Visual Arts » 2D

Figuratively Speaking about Abstract Art

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Alicia Obermeyer had her heart broken while on a date with a computer programmer at the Art Institute of Chicago’s museum. “We got to the new modern wing where there are three paintings by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Joan Mitchell. My date looks at the Mitchell painting (City Landscape), which is an explosion of aggressive color and defiant marks. He thinks for a minute and says, ‘So, this is obviously just here for historic reasons, because anyone could do that, right?’”

There was never a second date.

“I was a little heartbroken, because I always thought there was a powerful force behind that painting,” says Obermeyer, a Herron School of Art and Design alumna. “But I also understand that I had a great interest in art, and his great interest was in making the world work with numbers.”

What her date didn’t understand is that abstract art, in some ways, is a lot like computer programing.

There are visual symbols; natural and human-made, which cue us to information about the meaning or history of objects. For instance, if we see broken glass on the floor, we know it must have taken significant momentum to shatter it. If we see a pile of leaves on the grass, however, we can understand that those leaves have fallen in a complete different way than the way glass falls.

Two selections from Alicia Obermeyer's Venetian Blinds series. - ALICIA OBERMEYER
  • Alicia Obermeyer
  • Two selections from Alicia Obermeyer's Venetian Blinds series.

Visual data is something that artists have worked with throughout history. Some of this visual information: emotions, sensations and ideas, can be boiled down to their most fundamental state -- and then manipulated to communicate ideas.

“I think artists working with abstraction can have a good deal more freedom for whimsical kind of formal play than someone working in a traditional figurative way,” says Thomas Stofer, a Bloomington artist. “I say traditional for a reason, as there is so much oscillation between figurative and abstraction, which has become very emphatic now.”

Stofer and Obermeyer are both artists who do the oscillation between the figurative and abstract art-making Stofer describes. Sticking to a particular way of making art is not a choice artists necessarily need to make, as different approaches allow them to gather information in different ways.

The flexibility also allows artists to express ideas in the most suitable method. “The [abstract] work I make is expressive of the mood I am exhibiting,” Obermeyer explains. “Some days I feel contemplative, other days I could scream ... at the top of my lungs to every person I cross. I think visually expressing those feelings helps me deal with being alive.”

Likewise, Stofer believes that figurative art-making has limitations, as there are particular ideas or feelings that cannot be articulated without bringing assumptions into the work.

But abstract art doesn’t need to be analyzed or understood every time for it to be successful according to Stofer.

A work from Thomas Stofer's Blind Man series. - THOMAS STOFER
  • Thomas Stofer
  • A work from Thomas Stofer's Blind Man series.

“I think sometimes you just pull things together that, in a very basic way, seem to have some kind of gravity -- some kind of prettiness ( whether intentional or not) -- that makes some people like raccoons, all enamored with shiny stuff,” Stofer says.

Whether you’re drawn to its form or just curious what actual abstract art looks like, you’re in luck.

The 10th Annual Midwest Abstract Art Exhibition will be held at the Garfield Park Arts Center this Saturday. It will feature the winners of the annual Midwest National Abstract Art Competition. So not only can you get up close in an intimate setting with abstract art, you can check some of the region’s best works. For additional details, visit the center’s website.

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