Space and Light: The Making of Abstract Art

A talk given at the Ban Righ Centre, Queen’s University, March 8, 2017

I want to begin with a very important question. Are we humans isolated individuals wandering individually and alone on this planet absorbed in and pursuing our own thoughts, ideas, feelings concerns? Most of us would agree that this is not the case. If this is not the case what then is it that makes it not the case?

For me the answer to this question lies in the sense of Space and Light. It is this sense of Light and Space which is the source that relates everything to everything else in life and it is this sense of Light and Space that is at the heart of my abstract painting.

I want to read you a quote from Patricia Beatty, author of the book Form without Formula A Concise Guide to Choreographic Process. Patricia Beatty was a dance choreographer and a founder of the Toronto School of Dance. She has written some very inspiring things about abstraction and I will using her quotes throughout this talk. She says: p59 Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played out against chaos and death. It is positive and deep and requires the best that you have.

Although in my work I see Light and Space as essentially one, I want to begin this talk by separating the two for purposes of clarity.

What is Space?

I sit here and you sit there and for purposes of language we say there is space between us. But you cannot touch this space, nor even in a way see it. And yet we all know that the space from here to there is real;.

Alan Dickson, my former sculpture teacher at Queens used to say: A sculpture is not about the thing itself, it is about how it makes alive the space around it. In other words the sculpture’s fundamental purpose does not lie within its own form but in its power to help us see the space which it is enlivening. This is a wonderful teaching about space.

Another story, this time from my daughter-in-law Cora who is a doctor and a practising Christian. She told me once that she sees many ugly things in her work as a doctor, and when she is confronted by something very ugly she says to herself this person too is God. She could be said to be creating by her presence a space of connection between herself and the person she is helping. This too is a wonderful teaching about space.

Let us now think about Light.

We humans are very aware of the light of the sun in our world. Interestingly however, artists in the western culture did not try to reproduce this light in painting until the Renaisance which is quite late in human history. Yet paintings of the medieval period could be said also to be filled with light, with no light source in the painting whatsoever but mainly generated by the use of colour. In other words there are other kinds of light in art besides the effect of light coming from a source, and by implication shadow cast by the light of the sun or other named source.

I want to show you four images here to help us understand more clearly the words Space and Light. I apologize that the reproductions in some are not very good.

This first painting is by Vermeer, a 17 century Dutch painter. It is titled Young Woman with a Water Pitcher 1662 oil/c 18x16 in. You can see how the light from the window on the left tracks across her sleeve and the table, leaving shadows where the light does not fall. This is the most common understanding of the word light in painting. In passing it is interesting to know that it is now generally accepted that Vermeer was using the camera obscura to do this kind of painting,—not the naked eye. In other words science was enabling this very accurate capturing of light and shadow from a named source.

The second painting is by JMW Turner, an English 19 century painter. It is called Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth oil/c 1842 36x48in. Turner is still tied to the outer source of light but you can see how abstract this painting really is and how the inner seeing of Turner is ‘distorting’ the sense of light in the painting as compared with the Vermeer and by implication therefore what a different sense of light Turner had from Vermeer.

Moving ahead to Monet, a late 19 century French Impressionist painter. This painting is called Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun) 1891 oilc 25x36in. Here we can see the retention of strong shapes (unlike Turner’s blurring of shapes) but yet a very simplified sense of light and shadow effect. Monet has bypassed the realism of Vermeer’s light in favour of an impression of light.

The last painting I want to show you is by Mark Rothko, mid 20th century American abstract Expressionist painter. It is titled: Orange, Red Yellow 93x81in 1961 and as an aside, was recently sold for $ 86.9million. No light source whatsoever and yet filled with light. It is in this kind of painting that I find my own roots as an abstract painter. In this work and my own, light and space are really one, not separable and we are working with an inner light exclusively which as I have said is an amalgam of the sense of space and the sense of light within oneself. By its very nature therefore this means we are talking about abstract art for it has no direct visual link with the world and it raises the question, what is this light that I call Space/Light?

Before I move to my own work, and because many people find it difficult to relate to abstract art I want to quote again from Beatty. First of all, know deep down, without any doubt, what abstraction is. It is not something that doesn’t mean anything, or is purposely vague (both of which have been told to me by students). It is exactly something. It is what has been extracted from something concrete, its quality or qualities, its essence. Something abstract is rich intellectually, and emotionally; it simply has not material reality. . . . . For some people this world doesn’t exist at all. I see wandering couples in art galleries drift easily past huge bold canvasses full of powerful colour, shape and energy. They simply don’t see anything there. They feel nothing. Material reality, I suspect, is still the centre ring for most of what goes on in their lives. . .. . . the intangibles of space, time and freedom are in fact realities that I can give life to, that I can have an attitude about, that I can examine. Knowing this is “beginning to extract from concrete reality.”

Moving on now to my own work, I will speak briefly about each of these 5 paintings and will begin each with a quote from Beatty. Each of these paintings represents different aspects of my abstract work but all have at their heart the feeling for space and light.

Painting #1 Gratitude, oilc 2016 44x35in

Beatty: “That which is abstract is intangible: a state of being, an element in the composition of something, an invisible energy. Inner perception leads one to detect abstraction. . . . When I say abstract I mean it is no longer attached to a practical act as is the movement used to hammer a nail or hail a cab. This is representational movement. . . the abstract plays with energies. . . . . Abstract work is cooler, more removed. It celebrates mood and physicality.

