Adding Purpose to Abstract Art

The concept of symbolism in religious paintings during the Renaissance has always amazed me — layers and layers of metaphors depicting biblical scenes with scientific and philosophical advancements, I would argue, were a godsend. Meaning in art makes the art have a purpose in its existence. As a firm believer of free speech, art for art’s sake is fine but it isn’t for me in the sense that something can just be looked at.

Hidden messages in paintings, almost esoteric, were like a game during my art history classes. My favorite being the cloak encasing God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. It’s been theorized that the cloak is in the shape of a brain because Michelangelo was, against the church, studying the anatomy humans and included the brain in this painting. It raises a question — what’s Michelangelo trying to say putting God inside the brain?

But I must admit that representational art is also my least favorite form of art. Although as a history-buff I enjoy the recording of ancient times in representational means, once the photograph was invented, it became a matter of skill rather than purpose. Do I think recreating what’s in front of you onto a flat surface is obsolete? No, but I think it’s a matter of skill to try and achieve such a feat; the best place to use such skill is when beginning to learn art — drawing what’s in front of you is a 101 class, drawing from the mind is more advanced.

When I say drawing from the mind I don’t mean trying to draw, let’s say a leopard, from memory rather than from one in front of you. I mean more like drawing the essence, the idea of a leopard. The location of the leopard is arbitrary compared to what is being depicted on the canvas. Unless, of course, the location serves a purpose to the why of the reason it is being depicted in the way it is.

It might be fair to say I enjoy abstract art, instead, because it can be nonobjective, however, abstraction can be useless without meaning or purpose just the same. So far what I’ve seen, most abstract art has to be used as teaching examples to give them purpose. Art teachers enjoy displaying Pablo Picasso’s work when talking about the elements but that’s as far as it goes, generally. Because I ask less of what’s being depicted and more of why’s it being depicted, enjoying these kinds of works is difficult me.

There’s much enjoyment in abstract art, geometric abstraction, to be specific. One of my first truly religious experiences with non-objective art was when I discovered Kazimir Malevich’s, suprematism painting, White on White. The painting is a white square tilted and off-center on a white canvas. Malevich’s philosophy was that pure forms and colors held true feelings that could be depicted.

At the time I was also learning about the greatest art school, The Bauhaus in Germany. I’ve written and rewritten posts about this amazing school and I’ll continue to write and rewrite them because of how influential their ideas are on me. One of their many legacies was that form follows function. Those three words alone can be unpacked in a later post but in short: Form follows function means the way something looks (the materials used, the way it works, the way exists, it’s shape, etc.) is determined by the way it is meant to be used.

As a consequence of being a follower of this philosophy, everything I do, create, see, say…every decision I’ve had to make or decisions someone else had to make I questioned why. I needed to know the purpose. Or maybe I just needed to know that there was a purpose. Intention and purpose help make good designs. Because of this, the beauty of Malevich’s supreme shapes wasn't entirely fulfilling.

Although I agree with the supremacy of pure shapes and color and execution of them following the principles of design, mere feelings weren’t enough for me. I want to be able to depict a scene using non-objective art. Esoteric and occult secrets could be hidden in simple circles and squares.

That is why I’ve been working on a new series of paintings. The idea is to illustrate Biblical scenes and themes using non-objective, geometric abstraction. I want to take Malevich’s theory further into incorporating recognizable symbolism into pure forms and colors. I will use basic design principles and composition decisions to illustrate these religious ideas into the modern, abstract world. The unconventionality of abstraction as a means to describe real-world things will be aided by using universally understood visual communication.