27 January 2018
Of all the art battles and debates of the 20th century, none has been as divisive as that between abstract art and figurative art.
As a gallery that shows a lot of abstract art, we are often reflecting on the best ways to get across the beauty and allure of the abstract art we show alongside our more figurative artists. With the upcoming exhibition of the Columbia Threadneedle prize for figurative painting taking place at the Mall Galleries at the end of this month, we thought there was no better time to reflect on the nuances of abstract art versus figurative.
About Abstract Art
Almost all art is abstract art, if we take abstraction to be a process of drawing inspiration from the shape, color and texture of objects. Artists have “abstracted” from the world around them since prehistoric times. Abstract art tends to rely on the associations of form to suggest meaning, rather than employing recognizable motifs to point to particular themes and content. Abstraction is diverse in itself and can range from the gestural and intuitive mark making of a painter like Lydia Mammes to the mathematical grid-like colour structures of an artist like Jane Goodwin.
Lydia Mammes, Untitled Red Blue Bands, 2012, acrylic on mdf, 100 x 100cm
Jane Goodwin, Blue on Blue Series 8 No. 5, Oil on canvas, 61 x 61cm
These paintings embody the non-objective type of abstract art we have in the gallery whereby the artists make no reference to the real world. These paintings are principally about colour, line and surface. Paintings about and which celebrate the process of painting.
About Figurative Art
Cecile van Hanja, The Silence of Light, 2016, acrylic and oil on canvas, 120 x 90cm
The term has been particularly used since the arrival of abstract art to refer to artists that retain aspects of the real world as their subject matter. Picasso after about 1920 is the great exemplar of modern figurative painting. For most of the 20th century, in Western Art, the discussion of “modern painting” largely ignored figurative works. Really only since the 1980s that abstraction has grown less dominant and figurative art returned to prominence (think Jean-Michel Basqiat, Marlene Dumas, Gerard Richter and Luc Tuymans to name a few).
Arnout Killian, Mediators, Oil on canvas, 200 x 150cm
Arnout Killian in the vein of his predecessors like Edward Hopper and Luc Tuymans, is a master of realist painting. The works of Killian are a direct mirror on human behaviour, mainly of the impersonal kind. He has a concentrated and restrained way of painting which is reflected in the clean lines and the meticulous details of his compositions, with only a subtle hint of a presence of a person, provoke us to think about who occupies these architectural spaces and what life takes place in them. He has a fascination with subjects drawn from the artificial and contemporary segments of culture.
Jemma Appleby’s drawings are equally meticulous and photo-realistic while investigating a relationship between architecture and landscape. The forest landscape is used as a haven for solitude and calmness while the structures in this series that are integrated into the landscape are based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses.
While it is helpful to view abstract art and figurative art as distinct entities, for many artists the dividing line between abstraction and figuration is much more fluid. Indeed the art historical dialogue is not necessarily one of defining the boundaries between figuration and abstraction anymore but focusing on the connections between them. Arnout Killian for instance works with both.
Perhaps it is worth considering that both abstract and figurative types of painting do the work of representation; be it an imitation or realistic representation of a subject or more an impression or reflection of that subject. Either a way a painting has a surface on which some version of ourselves (physical, spiritual, social, cultural etc) is reflected back at us, which is why we like to represent both in the gallery.