coloured shapes are overlaid with black and sometimes grey lines that might hint at things (like a Rorschach inkblot test) without ever resolving into anything specific.
For Walsh, the purpose is to try to get to grips with the experience of seeing, of being in the world. “I don’t paint the world, but I live in it,” he says. “So how do I paint experience?”
The colours come from impressions of things he has seen, while the overlay of lines are from other sets of circumstances and observations. By doing this, Walsh hits on a truth that a simple representation of a loaf of bread, however accurate, can never achieve: that there is no such thing as absolute definition, or absolute meaning in anything. How you see something is always altered by its history, your own history, and (often most particularly) your feelings and emotions in that moment.
The ideas behind things
Abstract art attempts to grapple with the ideas behind things. Bored with his genius at pure representation, Picasso famously tried to paint the different perspectives: three-dimensionality on a flat canvas. And so, with Braque, he introduced Cubism to the world. Kandinsky attempted to paint music with his leaping lines and colours, and Cézanne tried to bring nature back to its basic forms, which he described as “the cylinder, the sphere, the cone”.
This isn’t a modern phenomenon. A visit to the marvellous Loughcrew Cairns in Co Meath (loughcrew.com/cairns) reveals shapes and lines carved into the ancient stone that are paralleled in prehistoric art across the world. Look forward several thousand years, and you can see similar symbols emerging in early abstract art from artists including Kazimir Malevich, Ben Nicholson and the Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint, giving rise to the idea that there may be archetypal symbols in the human mind that abstraction unconsciously mines.