Abstraction in the visual arts is not everyone’s tin of paint. It’s a foreign language for many, like higher mathematics is for most. Yet, its history has helped shape the nature of the Twentieth century in which the beast was born. It was like someone flicked a switch around 1905 and things in physics and aesthetics took off in another direction. The visual arts and literary matters became a very different species, became everything we labelled modern; and somewhat complex.
Einstein baffled us with his abstruse equations, T.S. Eliot broke from time-honoured conventional poetic modes, and artists like Kandinsky abandoned representation and painted abstract forms. His musician friend, Schoenberg, was also composing a new musical sound; one that eschewed melody and tune. This was the brave new world of abstraction. It reached New Zealand’s shores late in the piece; we were about 40 years behind.
By the 1950’s, Cubism, a more moderate form of abstraction was being practiced here, much to the disgust of Joe public. It was a minority taste in a provincial world frightened of the new and unknown. Artists like Colin McCahon, Louise Henderson and John Weeks were the trailblazers in this country; the Elvis Presleys of their time.Mr and Mrs Plastic Bucket didn’t like them. They knew what they liked – pretty pictures of mountains and lakes that looked exactly like the things they were.
The Waikato Museum is presently showing a selection of works from these seminal artists which affords a glimpse of how we, as a nation, were starting to grow, visually, during the conservative years. Pure abstraction is still problematic for many. What does it mean? What does it represent? Sometimes it doesn’t mean anything, other than things to do with line, form, colour and texture: a purely visual experience. This, in the jargon, is formalism.
An example is the work of local artist, Gaye Jurisich, and her recent show at Frankton Gallery, called Overlaps and Containments. The title itself suggests a formalist agenda. They were large colourful canvases in which brushstroke itself was one of the main attractions together with layering of marks and abutment of primary colours. Geometric forms played off against each other in energetic ways, displaying an apposite combination of hard-edged notations juxtaposed against broad expressive brush work, the combination producing an exciting visual frisson. It’s a pity the show is now over. It was a feast for the eye.