The abstract narrative

Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible.

April 2016, in a gallery in the Marais, in Paris. On the evening of the opening of one of my exhibitions, a friend tapped me on the shoulder and dragged me to one of my paintings. “It’s not bad,” he said, “but I can’t quite manage to like it, because I haven’t worked out what it represents. Is it more like a submerged Galaxy, or a jellyfish fighting a dragon? I was amused, and smiled politely. While my work is abstract, I have got used to people identifying all sorts of surprising things in what I paint. A common cognitive reflex, when confronted with abstract art, is to look for something figurative. This figuration of the abstract was actually a requirement, for my friend, in order to understand and appreciate what I had painted.

Figuration necessarily means something, since it figurates. Shapes and contours are viewed through the prism of what they represent—providing a predefined understanding and interpretation framework. Abstract art, without a framework for insight, risks being meaningless, without nothing to say beyond an artwork’s pre-existing void. An abstract artist confronted by this risk will wonder how to make an abstract form offef a narrative of equal intensity-but of a different nature-to what the figurative form expresses by its representation. Establishing an abstract narrative seems as difficult as it is paramount to give abstraction its eloquence and its status as a work of art. In this article, I offer three possible answers—on which I also base what is do in my workshop.

Firstly, as my friend did, imagination provides meaning. Because the unknown destabilizes, imagining a Galaxy, a jellyfish or a dragon can re-establish an untroubled relationship with abstract art. Allowing the imagination to develop is what will provide meaning to an abstract subject. “The power of the Image-repertoire is immediate: I do not look for the image, it comes to me, all of a sudden” (Roland Barthes)5Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Éditions Le Seuil, 1977 (French edition). Translated by Richard Howard, Farrar, Straus and Giroud, 1978.. Like shells that cling and develop on any available surface, the imagination develops spontaneously, provided that it is given a support on which to cling. The abstract can become rich in meaning and interpretation if it serves as a base.

But what is the base of the imagination?

Undoubtedly the most uncertain abstract works (blurred, complex, messy) will be more difficult to interpret, and consequently subject to multiple interpretations. Our brain interprets what we see, to give meaning to the signals received from the optic nerve, and then reacts appropriately. Our survival depends on this instinctively realized reconnaissance work. But this natural ability of the brain is disturbed by the appearance of abstract works in our environment. These works, escaping immediate recognition, put stress on the brain, leading it to make hypotheses. These hypotheses made by our brains are what makes up our imagination. The reflex of recognizing dragons and jellyfish in abstraction comes from this cerebral attempt to “figurate” the abstract. The more uncertain what we look at, the more we will resort to imagination to fill the uncertainty. Thus the random complexity of the shapes appearing on the surface of Jupiter serves as a perfect base for our imagination.

Patterns on the surface of Jupiter (image provided by NASA)

The abstract narrative would therefore be what can be imagined, and the best pieces of abstraction would be those where some uncertainty allows us, in a a confused way, to imagine our world figuratively.

Abstraction, being placed outside the real world, touches us, however, by referring to it.

Yet paradoxically, once the imaginative work is done, once the Galaxy or the jellyfish is recognised, the artwork is “figurated”, and its narrative is no longer abstract. The great flow out of the imaginary 6V. note 1 above, when embroidered from what we already know, bypasses the notion of abstraction to return to the real world. One must therefore look alsewhere for a true abstract.

Rather than evoking the world we know, could the abstract not appeal to the world that we ignore? The strength of the abstract narrative could be precisely its difference as against the real world.

If one admits that the imagination can develop from scratch, without reference to our past lives, an abstract narrative is no longer a projection of what life has allowed us to experience. It becomes a pure invention of our mind outside of any references.

If the inkblot test used by Hermann Rorschach from 1921 (in the famous psychoanalytic test of the same name) stimulate our imagination, it is not so much because they always resemble vaguely known objects, but rather because they do not look exactly like any of them. The interest of the test is then to know what the patient will tell about this unrecognizable part of the stains, the narrative that he will form out of what is outside of the known world.

Rorschach blot (1921)
According to this new idea, the point of the abstract is no longer the set of images that it will allow to emerge, but rather the very fact that it creates something in us and thus calls out the unconscious.
By crossing this degree of additional abstraction, the artist joins the posture of the psychoanalyst, who is in charge of revealing manifestations of the unconscious in the patient.
The eloquence of abstraction therefore comes from the fact that it awakens an eloquence that is already present in us. The abstract narrative is none other than the inner narrative of each one of us, and the interpretation is that of our unconscious. But here again abstract art voices considerations that are already present (our unconscious). Could we not cross an additional degree of abstraction, and conceive something abstract outside of any reference to anything known? Considered thus, abstract art becomes the messenger of an elsewhere that could be the hard-to-observe component of each being. Discovering an abstract work would be tantamount to observation of curiosity, or of discovering somethikng akin to a riddle. Like a narrated pebble from the Moon, these testimonies of an unknown elsewhere fascinate us and challenge our ability to perceive reality as a whole. The inner world that animates us has edges, which everything coming from outside is likely to question, by softening and widening these mental boundaries. Our perception of the world could be only the fragment of a much larger and more complex reality.
The conscience awakening required by abstract art would then operate by bringing the testimonies of this misunderstood space into our field of perception.
Abstract conception of abstract art would turn the imaginative reflex (that which makes my friend to recognize a galaxy and jellyfish) into a tendency to avoid, continually bringing abstract art into the comfortable field of the known and of the understood. De facto preventing the mystery of operation. On the contrary, it is when the abstract does not evoke anything known that it becomes interesting, because then it speaks of a elsewhere. It then requires of the beholder to actually create a world that does not exist. Abstract narrative does not exist in the form of an explicit message, but rather in a set of stimuli created by the artwork and located at the boundaries of the understandable. The most enigmatic artists are often those who speak to us with the loudest voices, because it is what is misundertstood that evokes interest. Let us remember the story of the gallery owner deprecating his own artwork, and try to provide a rational explnation for his behaviour. These are absurd explanations, that deprive spectators of the capacity to understand. Meanwhile, the artworks have been stripped of their mystery. Instead of wanting to understand the abstract, let us seek to “know what we do not know”7cf note aboveRoland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux, op. cit., translation by Richard Andrews, English edition, p. 134., again in the words of Roland Barthes, who dedicated the phrase to someone with whom he was in love (a work of another order) 8Cf. Note 1 above. It must be understood that one does not understand the abstract for the purpose of understanding it. This paradox underlines the difficulty of explaining the abstract narrative. Admittedly, some artists have been able to give their abstract creations the eloquence of a narrative, but this narrative escapes an attempt at rational explanation. That is precisely what makes them powerful, opening the way for communication outside of language.