From space, it seems an abstraction—a magician’s trick on a darkened stage. And from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive. It first appeared in the sea almost four billion years ago in the form of single-celled life. In an explosion of life spanning millions of years, nature’s first multicellular organisms began to multiply.…
Only a hundred thousand years ago, Homo sapiens appear—man.… Rising to a world population of over five billion people, all descended from that original single cell, that first spark of life. But for all our knowledge, what no one can say for certain is what or who ignited that original spark. Is there a plan, a purpose, or a reason to our existence? Will we pass, as those before us, into oblivion, into the sixth extinction that scientists warn is already in progress?
Or will the mystery be revealed through a sign, a symbol, a revelation?
—Dana Scully, The X-Files, “Biogenesis”
Abstraction isn’t easy to talk about. Counting the uncountable, naming the unnameable: these feel like futile activities. But the very ambiguity of the process is what allows artists to approach concepts difficult to touch on otherwise. In an effort to discuss this exhibition as a whole, I turned to the philosophical musings of FBI Special Agent Dana Scully. The images of our planet that she describes—zooming in until all one can see is a single cell, then zooming out until details are lost in the expanse of the universe—speaks to how scale is thrown off by abstraction: the macro and the micro are seemingly interchangeable at points.
Similarly, the question of whether a sign, a symbol, or a revelation will explain the unexplainable, the cause of humanity, acknowledges our ongoing search for truth. Abstraction gives artists a way into the unknown and unnamed. Freed from the demands of representation, they’re able to explore process more purely or engage with the ephemeral, the sacred, or other intangibles.
Furthermore, the duality in The X-Files between belief (represented by Fox Mulder) and scientific examination (Dana Scully) is echoed in the variety of projects found throughout this exhibition. Some hinge upon intuitive choices, while others are executed according to a more cerebral, conceptual plan.
A friend told me about a couple, a musician and a visual artist, who often find their creative impulses to be at odds. The artist works from the head; the musician works from the gut. It seems that abstract painting can come from either place. Artists’ reasons, methods, and results may vary, but there is a growing, unifying energy within the world of abstract painting at this moment. It feels irreverent, exciting, freeing. It is Right Now. It’s fun.
There’s no simple way to sum up the impulses of those artists working in abstraction, except to say that theirs is a great impulse. And perhaps we shouldn’t try to explain that which defies explanation. Artists are drawn to abstraction—it allows for both a loose structure and a way of breaking the rules. As much as the genre is accepted and revered, there is still something pretty punk about it.
On View: January 12 - March 5, 2016