Between exasperation (“My five-year-old could have done that!”) and pure confusion (“I’m sorry, I just — I really just don’t get it”), it can be tough for the uninitiated to get on board with abstract art. And frankly, that’s fair enough. Having planes of seemingly random lines, shapes, and colours in impossible constellations shout at you from gallery walls in a language you can’t understand doesn’t really sound like a lot of fun.
The good news? The language isn’t hard to learn. And once you do, work no longer shouts — it simply exposes you to its world of alternate logic; something that stops you in your tracks and completely sucks you in.
Safe to say then that at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art’s The Gap, my nerdy little heart skipped a beat. Featuring abstract pieces by selected Belgian artists, The Gap exposes us to the ideas and inspiration behind two generation’s worth of work. We see influence from colourists, De Stijl, and modernism, across mediums such as installation, painting, and sculpture. It’s a giant amount to cover, but we leave with a strong enough overview to fill in the gaps of went on from then to now.
Leaving the shackles of representation behind, abstract art isolates visual variables — colour, lines, shape, plasticity, texture — and forces us to feel something at their hands. We’re thrown into the semantic deep end, struggling to understand what we are actually feeling because we’ve got no familiar cues to help us make sense of it.
Take Philippe Van Snick’s 2015 piece Transition: two gigantic, symmetrical, bright red rectangles divided by a soft blue column of paint. It’s bigger than, and beyond us; a gateway to another world we can neither see nor imagine. If we face the column head-on, our vision is almost completely obscured by red. There’s nothing more, nothing less: just exactly what we feel at that specific point, with two giant red sections hovering above and in front of us. It’s as if the red is both leaning forward and pulling back, skewing our senses of space and time. We’re drawn in, held, and released — suspended within a kind of contained vortex.
Philippe Van Snick (mural as part of Arocha and Schraenen’s Column), Transition, 2015. Casein paint on wall and column. Courtesy Galerie Tatjana Pieters. Image credit The Gap: Selected Abstract Art from Belgium curated by Luc Tuymans. Installation view at Parasol unit, 2015. Photograph: Jack Hems. Courtesy of Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art
Crucially, we also experience ‘red’ and ‘blue’ in a different way: removed from the automatic, rational classing of the colours as representative of, say, anger or sadness, based on what we know to associate them with. It’s a nod back to colourist painting — a theme sustained by earlier works such as Jef Verheyen’s 1969 Monochroom Blauw Morgen, a blue canvas that isolates the very experience of seeing blue.
This point where we simply react before rationality jumps in to explain it with words is where we need to linger if we really want to grasp the power of abstract art. When we get to the stage where we’re using words, we’re drawing on what we know to formally attach meaning to what we feel. Abstract art deals with the meaning-making process in its most basic, infantile form: before we get to words. Before we ‘know’ anything. The trick is to try and zero in on those pre-word sensations. If you do it right, it’s terrifying and incredibly inspiring all at once.
Geometry was a keen focus in many of the works, with basic shapes and lines often repeated against bold sections of colour. Boy & Erik Strappaerts’ 2014-15 Polarisation Paintings, 10 steps & 11 steps shows us two identical columns, each made up of four rows of panels. Each row is the same colour, and save for a section on the leftmost side of each panel in the left column, each surface is adorned with a tessellated geometric pattern. The familiar logic of geometry imbues the piece with authority, but beyond that, we’ve no further clues on what to make of it. We recognise that a system is at play, but it’s operating on its own time, and according to its own rules.
It’s otherworldly: awash with the calm knowledge that belongs to some higher plane of truth. It’s a manifestation of something we can’t quite put our finger on — a feeling, a sensation, or perhaps the manifestation of an invisible force like sound, anger, or movement.
What’s especially clever about The Gap though is how it champions both floors of the gallery space to lead us through a complete experience. Carla Arocha & Stépanie Schraenen’s 2015 Column spans through both floors as if the floor dividing the gallery’s levels is a simple blip in consciousness. The work sports two perfectly symmetrical square frames that trace the bounds of a central, square column, appearing as equidistant ripples coming off of it.
Carla Arocha & Stéphane Schraenen, Column, 2015. Acrylic, stainless steel and Plexiglas. Courtesy of the artists. Image credit The Gap: Selected Abstract Art from Belgium curated by Luc Tuymans. Installation view at Parasol unit, 2015. Photograph: Jack Hems. Courtesy of Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art.
As we walk around the column we catch glimpses of ourselves: our eyes, our mouths, our hands in our pockets. We’re somewhere else, in pieces, but we’re also there in the moment watching. By tangibly dipping into the real via a real-time representation of ourselves, Arocha and Schraenen more palpably interrogate our sense of space, being, and form.
The Gap is a clever, well-curated showcase of abstract thought over time. Whilst it misses big-hitting names and works from masters of the time, the ideas are all there: the power of plasticity and the futility of what we know as a purveyor of meaning making.
We grow up and learn to make meaning from signs, conventions, and symbol. Abstract art forces us, if only for a moment, to forget all of that, in favour of specific visual elements and their raw meaning-making power. The Gap reminds us that we’ve only able to do this if we take art as truth when we look at it.
The Gap: Selected Abstract Art from Belgium curated by Luc Tuymans is running at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art, London, until 6 December 2015
Featured image credit The Gap: Selected Abstract Art from Belgium curated by Luc Tuymans. Installation view at Parasol unit, 2015. Photograph: Jack Hems. Courtesy of Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art. Photo has been slightly cropped to fit.