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


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.

Walsh agrees: “We have notions about circles, squares and triangles. We have ideas about them.” He cites the late Patrick Scott as an example. “He used the circle. In his hands it became a device to stand for the sun, and for a nuclear world.” Scott’s two current exhibitions show his path from figurative to abstract art. Evening Landscape , and Ducks Going Out to Sea , both dating from 1944, are two heartbreakingly beautiful paintings. In each, birds wander across the landscape, which is geometrically divided. Just a few years later, Scott would dispense with the birds, and reduce the landscape itself to archetypal shapes: the essence of the universe shown in squares and circles. Maybe that’s what those ancient artists at Newgrange and Loughcrew were getting at too.

Sometimes experience helps. See the fields of Callan, Co Kilkenny, from above, and Tony O’Malley’s work can start to make more sense; or find something of the extreme wilds of west Cork in the layers of colour and essential presence of water in Charles Tyrrell’s paintings.

Not all abstract artists want their work defined in an idea of what it might be representing. There’s more to O’Malley than a field, and much more to Tyrrell than the Beara peninsula, but as Walsh points out, you can’t escape what you have seen, what you have laid down in your mind when you come to paint. He puts the particularly Irish need to explain, to define meanings, down to our literary tradition, which makes us more literal when it comes to art. “You also need a great generosity of spirit to accept what isn’t immediately understandable.”

At least with representational art, you can know if it’s working more quickly. That painting of a loaf of bread either looks like bread or it doesn’t. If it’s really good, it may even get behind the image to hint at the ideas beyond bread. But because abstract art is allusive, and elusive, it’s harder, until you get used to it, to differentiate between art that just looks like art, and art that really succeeds as art. We can all quickly spot the difference between the throwaway melodies of an advertising jingle and the timeless brilliance of great music, and we are all comfortable with accepting different tastes in music, but abstract art is still catching up.

Very bad art
One reason for this is because, within the art world, there are too many apologists for what is actually very bad art. Writing recently on performance art, the Guardian ’s Jonathan Jones described Milo Moiré’s naked egg painting as “absurd, gratuitous, trite and desperate. Anywhere but an art gathering, this would be regarded as a satire on modern cultural emptiness.” The more voices in the conversation about what is good art and bad art, the better art will be.

Ahead of me, as Walsh and I talk, is Hiems IV (Walsh’s titles are as much a way of cataloguing the work as anything else), and, as time passes, I get the deliciously strange sensation of it taking on three dimensions, and I start to think I might be able to fall into it. Nearer to where I am sitting, a face emerges from one canvas, a skyline from another. “Are they there?” Walsh asks. “I don’t remember. It should be different every time you see it.”

When I fall in love with a work of abstract art enough to want to buy it, beyond wanting to own the work’s beauty, it is because I want to keep alive the potential to think without words, and to continue to discover unexpected and sometimes unexplainable feelings and things.

So what about that talented five-year-old? That genius painter gifted with the ability to knock out Mark Rothkos, Sean Scullys, Jackson Pollocks and even Samuel Walshes while still in kindergarten? To give Walsh the last word: “Art is something human beings do deliberately. Monkeys do it by accident, children do it instinctively, but they don’t do it with any reason.” And if you want a work of art to keep you looking, and thinking, for years to come, reason may be what matters most.

Glance by Samuel Walsh is at the Oliver Sears Gallery, Dublin, until May 8. oliversearsgallery.com. Charles Tyrrell, New Paintings is at Taylor Galleries, Dublin, until May 3. taylorgalleries.ie. Patrick Scott, Image Space Light is at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, and Visual, Carlow, until May 18. imma.ie, visualcarlow.ie

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