Source: Catalonia Developing a Personal Abstract Language by Rebecca Crowell
This presentation is about an artist residency that took place in 2008, and the ways in which that experience influenced my work. In a broader sense, it is about developing an abstract language that reflects personal experience and ideas. (Old Path, 24”x26” oil on panel, 2009.)
Introduction <ul><li>The challenge for an abstract artist is to develop an authentic, personal visual language with which to create meaningful work and to express ideas. In essence—to make “something” out of nothing. </li></ul><ul><li>Abstract art is generally wide open to interpretation and intuitive response on the part of the viewer. But it is the artist’s underlying themes, ideas and specific intentions that provide coherence, power and unity to the work, and offer the viewer a way in. </li></ul><ul><li>How are these ideas and themes—the abstract artist’s vocabulary—developed? Generally, they evolve over time, and often follow a phase of realistic work (a background in realism helps provide a personal vocabulary of symbolic images, and skill in developing color and texture.) Whatever has interested the artist as a realist will likely continue to be a theme when interpreted abstractly. However, the language that evolves may also be purely abstract with a vocabulary of line, color, pattern and other elements, or be grounded in a particular process. </li></ul>
<ul><li>Whether abstract work evolves from observing visual reality, from the interaction of abstract elements, or from other sources, developing an abstract language is seldom a straightforward progression for the artist. It’s more like a journey in which many paths converge over time, and side trips and dead ends are part of the process. </li></ul><ul><li>Travel, or an artist residency (the subject of this presentation) can of course have important impact upon the work, and provide “breakthrough” moments, but it seems most of us proceed according to an inner logic with its own time line. Authentic changes tend to happen gradually. Themes in an artist’s work often remain consistent through a lifetime—through many interpretations. in response to many related sources of ideas. </li></ul><ul><li>In terms of actual studio work, some abstract artists work very intuitively or experimentally, while others have a more structured or planned approach. Most often it is a dance between pure inspiration/impulse and logical analysis and forethought. Walking the edge between spontaneity and control is a highly developed discipline, and enables the artist to know what to leave in, what to edit out, and which techniques will lead to a desired end. </li></ul>
My Residency at Centre D’Art I Natura, Farrera, Catalonia In September of 2008, I was an artist in residence at an art center in Catalonia, Spain. The work I did there was a continuation of work that came before, but was also new and changing in response to this new experience. The experience continues to be a source of ideas and inspiration as I move forward.
CAN (the Centre D’Art I Natura) located in the tiny medieval village of Farrera, in the Pyrenees Mountains near the French border. I was there for three weeks, with a few days in Barcelona at either end of my stay. My days were filled with painting, hiking, contemplating and visiting with other artists-- with no expectations or schedule, except for a shared dinner each evening. The photos below show a village street, and the view from my bedroom.
Eating and socializing with the other artists in residence were highlights of everyone’s day. When I was there, other artists were from Egypt, Catalonia, the Netherlands (although now living in US) and Idaho. Each night at 9pm we were treated to incredible Catalonian cuisine, prepared by Cesca Gilabert. She and Lluis Llobet are in charge of running the Centre, and in their warm, welcoming manner, set a tone of camaraderie and creative endeavor in this beautiful place.
I worked in a studio with a vast mountain view—in a building that was once an old barn, with the old stone walls left in place. My project was to create abstract paintings in mixed media on paper that were a response to the landscape and experience of being in Catalonia.
Besides this abstract work, I also did a lot of drawings and watercolors during hikes around the village and in the surrounding mountains. I enjoyed this for its own sake but also discovered ways in which this more realistic work informed and influenced my abstract paintings.
The energetic, doodling ink lines that I was using in this outdoor sketching at CAN have found their way into recent oil paintings. The sketch on the left is of the view from my balcony, and the oil painting below is “Old Wall: Barcelona” 16”x12” on panel, done upon my return home.
