Not Everything Has a Name
Updated: Jul 29
And not everything needs a name. This is my new motto lately as I work to keep my footing on the tricky slope of abstraction. Abstract art has always been one of my biggest hurdles, and one of my most desired goals. It’s interesting for a lot of people to hear that abstract art is hard—and most don’t believe it—but it’s true. For me it’s hard because there has always been a tiny voice in the back of my mind, telling me that my art should look like something or that it means nothing.
And yet, the very definition of abstract art is that is doesn’t look like anything. And yet, when I look at other artists’ abstract art, I feel all the feelings.
I wrote on social media yesterday: Sometimes it’s hard to remind ourselves that not everything has a name. That feeling you have, the memory you can’t quite see, the uneasy act of feeling around in the dark. Sometimes these things only reveal themselves with colors, with misshapen strands of gouache and ink.
I wrote this after struggling with that tiny voice telling me to turn these shapes and colors into flowers and something legible to the audience. Maybe it’s the former writer in me that wants these things. After all, we can’t read gibberish. But art isn’t words. It’s pure emotion slathered, dumped, smeared, scribbled, and scratched onto canvas. And not all emotions have names.
Have you ever heard a song and thought it had a color?
Have you ever tasted a flavor of ice cream you hadn’t had since you were a kid and were instantly five again?
Have you ever smelled something and was suddenly flooded with a thousand emotions tied to a memory you can no longer picture? Emotions so intense you had a stitch in your throat?
The mind, the brain itself, is a puzzle box all on its own.
I think what I love most about abstract art is that everyone sees something different. The lack of figurative images allows the viewer to draw on his/her own emotions and experiences in order to translate what’s been painted. Sure, I had my own reasons for the colors, the tools used, the medium itself, but with my abstract works I often keep those reasons to myself. I want my viewer to decide what he/she thinks the paintings are about.
I love asking my daughter what she thinks my abstract paintings are about. “What do you see?” I ask her. She tells me that the two sepia-toned paintings below are about a tree, a horse, and an egg. What do you think they’re about?
I’ve written all of this out not just for myself, but for others who might struggle with creating abstract pieces. Sometimes there just isn’t a way to express what you’re feeling other than using a stick from your garden and some black ink. And when someone asks “what’s it about?” you might still have no way to put it into words. You might only be able to point at your painting and say “that.”
I leave you with a fear of mine. Someday I may have an abstract piece hung in a gallery, and a group will walk past and I will overhear “my two-year-old could paint that.”
Dear person-in-my-future, isn’t that part of the point? Children have not yet been shaped and molded by rules and society and experiences. Children are pure, raw, emotional beings with no filter. It’s up to the adult artist to excavate her own inner child, dust her off, and give her a paintbrush. Fears and rejections and not-so-nice words be damned.
The next time I find myself feeling forced to add some figurative elements to an abstract painting, I hope I can recite my new mantra: it doesn’t have a name…and it doesn’t have to. Art could be named by one, or named by all.
Until next time, may your abstracts be extra abstract, and your garden be full of painting sticks.