Editor’s Note: Wayne Adams is a professional artist living and working in New York. Transpositions invited Wayne to offer a synopsis of trends that he observes in his regular excursions through the New York City art world.
One recent trend on the New York City art scene is an emphasis on abstraction—in all mediums. In full disclosure, I am a painter currently working in what most people would refer to as an “abstract” style. The term abstraction is actually somewhat of a misnomer. What I precisely mean by “abstraction” is non-objective painting or paintings that do not have an obvious, direct reference (a tree or a building) that has been somehow obscured to make the artwork.
Listed below are three examples from exhibitions either open at the time of writing or ones that have opened in the last three months. I only have space to discuss two of them.
Jackie Saccoccio’s most recent show, Portraits, at 11 Rivington Gallery , is the most direct reference to any recognizable picture in any of her paintings. Her dripped, poured and mottled painting style may imply the silhouette of a person’s head, but there are no clear faces to discern. Saccoccio seems to be presenting an alternate method of considering a person’s likeness—of seeing, if you will. It’s as if the “portraits” here are less like their image and more like a collection of the image’s parts—paint swirls and marks. Portrait: Rapture (2012), for instance, contains a mass of brown paint that could, theoretically define the space and movement of a person’s hair, but that’s about as far as the human likeness goes.
Ryan Sullivan debuted his first New York solo show at Maccerone, and operates somewhat on another side of the spectrum of recent abstraction. Sullivan appears to make no conceptual claims about his work and, at first glance, these paintings may seem to be about nothing except themselves—which is exactly true. Sullivan’s mesmerizing technique of pouring and tilting, spraying and layering creates an entropic, haphazard mess of cracks, billows and wrinkles of paint. The paintings are titled only by their dates of creation, further referencing their own existence.
Yet, despite this obvious denial of any direct outside reference, the works clearly reflect the world around them, as a small, published book sitting at the front desk suggests. In it, collected photographs of decay prominent in any urban location serve as the argument for what Sullivan’s paintings are about—they are the artist’s reflections of the reality around us. Spilled food on the ground, peeling paint, bad skin, dirt, grime and yuk are, by association, also the subject of Sullivan’s canvases. This correlative positing is a way for Sullivan to both locate his paintings into a specific conversation without being explicit and it is also a way for him to direct viewers of his work in how to think about his paintings.
Each of these examples offer new suggestions for reading and interpreting a form of painting that many people still find elusive. These artists propose that abstraction is still a viable and contemporary language without the the ideological backdrops of modernist abstraction—those having long been assimilated into culture and history. It may be easy to dismiss an image one can’t immediately recognize as inaccessible or lacking specificity, but these artists are challenging their audiences to reconsider possibilities and challenge assumptions.
The broader question that comes up is, “Why now?” Why the resurgence of abstraction and why has it remained popular? As promised, I have a few theories.
First, abstraction is relatively young on the art historical timeline. It could be that artists are finding new territory because it just hasn’t been exhausted yet.
Second, the art market swings back and forth between what’s hot and what’s not almost as quickly as fashion does. It may be, however, that in tough economic times, abstraction actually offers the comfort of the familiar. Art historians have codified and explained modernism and its abstract ideals, so perhaps a resurgence of the language of abstraction doesn’t seem as daunting as something more “avante garde.”
Third, as economic, environmental and political situations around the world remain unstable and increasingly difficult to understand (abstract, if you will), abstraction, I would argue, offers new approaches to thinking about and responding to present concerns. Clearly, traditional methods and thought about the grand problems of life haven’t yet resolved them—abstraction offers a potentially new perspective.
I also wanted to get a professional’s opinion on the matter, so I posed the question to James Fuentes, a pioneering young gallery owner in the Lower East Side, whom, I noticed, has shown a fair amount of abstract artwork in the recent past. He said this wasn’t the result of any noticeable trend, rather that he prefers to select his shows more by paying attention to “what’s in the collective air.” Fuentes offered the suggestion that maybe abstract artwork is a reaction to the proliferation of images in advertising and media or “maybe it just feels safe to people right now.”
Whatever the reasons, the proliferation of abstraction in all its manifestations doesn’t show any signs of slowing down—at least not from what I’ve seen.