Developing an Abstract Idea How did my experiences in this unique environment influence my work and add to my abstract vocabulary? <ul><li>Most of the paintings I did at CAN were small works on paper using water-based mixed media--such as acrylics, watercolor, powdered graphite, gouache, pencil, and chalk pastels. I wanted to explore both the use of mixed media (which I had not used to any great extent for over 20 years) and also, to respond with abstract images to my experiences in the landscape and in the culture of Catalonia. </li></ul><ul><li>I don’t usually work thematically, and I always work intuitively. So I didn’t plan the paintings to correspond to particular aspects of the landscape. </li></ul><ul><li>In the end, though, there were definite connections. By immersing myself in my surroundings, and then allowing abstract imagery to evolve out of that experience, these connections came through. During the process of painting, something on the paper would trigger an association, which I would then develop. So, my intuitive process remained the same, but I felt (and continue to feel now that I am home) a direct influence from what was around me. </li></ul><ul><li>The choice of location was very important—there were aspects of the landscape that were an excellent “fit” for the kind of visual ideas I like to probe in all of my work, especially a certain starkness, minimalism, atmosphere and texture. </li></ul>
The high valley in which Farrera is located has an arid, rocky “sun” side and a greener, forested “shade” side. The village is on the sun side (with views across the valley of forests and green meadows.) The aridity of the landscape had an important influence on the colors I gravitated towards, and this painting ( Watching the Swallows , 12”x10” mixed media on paper) also captures some of the layered geography of the exposed mountainsides. As an example of the intuitive process I’ve described, I wasn’t aware of this visual connection while doing the painting—in fact I didn’t see it until I was putting together this presentation.
I often came across ruins of old barns, homes and churches in my ramblings around Farrera, and they seemed a beautiful and natural part of the landscape. A note about the photos I took in Catalonia- rather than using them as painting references in any direct way, I just try to be totally present and tuned in when I photograph. The visual memory remains strong, and is more useful to me than an exact image. In other words, my photos are not a means to an end, but an end themselves—yet the experience of taking them seems to have an influence. The painting below is Ruin , 12”x10” mixed media on paper.
The homes, rooftops, barns and fences in the village of Farrera are made of slate, and slate cliffs rise alongside the roads and paths. Up close, there are many subtle color shifts in the slate, variations of soft warm and cool grays. The cliffs themselves present strong vertical or diagonal focal points in the landscape. These aspects of the landscape found their way into the vertical collaged painting Slate Cliff , 22”x 12” --mixed media on paper. (Collection of Ed Hall, Houston, TX)
Below left is Chapel , 8” square, a mixed media painting on paper. (Collection of Jerry Wedge, Concord, MA.) On the right, a photo taken inside the 13 th century church of St. Eulalie, in the neighboring town of Alendo. Here, I recognized the source of the idea for Chapel early on in the painting process, and developed it consciously. Color is the main connection between the abstract image and the observed location… intense blue and yellow painted areas in the church contrasted with the nuanced whites of floor and walls. But there is also something harder to pinpoint—something stark, minimalist and spiritual about the setting that impressed me.
Besides my time up in the mountains at CAN, I also spent several days in Barcelona, both when I flew in and before I left for home. An aspect of the street culture in Barcelona is an enormous amount of graffiti, some of it quite beautiful. The metal doors that are pulled over shops at night in the ancient Gothic quarter are often painted upon, offering interesting contrasts with the ancient stone walls (which were largely untouched.) The painitng below is Graffiti , 9”x6”, mixed media on paper.
