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Erin McGuire and Abstract Art Appreciation
This week we took a look at Erin McGuire's work. She studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and now produces abstract, form-based work. In addition to the photos on her website, she brought three paintings and a collection of abstract drawings for us to view. She says in her artist statement that her works are social paintings for social creatures. Her paintings are a way to communicate social interactions by using forms as stand-ins for things that can't be represented in the "traditional" way because they aren't physical objects.

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Erin's entire artist statement (read it! It's really interesting.) and pictures of her work can be found on her website: She also has an Abstract Manifesto (

Most of Erin's works right now, including the three she brought for us to see, are medium-sized stretched canvases (around 30" x 30"). She uses a very vibrant color palette that is bright without creating too much tension between the forms. Rather than clashing, they interact. The texture of Erin's work is fairly chunky, but generally without extreme peaks or valleys in the topography. I liked the works she brought along especially because they were energetic and alive without stressing me out or creating a lot of ungrounded visual energy. Her paintings seemed almost friendly without being over-simplified. I found them to be complex but optimistic.

Erin's mission in art is just to get people to appreciate abstract art. She has enjoyed abstract work since she was very young, but knows that not everyone has an innate appreciation for the abstract. When abstract painting made its push for a place in art history, it asked the audience to take something seriously that could easily be taken as cheap or without merit. It pushed the boundaries of what is art. We still struggle to provide the average audience with a means of assessing the relative quality of abstract paintings. Abstract work can be a difficult subject for people; it's hard to discuss and there isn't a ton (relative to representational art) of cultural history coming along behind it providing the vocabulary and a basis for opinion. How do we bridge the social gap between our language and the images that aren't really images? How can it be accessible? Jeriah is of the opinion that anybody can appreciate anything as long as they know it's ok to do so, and I think that that is a very good starting place for this discussion.

People can appreciate anything as long as they know it's ok. Without that assurance, they are forced to take a risk by voicing their opinion on a piece of art. Because most of the art I'm discussing here isn't "funcional" - that is, it doesn't serve another purpose in someone's daily activities other than being art - that takes away one type of objective justification for appreciation (Does it work? With functional objects, people know what they are supposed to do, and then they do that, that's enough to warrant liking it). Abstract works also take away the representational subject, which leaves very little universally understood, objective criteria by which to judge the work. With abstract painting, people don't know whether it's ok because they don't have the art history education or vocabulary to defend their opinions, and so there can be an awkward silence. If they can't say why it's good or bad, it's hard to voice an opinion they're sure of (and they undertake the risk of being disagreed with). Representational subjects are easier: if it looks like the thing it is, there is some basic level of skill of reproduction involved that everyone see/understands and - this is important - that everyone knows that everyone else sees, too.

The next level is artwork that says something new (or something additional) by not being exactly representational, but still being recognizable as translations of things in the world (think impressionism). Rather than simply stating, "These are flowers," that kind of work goes out of its way to make an extra statement: "Flowers are about color," for instance. Most people don't have a hard time digesting that as kind of a meta-statement, but some extra information (perhaps, the title of the piece) may be necessary to get the message.

The next leap is abstraction. But how does a person tell a good abstract from a drunken scribble? It has to do with intent, and artistic intent is very difficult to parse out without education or training. Without knowledge of proportion/composition/color systems etc., all the deliberate choices of the artist appear random or accidental. Education is essential because people want to know that their opinion has a valid basis. They don't want to be the person with the wool pulled over their eyes, imagining that a child's drawing is the next great masterpiece. They want to know they are not being fooled into discussing something as higher than it is. The only way to give that assurance is to discuss process and technique (artist's choices) with the viewer.

