May 2021: Understanding Abstract Art

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Understanding abstract art can be tricky for many because it is diverse, multifaceted & can be considered inaccessible. Over the years I’ve had people ask me why did I select this particular genre of art? Let’s have a chat about it…

There’s a few reasons why abstraction is considered ‘inaccessible’ and one of these is that the viewer of an abstract painting can’t ‘read’ it in the same way they can read a painting of a tree for example. They look at the tree painting and know what it is but if the viewer was to look at a painting of an abstract tree this may cause frustration “how can that be a tree, it doesn’t ‘look’ like a tree, it looks like a child drew it”! When people tell me they don’t understand or struggle with abstract art I always give them this advice as a simple introduction to abstraction.

Think about your favourite piece of music that has no vocal narrative. Now think about why you love that piece of music. Is it because it’s got an instrument you enjoy or does it relax you or make you think about things differently? This is the same with abstraction and it is also the easiest way I can help people relate. There isn’t a specific narrative nor do you have to know the history or critical contexts of abstract art to understand it. You just need to know if you like it, if you are drawn to it and is there a reason why you keep looking at it in the same way you would keep listening to that favourite piece of music?

Water washed & Windswept, 2021, oil paint, oil bar & charcoal on panel board, 40x40cm £900

So, why did I become an abstract painter? 

Firstly, I’ve always been more attracted to things that don’t look how they’re supposed to. As a child I enjoyed drawing Disney characters and wildlife. I remember pausing the video tape to draw Donal Duck in a particular position (as the static lines rolled up the screen, this was in the 80’s!) But while trying to capture Donald in his blue sailor outfit I also had a habit of doodling what wasn’t ‘there’ and would get distracted by the shapes & lines of Donald….. what if I removed some of Donald’s spiky hair, what if I repeated that shape but made it more round, larger and what if I…… To my child’s mind I was playing with Donalds characteristics for fun. After I would show them to my mom (who is also an artist) and she explained abstraction and how at its base level, abstract art is the practice of abstracting/ removing from what’s in front of you. 

Secondly, this career is not my first career. In a former life, I was a professional dancer for Riverdance- The Show. I had the absolute pleasure of performing in over 400 cities covering 43 countries over 6 continents- this was a lot of dancing mileage! I took advantage of my situation and made a point of viewing galleries and museums in whatever city I was dancing in. As a result I was able to see most major art collections from around the world. Highlights were the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo where I experienced Martin Creed’s Turner prize work No.227 and Louise Bourgeois Maman spider sculpture in the Roppongi Hills or Factory 798, the art district in Beijing which houses artists open studios where you can meet & watch artists at work or Frida Kahlo’s house La Casa Azule in Mexico City which was very moving.

What felt like a real connection was when I viewed abstract art specifically. I was heavily influenced by collections at MOMA where I saw Wilheim De Kooning and Joan Mitchell or I can still recall walking into a room at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and seeing the work of Charlene Von Heyle for the first time. Mark Rothko continually blows my mind even though I‘ve seen his work on several occasions, Robert Motherwell, Franz Klein and living abstract painters like Fiona Rae, Sean Scully and so many more. The work of these artists stuck with me, moved me and made me want to find my own voice within the world of abstraction, I was enthralled! On a side note, I have more than a dancing career to thank Riverdance for as it was also the basis for my art education and gravitated my attraction to abstraction. 

To See Within, 2021, oil paint and oil bar on fabriano paper, 51x61cm £700

For me, there’s something unique about abstract art because you have to be drawn into the work. To go back to my earlier analogy, the painting of an abstract tree requires more of the viewer, asks you to wonder and question and develops a curiosity about the making of the work whereas a painting of a realist tree doesn’t excite me as much, doesn’t make me want to think my way through the painting while viewing it. Abstraction is the ‘think outside the box’ genre of art for me because the painting requires a lot from the viewer just as it did from the artist who made it. 

Thanks for reading, Aisling x

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Feature Image: Shallow Time, 2021, oil paint, oil bar & charcoal on panel board, 50x50cm (SOLD)


Aisling Drennan is an award-winning abstract artist with a London, UK-based art studio.

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