What is Microabstraction?
In my liberal arts education, I have absorbed two truths. The first is that every creative work is a portrait of the artist. The second is that the critic contemplates how form reflects content. I learned that if you hold tight to these academic concepts, you’ll always write a nice essay and sound acceptably uppity in a museum gallery. But this understanding has also provided a solid framework in my pursuit to create meaningful art.
There are two layers to each painting— what is painted and how it’s painted. This is content and form. When both layers—content and form—become mirrors for the self and the cultural contemporary, the painting both preserves a specific temporal/spacial moment and serves as a catalyst for the viewer’s own contemplation of that moment. Therefore, paintings are most meaningful when they become mirrors. To paint is to reflect and spur reflection. Let’s break this down further.
Every painting is a self-portrait. There are three distinct ways in which my paintings are mirrors of my own being. The paintings reflect a shifting perspective, a complicated interiority, and the local settings which have shaped me deeply as I’ve grown within them. Though I alone hold my palette knife, I am careful to depict subjects that possess shared significances, and, by portraying familiar local settings, the paintings become a collective self-portrait of a university community. The exhibition is titled “University Reflections” to emphasize the meandering pathways through the collegiate experience. The physical university is a network of archways and cobbled walks and marble steps and serpentine walls. But the university also manifests a season of life in which there are so many ways to get to some somewhere and that somewhere is invisible beneath the tangled architectural layers of branch and paper and stone. In the paintings, the viewer explores the educational landscape that is, from a distance, stilled and solid. However, closer inspection reveals the infinite complexity beneath each chaptered element—windows, columns, clouds. The Rotunda and the Pratt Ginkgo appear and reappear, like moody characters witnessing the viewer’s journey. The grass, the bricks, and the sky are vibrating fields of microabstraction, a term for the painterly complexity that depicts the intricate subconscious. As our institution encompasses the uncertainty and learning of so many distinct personalities, each form overflows with varying texture and hue. The columns seem to be in shadow, but the pigment itself is actually a pure bright blue upon the palette. When the eye attempts to travel through the painting by its compositional pathways, there are so many possible courses to arrive at some metaphorical destination—a degree, a career, a purpose—and, both within and beyond the painting’s composition, that destination-horizon is ultimately hidden and ambiguous.
Form reflects content. The role of the critic is to connect the formal elements and technical application of art to the essence of our cultural contemporary. (For instance, critics argue that the fractured style within a modernist novel reflects the mental spaghetti of a lost generation in its postwar trauma, or that the loosened brushwork of an impressionist reflects the fast-paced transience felt by Parisians during the industrial revolution.) This means that not only what I paint, but how I paint, reflects the moment in which I am painting. As an artist, I must be intentional to paint in a style that reflects, however implicitly, the fragment of history in which you and I exist. It is extremely difficult to render history as it’s happening, since the rendering is inevitably highly subjective and incomplete, yet I believe this is the role of the artist. Therefore I’m inventing microabstraction as a means to depict the twenty-first-century American South (and the University of Virginia serves as a microcosm of that southern postmodern). The painterly style diagnoses the contemporary themes to be confident ambiguity, irrational pathways, nonhierarchical multiplicity, and quiet instability. Like a fractured screen, the surfaces of our environment are pixellated and kaleidoscopic. Upon perception, the bright colors average to dappled neutrals. Microabstraction breaks down the compositional planes of local architecture and landscape, emphasizing tipping angles and overlapping forms, and then the palette knife meticulously fills the canvas like a tiny grid with an extreme variety of pigment. The product is a vibrating translation of static settings in which each pixellated surface depicts multiplicity, complexity, irrationality, spontaneity, and the subconscious. This is my form and content. It’s an ambitious project that evolves constantly in each new painting.