Once I returned to the States, I continued to see direct connections between certain things I’d seen, drawn, and photographed in Catalonia, and the images that emerged in my work. Again, I didn’t start out with these images in mind, but recognized them as the paintings evolved. Here are a few examples: <ul><li>The top photo shows another artist in residence (Amr Elkafrawy from Cairo) inside one of the very old houses at CAN, Casa Ramon. I loved the dark interior of this house, typical of others in the village, with its simple furnishings and bits of bright color. </li></ul><ul><li>The painting below, also called Casa Ramon (36”x36”) is a translation of the sensory experience of being in this old residence. Intuitively, I knew during the process of painting it that this one was “about” Casa Ramon…it had that mood, those colors and textures. And I was somewhat aware of a connection between the photo and the painting. But again it was not until I placed them side by side in making this presentation that I saw how strong the relationship was in terms of the abstract elements of color and composition. </li></ul><ul><li>I am intrigued by the ways that abstract ideas and themes can and do develop below conscious awareness, with a life and logic of their own, in a way that seems similar to dream language. In my experience, trusting in this process leads to better, more authentic results than pushing things consciously. At the same time, it also seems important to be aware and alert to those aspects of the visual world that hold meaning and visual interest. Pay attention, and then let it go… </li></ul>
Here are two images that are related through the textures of old walls that I noticed both in Barcelona (where the photo was taken) and in many other ancient buildings and the ruins of houses and barns in the area around Farrera. I was constantly drawn to these textures during my time in Catalonia. The idea of eroded textures works especially well with my process, which is one of building up layers of paint, then scratching through or removing areas with solvent. The painting below is Old Wall, Pyrenees , 24”x18”, oil on panel. It is also another example of the use of lines that came out of the ink drawings I did at CAN.
In previous examples, my imagery had a fairly direct connection to what I was observing around me. But as time passes, I notice the connections to observed, visual reality are becoming less direct. My current work comes more often from the feeling of an experience in Catalonia, or some other sensory response--and the ideas continue to evolve in an abstract way. The painting below ( Early Light , 18” square, oil on panel, collection of Peggy Hoffman, Chicago, IL) relates in a minimalist way to the pale morning light in Farerra, where the sun did not come over the mountain until mid-morning.
Since returning home, some of the paintings on paper that I brought back with me have led directly to new work. This new work retains a connection to its source, but has its own momentum now, and again is stretching further away from the original inspiration. An example is a series of white paintings that I am currently working on. One of the catalysts for this series is Hermitage , a mixed media painting on paper from CAN. Next to this is a photo showing the kind of textured white walls I loved in the old buildings of the region. The next slide will show current work related to this theme.
The color and minimalist approach in these paintings comes from various visual sources in Catalonia, that have mingled over time—including white plaster walls, white stone, and the arid environment of the region. There is also something less tangible expressed, about the quiet and solitude I experienced there. As I continue working with this idea, associations and meanings deepen and become more complex. The paintings below are Vestige , 36’ square, oil on panel, and White Rock , 30”x34” oil on panel.
Conclusion <ul><li>What lies ahead as I follow the various threads of this work? One idea is to focus on weathered and eroded surfaces in general—walls, rocks, rusted metal, anything that evokes a sense of time passing and leaving its marks. When I think of my time in Catalonia, images of this kind of texture are perhaps the strongest visual memories. </li></ul><ul><li>Thus, the work coming out of my time at CAN has progressed from fairly direct responses to the things that impressed me there--the old buildings, slate cliffs, trails and mountain sides…towards a more generalized expression of the beauty found in what is ancient, rugged and weathered over time. This response has happened largely at intuitive level, by being open and responsive to what happens during the painting process. And although I may have a particular idea in mind to follow now, it’s still going to be an open-ended exploration. </li></ul><ul><li>This cycle--a progression from influence of a specific source towards a wider idea, and then back again to draw upon a new source—is basic to my work and that of many other artists. I consider the layered approach I use in my paintings to be a metaphor for this experience. Nothing along the way is completely covered over--it all builds one layer upon another, and the parts that show through add richness and complexity. </li></ul>
I hope this brief exploration into abstract ideas and language has been helpful. To start exploring your own sources for abstract ideas, look at whatever has moved you and been thematic in your work to this point. Your sources can be as close as your own memories or the view out your window. Enjoy the journey! Copyright 2009 by Rebecca Crowell, unauthorized use prohibited…email [email_address] for permission to use in educational setting