Abstracting, a Superpower for Real

by stephenfakiyesi April 2, 2020

What’s abstracting and why should we consider it a superpower?

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit it, abstracting is not something that comes intuitively for me, at least not in the way I have been conceptualizing it in my mind.

As an artist who uses images or visual language to flesh out ideas, abstracting hasn’t played an obvious nor a large part of my practice when viewed purely as nonrepresentational art-making. Recently, however, I’ve gained immense appreciation for the process of abstracting since gaining further insight and greater clarity as to how early 20th century artists, such as Piet Mondrian, achieved their abstract works evolving it, in his case, from representations of trees in nature to pure geometric abstract canvases. Similarly, scientists of the same period, such as the Nobel prize-winning physicist C.T.R. Wilson, were producing abstract looking documentation of their theories by observing aspects of nature and it’s building blocks, such as the physicist’s photographs of subatomic particles. And though examples of abstraction abound more readily today, there appears to be a lot of confusion and foggy thinking around the processes of abstracting itself.

Of the many less than useful definitions of abstraction I found online: From Wikipedia – “its…a conceptual process…” To Oxford Lexico – “The quality of dealing with ideas rather than events,” or “Something which exists only as an idea,” and “Freedom from representational qualities in art.” And from Cambridge Dictionary “an idea that develops by looking at or thinking about a number of different things.” One online source, Merriam-Webster, had what I thought was a very useful definition of the word abstraction (though it appears to be written more as an aside rather than a primary entry) – “From its roots, abstraction should mean basically ‘something pulled or drawn away’. So abstract art is art that has moved away from painting objects of the ordinary physical world in order to show something beyond it.” Which is, in my opinion, a very useful definition.

For our purposes though, the definition which I’d like us to consider in understanding what abstracting is, is one every bit as useful as the above definition but even more pertinent, derived by me from a chapter entitled “Abstracting” from an amazing book titled “Sparks of Genius” by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, I’ve paraphrased and put an emphasis on their definition, which is: Abstracting is to simplify an object or an idea to its essential part(s). When done at optimal levels, abstracting not only produces clarity about the subject at hand but is a process that can also uncover fundamental attributes about it. I find this definition which I’ve added the idea of “clarity” to, to be extremely useful as it corresponds with many tangible examples of abstraction, some which are listed below, and opens up rather than shuts out a lot of possibilities for creative exploration.

As already mentioned, abstractions are all around us, though how much abstraction informs our daily life, was not as obvious to me before reading the above book: Everything from body language that transcends cultural boundaries, to someone humming the tune of a popular song, or the summary of a movie you’ve just finished watching, All are examples of abstraction in their own way, as they are stripped down segments of reality. In one case, an isolated body gesture, in another the segment of a memorable piece of music, and still another the distillation of a two-hour feature film into a pithy synopsis.

The point of stripping down gesture, music, a story-line, and the further examples below in this way may not be so obvious at first, and as with other forms of experimentation success can be elusive and is certainly not guaranteed. As the Bernstein’s observe in their book, the essence of abstraction might seem “so basic, so simple that they seem unremarkable.” Yet, “few of us could…devise a new way of portraying perception, develop a new gestural language, or describe a fundamental truth about human feelings. Such triumphs are rare and difficult to achieve.” But are the purvey of the process of abstracting applied at the highest level.

In the publishing field, CliffsNotes, in the US, or Coles Notes, in Canada, and their online equivalents, Youtube book summaries, etc, are abstracts of literary and other written works.

Philosophical, linguistic or literary concepts such as love, purpose, destiny and the like are all abstractions.

All of mathematics and every scientific theory is an abstraction, a simplification of something in reality or, in the case of some mathematical equations, outside of reality.

In the art world there are two competing schools of thought when it comes to abstraction. The modernist (early 20th century) inventors of abstract art viewed as important the formative development of abstraction out of natural and real-world phenomena. Our earlier examples of the French painter Mondrian and the Scottish physicist C.T.R. Wilson are of this school.

While a postmodernist (mid 20th century and beyond) perspective posits an abstraction that is detached from natural and real-world phenomena from the very outset. This approach to abstract art is most common today driven in large part by expediency and market interest. However, I would agree with Picasso, who cautioned other painters, that “To arrive at abstraction, it is always necessary to begin with a concrete reality” As far as I can see the postmodernists perspective of abstraction is giving up a lot in terms of true artistic discovery and innovation so that some artists and collectors can have a quick payday.

In any case, you’re probably wondering why all this matters, and what this all has to do with having superpowers, and what is so wrong with a quick payday anyway?…

Glad you asked. And with regards to the last point just raised, if done ethically, I’d be the last to get in the way of someone else’s “quick payday.” Besides, art is a tough enough gig without us creating obstacles for each other and throwing shade on each other’s motives.

But because you asked, this is why it matters to me… First – I pride myself in being open to reexamining and changing my thinking where it makes sense and especially when there are clear benefits to doing so. The idea that abstracting is a way of simplifying an object or an idea to its essential parts and possibly uncovering fundamental attributes about it is an idea I find holds great creative possibilities.

The picture above(on the left) is the north and east-facing walls of my kitchen cum work station. The north wall, as in other parts of my small house apartment, is covered in light blue swatches of colour, reminiscent of abstract Colour Field paintings from the ’40s and ’50s. It’s a hue of blue that’s calming to the eyes leaving me more energized than the more glaring off-white walls of the remainder of the house.

The top right picture is of an interactive art installation entitled “Shooting Gallery.” In this art piece the background field of red and white stripes is all the abstraction that is needed for the sensation of being at a carnival.

Granted these are just my preliminary experimentation with abstracted forms and I can’t foretell how big a role it will play in my practice going forward. But beyond this, I’m an avid reader of books, and am stoked by the possibilities of life long learning, and my recent discovery of the world of YouTube book reviews, a literary form of abstraction. Wow, what an amazing tool to help us plow through a pile of content in minutes as opposed to days, enhancing our overall picture of things, and identifying and clarifying the books we ought to take a more in-depth look at. I consider having near-instant access to all of history’s knowledge in a matter of minutes, the amount of time it takes to process an online book abstract, a superpower.

Still not convinced abstracting is a superpower? Let me leave you with this example: Olafur Eliasson is an artist featured on season 2 episode 1 of a Netflix series called, appropriately enough, Abstract, who has pushed this idea of abstracting to some stunning heights. One of his art installation, the Weather Project, which displayed at the Tate Modern in London, simulates the sensation of a miniaturized sun within the museum walls. The art piece eliminates from the environment all but two colours, yellow and black, the polarizing effect of employing mono-frequency lamps. “Drawing attention,” as it states on the Tate website, “to the fundamental act of perceiving the world around us.” The result is, in short, mesmerizing! Like flies drawn to light.

Now how is that for tapping into a superpower!

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