On Abstract and Narrative

I went to an arts high school, where I learned drawing, painting and sculpting from teachers who were artists themselves. We learned art history, too, but our art history teacher was also an artist. She taught us to look at art from the point of view of artists: to analyze a piece by looking at its composition, colors, proportions.

In college I majored in art history and East Asian Studies. My art history professors had an entirely different approach to art. They looked at art, and tried to find hints to traumas in the lives of the artists who created it. They tried to apply stories and shallow psychoanalytical interpretations where they didn’t belong. In other words, they tried to enforce a narrative on something that addressed entirely different concerns. I never warmed to this approach, and so I ended up specializing in Chinese history.

Now, as a textile artist, I feel most comfortable with abstracts, but some of my pieces have a narrative, too. Many (though not all) of my abstracts are just that, however: a play with the different components of art. One such series was the Spark series, which I blogged about a while back. I had no underlying story when I created this series, no big idea I tried to express. It was all about colors, shapes, lines, play. I didn’t even name the different pieces, just gave them numbers.

The Question

I shared parts of this series on social media. When I came to Piece No. 7, something interesting happened.

Spark Mini Quilt Series, Quilt #7

Someone commented as follows: “It reminds me of an opulent bedroom in a castle somewhere in Europe. 🏰”

I never thought of Piece No. 7 as a bedroom in a castle, but once this person said that I could see what they meant. All of a sudden, this piece made ME think of Elsa’s ice castle in the movie Frozen. After that, whenever I looked at it that’s all I saw.

So I decided to share it in one of my favorite Facebook textile artists’ groups. I posted the picture and asked a simple question: “What does this make you think of?

I expected fellow artists to talk about colors and shapes, but got none of that. People were looking at my abstract piece, the little game I played with myself and my scraps, and saw different things. Surprisingly, many of them agreed on what they saw, and the great majority aligned with that first comment above.

The Answers

More than a hundred people commented on my post. I found their answers so interesting, that I decided to analyze the first 100 responses. I copied them all, and divided them into general topic groups.

Dwelling

Of the 100 people, the great majority–87 people–saw a dwelling of some kind in my abstract. This included a house generally, a bedroom or bed (with a significant minority seeing Van Gogh’s bedroom), a dwelling associated with water, other kinds of dwelling or a trailer/caravan.

General Room or House

Of the 87 dwelling-seers, 37 saw a general room or house. A few didn’t project any emotions onto the houses they saw:

An old house.”

House with the window. Actually just the side.”

Student living.”

Room with a view.”

Some attached a positive feel to the house they imagined:

A cozy house.”

A door and a window to something lovely.”

An empty house with possibilities.”

Home, the acceptance of things in life not being perfect, the familiarity of the imperfections of your own life – they are yours, you own them and accept them. Peace.

A house, worse for wear, but home, a refuge.”

I include in this groups the four people who were reminded of an elderly relative’s house, mostly a grandparent.

Others saw sinister tones:

Abandoned house.”

Broken home.”

A room that a tree crashed into.”

A derelict abandoned house.”

The texture and feel has a very camouflage kind like something wants to hide in greens or mountain and the roughness of edges gives a very broken feelings for me it reminds of war times broken houses and people in camouflage suits.”

It reminds me of a still from a scene in an Alfred Hitchcock type movie … an attic bedroom with the bedhead, and a dagger.” 

Bombed out houses with remnants of domestic life exposed.”

Bedroom or Bed

Twenty six people saw a bedroom or a bed. This number includes seven people who were reminded of Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom. Six people saw a poster bed. Once again, some associated positive feelings with this bedroom or bed: “A bed surrounded by tapestry in a movie set in medieval times…,” “A warm, comfortable bed to snuggle in when it’s stormy outside.” Others had more negative associations: “Fear of the marriage bed.”

Water Dwelling

Eleven people imagined dwellings near or on water. These included entire cities or towns, like Venice or the Philippine town of Ukay on the island of Bohol. Others saw a cottage by the sea, a shipyard, a boat house or a cabin on a boat.

Other Kinds of Dwelling

Eight people were reminded of other kinds of dwellings or structures. Those included the South African city of Soweto, a Chinese village, a fishing or hunting cabin, a barn or a yurt.

RV/Caravan/Trailer

Finally, five people thought of a caravan/trailer/RV. Here, too, opinions ranged from positive (“looks cozy to me. Maybe in an RV“) to more negative (“Trailer abandoned“).

Other Associations

The reminder thirteen people thought of other things. Those included positive things like aerial/drone views, landscape, or the Golden Gate Bridge, and negative things like winter, life’s obstacles, Godfather Part 2, and murder. One person was especially nice and wrote : “It makes me think that you’re a great artist.” Thank you for that!

Thoughts

I found all the answers really interesting, especially as they were coming from artists. I was wondering what made people see things in my own work that I myself never thought of. Was it the question I asked, that implied there WAS something to see? Or perhaps it was our inherent human need to reflect our own narrative on art? Could it be that people see their own experiences even (or especially) in abstract? It could be me. Maybe my college art history professors were right after all, and it was MY experiences, as an artist, that were reflected in my work, to be seen by others but not myself?

I don’t have answers to this. But here is a thought: I created this art in December 2020, A year plagued by Covid 19, marked by lockdown after lockdown. Most of humanity was locked up at home for nine long months by the time I created this piece, and almost a year by the time I shared it in February 2021. Is it really that surprising that most people saw my work and thought of dwellings? Could people have reflected their own enclosed experiences, both positive and negative, on what they saw? Did I, sub-consciously, reflect my own lockdown experiences in this series, too? Would people’s answers have been different had I showed them this piece during a normal year? In summer?

I’ll leave that for you to decide 😉