So, what is Erin's method? What can we learn about how she makes her paintings that will change our perception of them as art objects? We didn't get particularly detailed in this area, and all artists approach their own work in their own way, but here is what we learned:

To finish a painting can take anywhere from several hours to several painting sessions in length. This relatively short working time means that Erin has a great opportunity to experiment. The more work she does, the more she will be able to decide why it is that she likes a certain color palette, or a certain interaction of forms. By making a large body of work, she will be able to see what attracts her, what naturally appears over and over again, and apply these concepts towards making pieces that truly reflects her artistic intent. That doesn't mean that all of her pieces will look the same or that she'll never evolve to a new style. Certain proportions, color combinations, form interactions, materials, tools, shapes, and lines will communicate her message better than others (and better at different times or for different messages), and these are things that she can consciously choose before beginning a piece, during its construction, and when deciding that it is finished. An artist who could do abstract work entirely randomly all the time, without thought or knowledge of what is going to come out on the canvas, would have to be some sort of computer, because people are drawn to what they're drawn to. That's what creates an artistic style. That's why people can tell Erin's work apart from Jackson Pollock's. They make different choices as artists.

A painting is "finished" when there is nothing left to do. There should be nothing "wrong" (out of place, unbalanced) with the painting, but it should still be interesting enough to keep the viewer (in this case, the artist herself is the viewer) visually engaged. This is perhaps one of the most important distinctions between photorealistic painting and abstract paintings. A photorealistic painting is done when it looks like what it is, and in sufficient detail. An abstract painting is done when the artist decides that it looks like itself. A representational painting is done when it can't look any more like the thing, or when changes start to lessen the likeness of the painting to its subject, or when additional work doesn't seem to be adding anything to the perception of the subject, but an abstract work doesn't have an objective guide. The point of completion is entirely the artist's prerogative, and is a very deliberate choice, perhaps more so than in a process when the work is being compared to an outside standard.


Erin tends to choose her tools in proportion to the size of her canvas. She likes a certain proportion of "brush" stroke (she does not use brushes to make her paintings, but there are still strokes. I'll call them "swipes".) in her works. She is so attracted to this set of proportions that on a smaller canvas, she tends to use smaller tools to achieve the same effect, and on larger canvases, bigger tools. In order to explore this possibly subconscious decision, it would be possible to reproduce a painting on several differently-sized canvases and with several differently-sized tool sets. Because the forms formed by the swipes of paint are the subject, it is not just a choice about choosing what style (thick brushstrokes vs. tiny ones, dry brush vs. wet) in which to render a particular subject. That merely changes the flavor of the same meal. In this case, the size of tools will totally change the subject being painted and make it into a different "image". The size and style of the tools chosen can totally change the painting. It's not a stylistic choice so much as a compositional one.

I really like the idea of using forms to stand in for non-physical types of nouns as artistic subjects. There needs to be a way to communicate about how people interact without using the traditional stereotyped objects that we normally use. A heart shape has nothing to do with love, and if an artist really used steam coming out of someone's ears to indicate an angry interaction, it would come with so much sociocultural baggage that it would be impossible to take it at its face value or separate it from cartoons we saw when we were five. A picture taken with a heat-sensing camera shows a totally different scene than one taken with regular film. That picture captures a different set of interactions between subjects by analyzing a different set of criteria for what is important (not color but temperature is the focus). I feel like abstract work does the same sort of thing. It takes a similar broad subject (like, "people interacting") and puts the subject through a different filter to talk about something that can't be seen.

Erin also brought a collection of drawings for us to view. A really interesting discussion opened up about the drawings because they seemed to be even further from traditional "fine" art than the paintings. The drawings were made on heavy paper and drawn with marker or highlighter, depicting forms of various sizes, colors, and configurations, but never filling the entire page and usually not centered on the page. They seem like thoughts that can be put together to form a larger idea, and the group was very excited to view the drawings laid out next to each other as opposed to singly, page by page. The abstract drawings talk about art history (the use color, form, and all those things that paintings use) while removing a lot of art history stylistic preconceptions - there are no brush strokes, for instance. Erin's drawings push the envelope today the same way that abstract painting itself pushed it in the middle of the last century: she's saying "take this seriously" when it's something that could easily be taken as cheap or unskilled. The drawings push the boundaries of what is "art" - and because they foster this kind of discussion, that makes them important to pay attention to.


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