Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Inventing Abstraction - Week Three

Figures and Dog in Front of the Sun, Joan Miró, 1949
Another great class in Jessica Houston's "Inventing Abstraction", at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In Week 3, we focused on Surrealism, and the work of Miró.  We learned that Surrealism, a breakthrough in its time, was born out of the chaos of World War I, with the widespread questioning of the role of art. Its imagery was inspired by the unconscious, by dreams and imagination.

How does the artist access the unconscious, when logic so often wants to run the show? Miró used a number of techniques, including something he called "automatic drawing".  This approach actually inspired an entire art movement in Quebec, the "automatistes". Its best-known members are Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle.

Sea Gull, Paul-Émile Borduas, 1956

Perspectives, Jean-Paul Riopelle, 1956
For Miró, "automatic drawing" was something like doodling, just letting the brush wander over the blank page, without any input from the conscious mind. Another technique Miró used to access the unconscious was to begin with "frottage", or rubbing textures onto paper to form a background that inspired imagery. Sometimes, he crumpled a sheet of paper and then flattened it out, to see if the wrinkles suggested any imagery. Like cloud formations and ink blots, these random shapes and lines can suggest different things to different people.

Woman in Front of the Sun, Joan Miró, 1950
It's important to note that Miró edited his shapes and lines and transferred them to a painted background. At this stage, he exercised control to impose formal concerns like balance. Viewers of Miró's work were expected to make their own personal associations from the lines and shapes in his paintings.

We warmed up by participating in a fun "exquisite corpse" exercise, a visual game invented by the Surrealists.

Our main task for the class was to identify some of our own personal imagery by accessing our unconscious. We did this in four ways: automatic drawing, frottage, crumpling paper, and pouring liquid paint. Right there you have the element of chance, and the imposition of your own imagery that is inspired by a chance event. Miró had his signature motifs, including stars and alien-type figures. What would ours be?

produced by pouring liquid paint
Next, we were asked to go back to the four sheets we had produced with the various techniques, and to cut out six things of interest. Then we developed each of the six by refining or expanding on various aspects of them. We numbered them on the backs, from one to six.
#1, produced as part of my "automatic drawing"
I didn't feel it needed any further re-working but certainly there could be variations.
#6, also produced as part of the "automatic drawing"
variations on #6
I found myself going back to one of my favourite quilting motifs,
a bit like pebbles in a confined space

In preparation for the final exercise, we painted two backgrounds in a mottled colour and then rolled a die. Whatever number turned up, that was the motif we were to use, placing it on the background we had painted. Once again, the element of chance, and then the "massaging" of that chance using your more conscious sensibilities: the distribution in your composition of elements like colour, contrast, scale, placement.

Fortunately, I rolled a 6. At this point I had a chat with the instructor. I explained that because I work with cloth, I seem to easily revert to patterning. Do I embrace this or try move beyond this? We agreed that the purpose of the exercise was not to make a Miró, but to unleash our own visual vocabulary. She suggested I look at how my pebble shapes relate to each other, thinking of them almost as figures, and move through a process of eliminating a shape or two at a time. This idea of the shapes in relationship to each other really resonated with me.

motif #6, developed a bit
motif #6, developed further
Beginning to look like a Henry Moore.
Maybe a red shape would be a good addition?
So, though I feel no great affinity for the Surrealists, I benefitted greatly from this exercise. For me, the whole point of taking this class was to explore abstraction, and to push further abstraction in my work. Yes, I am drawn to grids, but to organic shapes as well, and this activity has helped me broaden my go-to imagery. I can even see the sketch above expressed in a large format with hand-dyed cloth and stitching. Later, the instructor suggested that I look at the work of Montreal painter Karine Léger, who works with similar shapes.

Next week: Matisse and Fauvism. Yum!

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