Sometimes I have shapes as you can see in some of these paintings but in this painting there has been a total destruction of shape, with only the expression of an energy left. It is like a process of distillation until one is left with only physical, sensual energy I don’t often leave a painting at this point. Often I will return to what Beatty calls ‘material reality’ in the form of a shape. I will discuss the role of these ‘shapes’ in other paintings later. But when I do stop at this point(red painting) it is the result of the inner drive to simplicity, of the need to take life to its barest bones, of trying to touch the creative source itself and find an of embodiment of space and light. It is a type of destruction but it is a very mindful destruction, requiring great attention to one’s own inner voice as it relates step by step to the painting and attention too, to holding the whole.

Painting #2 Shaping Wonder oil/c 2016 32x44in

Beatty p60: Your craft will come with practice but art will only come with a willingness to give yourself up to something bigger. Like it or not, art is spiritual.

This painting is almost as ‘destroyed’ as the red painting (Gratitude) but it has a few significant marks that give it what Beatty has called ‘material reality’. This line in particular. What these kinds of marks in the paintings do is they set off the space, the way Alan Dickson states that sculpture activates, enlivens and brings to our sense the sense of the space around the mark. In particular it sets off the dimension of depth, creating the 3rd dimension of space, depth (the other two being horizontality and height). These kinds of marks also point to immanence as opposed to what I call the transcendence of the more ‘destroyed’ paintings. The Celtic culture speaks of the ‘thin place’ a place where the transcendent and material are connected, not separate and I would say this painting is about the ‘thin place’ This painting also shows what I mean by space and light being one. You cannot say this painting is about space without also saying it is about light..

Painting #3 Vital Rhythms oilc 2016 30x39in

Beatty p56: The mind is the over seer and the trouble shooter, but it is the body that is out there in the front line.

In my work, this painting represents the other pole of the painting Gratitude(red painting). It has stopped at a point much closer to what Beatty calls ‘material reality’. It illustrates most clearly what Beatty means by the role of the mind as over seer and trouble shooter. The mind through the eyes sees when a shape or colour does not work and oversees the correction of this. Shape is fundamental to this painting and because of these shapes, the work has a grounded physicality based on the body’s sense of weight and volume. This painting also explores texture which is also an important property of the physical world. This painting makes sense of what Beatty means when she speaks of abstract painting as “extracting from concrete reality.” In this painting too, lines are used to contain and shape space/light rather than to set it off as they do in the painting Shaping Wonder.

Painting #4 Open Heart oil/panel 2016, 20x20 in

Beatty: Art is always working through you. You are its vehicle. Your imagination and intuition are receptive to ‘energies from somewhere else;. This immeasurable source will lead you into ‘territory’ where very powerful affecting energies lie, if you are brave enough to give up a certain kind of control that reminds one of sanity and security.

This painting relates for me to the Monet Painting of the Haystacks I showed you. As in the Monet, the shapes in this painting are softened which is the very way that Monet treated his two haystacks. This muting of the shapes creates the effect of light in this painting as it does in the Monet painting, but the shapes in my painting cannot be related to a form from life. They are just shapes and they have no shadow to create the sense of an outside light source.

So is this light or space? For me it is both and the two here cannot be separated. And so one must conclude that there is in us human beings a sense of light and space that is within and inside each of us, that space and light in this sense are not out side. And this takes us back to the story about Cora and her way of being with the ugliness she sees as a doctor. I do not personally call this God as she does but I could rest comfortable with the word presence to describe it, meaning that which holds and knows all and is within each one of us and indeed within all life. For example, one can think of how athletes leap to catch the ball, or how bees and birds land exactly when they come in from flight.

Painting #5 Celebration oil/c 2016 30x33in

Beatty p 49 I would like the next generation to make deeper and more subtle what relatedness actually means. This is usually what is happening when art advances itself

In this painting the shapes are quite clearly set out. They are not softened into belonging as in the painting Open Heart (smallest painting) where a kind of evenness and silent wholeness is created. Rather they belong in the painting because of how they relate to and are necessary for the rest of the painting. This painting, Celebration, is just as ‘whole’ as this painting, Open Heart, but the wholeness in Celebration is arrived at in a different manner. One takes a strong assertive colour like this orange and then works with softening the space around it until the orange is ‘held’. As I work, it is as though I am touching and feeling my way with the brush around this orange shape in order to hold it and make the right relationship with it.

The orange and the red create stopping places, pauses for the eye where the eye can rest and this allows the space around to come forward and speak. So the orange shape is a foil for the space in which it sits. This is a very visual technique. One can relate to it and appreciate it just with the eyes, though also with the sensing by the whole body too. This is a kind of cerebral response, the coolness that Beatty speaks of as characteristic of abstract art. By contrast the painting Gratitude (red) requires a response and physical connection directly and specifically through the heart in order to arrive at the same kind of sense of peace and belonging that one gets in this painting, Celebration.

I leave you with a final quote from Beatty which I find very inspiring: P 53 If you are honest, probing and physical as you can be, you have the precious opportunity to say something about the universe, something unique between you and the great energies of existence.