Truth in Abstract Art

Makeshift gallery walls of plywood line the perimeter of a simple, tiled room. People twist around the intimate space, a hum of discussions rises and falls as I listen to a new friend explain his interaction with an artwork. I ask which pieces are his favorites. He glances around the space and points to a few of his favorites, lingering for a moment on a realistically painted image of a girl, then shrugging, and pointing to another work next to it.

I ask why he did not place the painting of the girl among his favorites. He says that there’s nothing else to see. He explains that the painting is technically very good—the artist represents the girl well, shows a balanced composition, and demonstrates a deep knowledge of color theory—but there’s nothing more to see. He says that he sees the girl and understands from the statement how the artist was affected by the girl, but the painting didn’t reveal anything new to him, it revealed nothing truer to him. He said that he didn’t have to think past the girl, because that’s what the artist wanted to show.

Now I ask myself, what makes a true painting? How does one represent the spiritual with realism? Can it be done? Or would it be better to employ a level of abstraction?

A professor once explained abstract art to me as trying to reduce an object to its most basic forms while the work still translates the essence of the original object. Abstractions introduce a flexibility to creating—much like slang and contractions bare some or no resemblance to original words or phrases, but carry the same meaning. Abstract art is a scale starting at nearly realistic works moving towards and ending with fully non-representational works. Non-representational art does not attempt to portray a physical thing. Abstract art can carry aspects of realism, but have details added or subtracted to create something new.

As I consider truth in nonrepresentational art, I have been thinking about a chapter of one of my favorite books, "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, which describes how to tell a true war story. At one point in the chapter, the narrator describes how a true story is more than knowing: “...he wanted me to feel the truth, to believe by the raw force of feeling.”

The narrator goes on to describe how the storyteller has to bend, flex, stretch, and shrink the truth in order for an audience to better understand: “All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth.” This is abstraction. One has to add and subtract details in order to leave the truth bare. It is the abstraction of reality that leads viewers to a realization of truth “by the raw force of feeling.”

Sometimes when I look at a work of realism, it doesn’t prompt me to think deeper because I don’t feel that I need to. I look at a still life and I see a still life. I look at a landscape and I see a landscape. In past movements, artists have used still lifes as a memento mori to remind the viewer of his or her eventual death. Grand landscapes can inspire a sense of awe or fear of the void. There is meaning below the surface of straightforward forms in many representational works. Representational art leads viewers in a different way than abstract art.

Abstract and abstracted art require that the viewer does some digging into the meaning of unfamiliar shapes and forms. Through abstract images, an artist can bend and warp scenes, add and subtract details to emphasize different things in a work, and lead the viewer in discovery. It is the personal application that takes the ambiguity of abstractions and makes it more specific. Nonrepresentational art requires a unique form of intentional participation.

Take heart! When realism departs from an artwork, so can specific interpretation. The artist will always have an idea or an event in mind for inspiration, and sometimes a desired conclusion at which they wish for one to arrive. When the artist makes room for personal interaction, they make way for a looser interpretation that allows the audience to breathe and move and think and rethink.

In the context of faith-based artists, abstraction can make room for the holy spirit to move-- to reveal himself and meet the viewer in his or her search. Abstractions emphasize the search and experience rather than the depiction itself. The art can be used as a source of questions or a source of answers. There is value in the way that realism allows one to know by seeing, just as there is value in the searching and feeling of abstraction.

As I stood with my new friend in the pop-up gallery, he explained his interaction with an abstracted face across the room from the realistically painted girl and we stood in front of a work that showed a figure with a face from three different perspectives.


He told me that he liked this drawing because he saw different feelings and changes in each face. He said that he saw, in the first face, a dead past—in the second face, a transition—and in the third face, a hope. I think this drawing was valuable to him and many others because it revealed steps of transition as well as the final transformation. It probably would not have been enough to draw a man with hope in his eyes—instead, the viewer is given a story to feel and empathize with to meet the subject in. The viewer was given a natural thing that had been bent and added to in order to see something more. And in that he knew “by the raw force of feeling.”

-Rachel Land

Hillside Missions Intern