Sunday, May 18, 2014

Abstraction

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It is a surreal experience being a "professor" and a "doctor" in the sense of being an academic. Although I have the degrees and the background to give these labels the appropriate meaning, I still feel first and foremost that I am actually an artist. My sensibilities and my approaches to almost everything are more like that of an artist than that of a scholar. I constantly learn towards creativity and innovation rather than seeking the usual stability of disciplinary sheltering that characterizes most academics. This is why even though my career and so much of my reputation is tied to things such as development of Chamorro language programs, curriculum, Guam History research and the development of programs related to Chamorro culture and identity, I still yearn to create "art." I try my best to force it into the things I do, but I also want to actually create art in the sense of comic books, writing fiction and often times just painting and pushing peoples buttons in avant garde fashion.

Since I don't get to specifically make art all the time, I end up finding political ways of making the things I do carry the same type of critical or insight I might create with art. For most people the way in which you judge art is in terms of the skill involved in representing reality. But because of the limits of the imagination of most people, this means that the way they see reality represented is through photographs, and so photorealism must be the pinnacle of artistic achievement or representation. An incredible amount of skill is required to paint things in photorealistic manners, but people confuse that as meaning that therefore what is photorealistic will carry the most weight in terms of representing reality. At most things that are photorealistic convey not the surface of reality, but rather the surface of the eyeball that is viewing reality. To place that at the height not of skill but of interpretation means to chain our imaginations and the way we can see and feel the world, to be too literal, too tied to something at its most obvious or basic form. 

Art is just one of the ways that humans attempt to give meaning to their experiences in the world, both in its creation and its interpretation. The way we see art is directly tied to the way we see ourselves. People make such a big deal about art that appeals to their sensibilities or they just like, and that says a great deal about themselves and how they see the world and their relationship to it. Those who see art in simple ways may have very simple relationships to the world, may see the world in a lesser range of possibilities, because as art is a lens that is shaded, cracked and deceptive in the ways all of our gazes are, we can art as the potential for that multiplicity or as something irritating and in need of editing and simplifying. 

As an abstract artist I have had many interested experiences seeing the narrowness and the breadth through which people see, feel and integrate the world into themselves. I have encountered so many people who saw my paintings as being stupid or pointless because there is nothing immediately apparent in terms of their content, because it requires extra mental processing into arriving at an answer as to what it is, or simply just because the abstraction represents a way the world is and they would rather assume the world to be more concrete and easier to understand, rather than something that requires an active will or engagement to exist in. But every once in a while I found people who surprise me, who connect to my art in a way that amazes or inspires me.

One of my favorite pieces that I made during the first few years as an artist on Guam was called “The Killing of San Vitores.” This piece was abstract and so it looked nothing like San Vitores or his death scene. There were hints of action throughout the piece. If you divided it into four quadrants, each one had a different movement that was reminiscent of something in the San Vitores story. In one corner there was the hinting of a skull, on the worship of ancient Chamorros. In another there was a line or movement, scratches of paint that hinted at soldiers with weapons on their shoulders marching, this perhaps connected to the retribution that would come after. In one corner, there was a flowing, something abstract pouring down to the edge of the composition, hinting at the killing itself. 

When I exhibited that piece at the former CAHA Gallery at Two Lover’s Point one of my uncles saw it and said he loved it. He noted the title and the composition and said that it was perfect, it conveyed perfectly in his mind that moment. I was astounded to hear this and asked him what part of the washes and lines of color gave him this impression. He said it wasn’t the painting itself but the color. There was a lightness to it, off white, mixed with slight traces of silver and gold. He said that this color felt perfect in conveying what San Vitores would have been feeling at the moment of his death/martyrdom. There was something religious about it, but quiet, and not overly bloody or gory.
I have had so many wonderful experiences like that, where people tell me that something in my work, usually something I did not intend or some aspect where they see a universe of depth that I do not, appealed to them or made them see or feel something they might have earlier thought impossible or unlikely to symbolize. Art makes it possible for the things we may assume cannot be represented can somehow be. They can find some representation that does not satisfy us, but can vex, inspire, challenge and transform us. 

So many people want art to simply portray reality, that it just represent a field, a sunset, a battle and do nothing more. This misses the most critical dimension of art, it has nothing to do with “reality” itself, but is always about the human relationship to reality, the role that we play in making our reality. The power we have in seeing it and shaping the way others see it. 

This is why when I hear people talk about creativity as being its own activity or that there should be art for art sake, I am always confused. Because of the human dimensions I have mentioned art is always political. It always carries with it messages about the nature of humanity even if it is the most banal, kitschy portray of clowns crying over losing their poker games to dogs and babies dressed as flowers. Some messages will be more over than others. Some will make explicit attempts to shape the way people see things, others won’t. Some will be created with the intent that you see nothing but art and pure creativity in what is offered. The artist will actively seek to foreclose anything else.

But to say that art is political does not mean to say that it is always critical. Depending on the theory you use to map the socio-political you will use different terminology to describe it. Art is always political in the sense that it reflects the socio-political texture, but it not essential transgressive, it can be reproductive, conservative. Generally the impulse to simply create or not have any political aspects to one’s art reproduces existing hierarchies and prevailing common sense, it doesn’t often lead to any greater understanding or expanding of possibilities. 

What I always try to impress upon students is that having an active “political” dimension or critical dimension in your art can take many forms. It is not having a rant in your story about a political issue. It is not about incorporating elephants and donkeys into your paintings. But it does meant taking seriously the fact that as an artist you can simply try to reflect reality, but your attempts to reflect and represent also shape things, albeit in small ways. Refusing to acknowledge this truth will often lead to your work being political in the most conservative sense where you will reproduce things in society without even realizing it. The same can and will happen even if you are more conscious about your art, but the difference is the intention, the understanding and the recognition of the potential role every artist plays. 


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