When looking at a representational work of art – a piece that represents stuff and/or illusionistic relationships between stuff in the world – there’s a tendency to engage in a specific cognitive process that might not allow for a meaningful experience or full engagement with the piece (Susan Sontag, of course, wrote about this in her essay “Against Interpretation”). There is also the tendency to resort to an easy allegorical interpretation based on what we believe certain traditional ‘symbols’ in a piece might mean. So if we look at Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider” at the Frick we might verbalize something to ourselves like: “The horse in this painting is clearly a symbol of the means of transition from one state of being to another.” In this case one’s engagement with the piece seems sorely limited through that process of analysis, realization and verbalization. The purpose of abstraction was, in part, to subvert this interpretive proclivity and allow the viewer to be more deeply engaged through forms and colors and the relationships between them. That was the theory anyway.
The work of Ray Bull at Ana Cristea Gallery openly impugns the autonomy of abstraction. In the notes accompanying the show it is stated that, “Ray Bull’s paintings speak to the impossibility of abstraction in painting. His compositions consistently straddle the line between representation and abstraction.” So basically Bull seems to be implying that when you look at a work of abstraction, in order to get anything from it, you engage in, basically, the same thought-processes that you use for a representational piece. Abstraction is allegory by another name in which you bring the same preconceptions and pre-existing beliefs to the work as you do with representational pieces and subject it to analysis. There is no way to move beyond this analytical process and to believe there is a way to be affected by abstraction without cognitive analysis becomes tantamount to believing, a la Carl David Friedrich, that staring at mountains long enough will integrate you into nature and help you feel the true Christian God. Being directly engaged, without analysis, by a piece of abstraction, is a myth.
Ray Bull also, in his pieces, seems to take this argument one step further. He seems to want to get at the source of our capacity to verbalize meaning and how a type of destructive interpretive feedback loop can be created through this process. If I look at a work of abstraction and can analyze it, it is due to the relationship and effect of the various elements in the painting. It seems that the awareness of the relationships between colors and forms and their effects then inevitably leads to a need to articulate or verbalize which then destroys any further capacity for direct engagement. Once one becomes ‘aware’ of what the piece is doing, or how a piece affects one, the real meaning of the piece is destroyed. Indeed, the tension between abstraction and representation in Bull’s pieces points to the fact that in the very process of creation of abstraction, if analysis occurs by the artist, true abstraction is destroyed. In attempting to create an abstract piece analysis of the relationships between colors and forms will, however, occur and, of necessity, the piece will lose its vitality and potential for engagement and merely invite a limited cognitive interpretation from the viewer.
So Bull’s pieces show abstraction in its flawed reality. Yet, Bull could also be pointing to the fact that a ‘real’ type of abstraction might be possible. By extension we can guess that if an artist chooses pure, unadulterated improvisation, true abstraction might be possible and true engagement of the viewer might occur. Yet, Bull could also be saying that in the deliberate choice of improvising there is also analysis and planning, which would then militate against the ultimate goal.
Get Up With It
June 18 – July 17,2015
Ana Cristea Gallery
521 West 26th Street
New York, NY 10001
Writing by Daniel Gauss
Photographs provided by the gallery and the artist