When Abstraction Resonates

The paintings of William MacIlraith speak of ambiguity and discovery

PAINTING is a balancing act. It is, on a purely formal level, a balancing of shapes, of forms, of dark and light, of movement and stillness, of colors and lack of colors, of "figure" and "ground," of solid and hollow - and of any number of other things.

If this is true of painting in general, it is particularly true of abstract painting.

But even abstract painting can never be purely formal: It has never been, even at its most reduced and least referential or illustrative. An artist can't put even a single black spot on a white canvas without setting up formal questions that can lead to formidable complexity. You can't make a mark, however minimal, on a painting surface that does not carry potential meaning.

Hermann Rorschach and his system of inkblots for psychological interpretation exploited this idea in one context. Abstract shapes, Rorschach blots suggest different things to different people. Viewers see or imagine they see recognizable forms or likenesses: They grasp at what is only a hint and make it what they want it to be.

In the abstract-art context, what is involved is imaginative or aesthetic response, rather than a search for some represented subject. This kind of interpretation may not need articulation at all - and may, indeed, be limited or spoiled by words; it can be just a feeling. Abstract painting can speak very directly to our feelings.

The idea that painting might be abstract is scarcely a century old. One of the reasons it developed was a growing suspicion that painting lacked something that music, by its very nature, possessed: freedom from the need to imitate. Music was, in the main, an abstract language. Painting, on the other hand, was at the service of imitation. The viewer of a painting might see first and foremost its subject - fields and sky in a landscape or a face in a portrait. The viewer might even forget that he or she is

looking at a painting. Sometimes that is the intention.

But if painting can instead be a balancing act of its own elements - as music is - an order or melee of colors, shapes, lines, and so forth, without attempt to depict, then it can have the liberation of music and its capacity to connect by means of mystique and spontaneity with heart or mind. One of the strongest motivations for the rise of abstraction in painting was the idea that a subject actually dilutes a painting's strength. Remove the subject and you have a more powerful painting.

The lack of a subject, however, can lead to ambiguity. In fact, it might be said that ambiguity is written into the terms of abstract art; like the Rorschach test, interpretation is its necessity, and interpretations, of course, vary. But it is at this point of interpretation that artist and viewer meet, since the artist, although he has been responsible for whatever actions of hand and eye and thought have resulted in the image that he has decided is final, is still, at the end of the process, an interp reter just like the viewer.

Abstraction or figurative representation may, of course, be relative. The imitative painter sets himself a rather clear standard and a goal. The abstract painter works in an unsettled area somewhere between intention and discovery. But there is a whole wide world to explore between these two extremes, and today some of the most interesting artists are producing work that opts neither for absolute abstraction nor for absolute realism.

Our pluralist attitudes allow artists, or even encourage them, to not take hard and fast positions and then try to dogmatically abide by them. (It should be said, though, that abstract painters earlier in the century were rarely as dogmatic or fixed in their complete allegiance to "the abstract" ideal as has sometimes been claimed by later critics attempting to demolish the past in order to rebuild in the present.)

The various ploys used by abstract painters are also available to semi-abstract painters. An artist like the British painter William MacIlraith, whose work is often described as abstract even though it allows for a vigorous element of the figurative, has shown himself open to such abstract artists' usages as the happily accidental; the influence of dreams or the subconscious; and even physical aspects of his medium that have varying degrees of unpredictability - like the flow of liquid paint or the trans parency or density of a smudge of pigment. Impulsiveness can sometimes take over to make the act of painting a journey into the possible rather than a careful tracing of the preconceived.

Of his slightly earlier work (see left), MacIlraith has said that ambiguity was vital. He said that those paintings dealt "with the notion of a surface where forms and images can breed. I am trying to push forward to something particular, but the media itself allows me to breed that out of ambiguity."

Perhaps this ambiguity is a little less evident in his most recent paintings (see right). Yet their comparative singularity of image, and the symmetry of their design, may be misleading in this respect. They are, if anything, more abstract than the earlier work shown on this page, and may therefore be more ambiguous.

At first sight, though, these later paintings seem remarkably unambiguous. They are, in their formality of statement, apparently far more planned than the earlier image, which seems to have emerged out of itself during the process of its making. The recent works evince more intention. Paradoxically, they do not seem without the element of discovery - for the viewer, rather than the artist. This kind of discovery is not one of process; it is in the impact and resonance of the image itself - final, definit e - as if set up from time immemorial.

There is something of the primal and elemental in these images. They may be emblematic or even heraldic in their symmetry and frontality. But in their suggestiveness (as well as the quite evident energy with which they have been painted in their unusual mix of oil paint and wax) they are like the fires of the sun.

The dark dominant form in the earlier painting is like a bone structure silhouetted. It sets an organic tone for the entire painting. Two heads, it seems to me, one large, the other strangely embryonic, are perceivable or imaginable in this painting. The scale can also be seen as vastly larger than mere human size: It might be a map of a continent, perhaps. Either way, the viewer is led into depths of indeterminable space through the dark silhouette. In this feature particularly, the earlier painting is recognizable as the product of the same imagination as the more recent ones.

MacIlraith paints darkness as fierce and rich, never as a mere blank, a black hole. Nevertheless, the somberness of its symbolism seems clear enough. It helps one to grasp the ambition and seriousness of the thinking behind such paintings to know that MacIlraith has said that although he is working with "very dumb, inert material" when he paints, he is "concerned with noticing the potential for life in something inert.... Most things which succeed or are powerful on the physical level, seem to signal a m etaphorical relationship with an ethereal or spiritual side."

He has also suggested that the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Orpheus descends to the underworld to bring back his dead wife) parallels the process of painting. He has quoted the French writer Maurice Blanchot on this subject: "Orpheus descends to Eurydice.... She is the point of profound darkness. His work is to bring it back into daylight and give it form."

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