Abstraction as autobiography


Jan 22nd 2012

“…Painter Mary Heilmann suggests that each of her abstract paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker.” (Terry R. Meyers, “Introduction,” Painting, 15)

This resonates. My paintings reflect my exchange with the world at any given moment. As does all autobiography, I suppose. I struggled over that word exchange, not sure how in language to represent the dynamic of inner and outer. Even those words fail me. This is the place where the road of language ends for me. How to represent the lived experience of being in the world and being of the world at the same time? I have read that we can never be sure when we use words to represent the world that we achieve perfect communication, because what each of us understands is constructed in our brains. The conventions work in most cases—baby, table, banana. We have general agreement about these things. Color is a little more confusing, we’re told; some of us are “colorblind” and others see more colors than most of us. My son-in-law paints lovely representational watercolors. They are not photographic, though he often paints from photographs that he has taken. They are loose and evocative representations of the world that he has seen. I have never thought to ask him what he hopes to communicate through them. I just enjoy their beauty and watch the evident pleasure he takes in working on them. Would he say that they are about him? That they are bits of autobiography? They certainly do record a fraction of his interaction with the world.

I know that we experience the world differently, he and I. But I have lost the thread. Why do I paint? Because it gives me pleasure, when I allow myself to do it, to break through the cage of my thoughts and judgments and just do it. Maybe that is why, because it gives me the opportunity to practice just being. And more. It allows me to practice the integration of being and doing, something that should be fundamental, the fundamental, component of our birthright, something that many of us lose on our way to growing up. For me painting becomes an act of recovery. I know that everything I experience goes into the work even though it is not recognizable on the canvas, and I am fairly certain that this process does not employ language as a tool. Painting gives visual representation to the way the world works on me. The way it flows through me, using the channels of my senses, goes deep into the body for processing, and reemerges through color and motion. Even so, I do not know what the images say to others, or for the most part to myself. At least I cannot usually tell any of us with words.