I used to hold the Modernist idea that abstraction was always sourced in the real. Cézanne's fields of brushstrokes were recognizable as landscapes. Kandinsky's improvisations referenced battles, or used a horse and rider as a starting point.
Postmodern culture made me cancel my subscription to that idea, but it still has strong circulation among some visual artists. In
UNIQUELY HUMAN: REALISM TO ABSTRACTION, on view at Meredith College's Weems Gallery (3800 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, 919-760-8332, www.meredith.edu) through March 22, four North Carolina artists plot their work on that continuum. But some of them reverse the subtitle, moving back from abstraction toward the real.
At first glance, the photo-transfer figures in Antoine Williams' multimedia paintings might tempt you to label him a representational artist. But his cast of hybrid characters is more fantastical and allegorical, merging animals with a young, black male in sagging jeans or a Trayvon Martin hoodie. In "Because You are the Son of Slaves ... Your Daddy was a Bastard," the characters are a half-human, half-dog and a half-human, half-elephant—but only the lower halves of each. These mutants can't function in the world or communicate with others. Through his mute monsters, Williams expresses the social expulsion of the young black man in America.
Ashlynn Browning's subjects are architectural rather than figural. In recent years, her paintings have resembled distant views or off-center details of unconventional buildings, like Buckminster Fuller domes. But her six paintings here have rectilinear forms, which combine with her color choices to recall 1960s Baltimore row houses. "Locked Up Light" and "Foundation" both clearly present a brick or stone foundation topped by an exterior wall with windows.
But a longer look reveals more abstract concerns with painterly illusion. Browning's straight-line brushstrokes can be so thick that their raised contours are clearly visible under subsequent layers, as if she'd used a housepainter's brush. This creates a topography in high-contrast colors, the edges nearly vibrating, that gives the disorienting impression of flatness and extreme depth at once. Buildings, in Browning's paintings, are only a means toward optical and material investigation.
Mary Ann Anderson shares Browning's interest in the materiality of paint, but as a process rather than a substance. On synthetic paper, Anderson manipulates a watercolor-like wash of severely thinned acrylic. The pooled paint dries to varying degrees of opacity. It looks a bit like she's spilled the cup in which she rinses her brushes.
Anderson has great facility with this process, creating human figures poised between silhouette and contour. Much of the body of her hunched "Lost Soul" is a brown pigment pooled to opacity at the shoulder and back of the head, implying shadow. A mottled blue suggests other bodily details, the brain and internal organs. If Browning's work is architecture abstracted through a schematic vision, Anderson abstracts bodies through the liquid flux of her medium.
Steven Walls is the outlier in Uniquely Human. More virtual than abstract, his paintings place realistically portrayed people within self-consciously artificial sets, rendering them inert. It's as if they've been scanned into a video game which hasn't been programmed yet.
Like Williams, Walls alters figures, but he does so apolitically. In "Breeder," a shirtless man in a bunny mask stands inertly against the unfocused floodlights of a stage. Walls' virtual reality and Williams' collage come from the same aesthetic source, but their motives could hardly be more different.
Virtual reality offers a synthetic alternative to experience. Seamless, immersive and pristine, it intends to erase and escape reality. Collage, however, is a moment of unusual juxtaposition encountered in the material world. It leverages the unnatural to jar your relationship with the real.
Last week, I sat on the floor at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Rd., Raleigh, 919-839-6262, www.ncartmuseum.org), talking about how abstraction feeds back on reality with Connecticut-based artist, writer and naturalist James Prosek. He and assistant John Smalls were clambering up and down ladders, at work on a mural called "North Carolina Habitats: From the Mountains to the Cypress Swamps" in the museum's East Building, as part of the upcoming exhibit FIELD GUIDE: JAMES PROSEK'S UN/NATURAL WORLD (March 7–August 2).
The mural depicts the flora and fauna of the state's three major habitats (mountains, Piedmont and coast) in numbered silhouettes—think Kara Walker meets John James Audubon. In a field guide, you would use these numbers to look up the name of the plant or animal on a key. But Prosek will provide no key for the images on the NCMA walls. Unless you recognize them, the animals remain unidentified.
This will frustrate some viewers, and that's intentional. When Prosek did a similar mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the ornithologists kept putting up a key, thinking he had forgotten it. He kept taking it down. Prosek is expressing a fundamental frustration with the difference between nature and our understanding of nature. The terms of this understanding are set by the most mundane of abstractions: a name.
As Prosek tells it, he had a childhood obsession with trout, but found reference books about them far from comprehensive. So he decided to make his own. He found that biologists didn't always agree on the definitions of fish. That might sound like an academic concern, but a species' definition is the basis for the terms of its protection under the Endangered Species Act. Its classification can literally determine its fate: How a biologist defines a species decides what fish exist in the world.
Classification also effects existence on personal, human scale. When you meet someone, the first thing you do is exchange names. Your unique name is a credential for your humanity, while the nameless cardinals that come to your birdfeeder are all just equivalent cardinals. We value them as representatives of their category rather than unique organisms.
"Something changes in the mind when you put language on stuff," Prosek says. "Naming things is a form of possession and control over something you can't really possess or control."
Biology names the world's organisms in a comprehensive taxonomy: The term comes from bio ("life") and logos ("word.") In order to name a species, you have to collect it and kill it, turning a living being into a thing.
Instead of conveniently printing vinyl cutouts, Prosek and Smalls are hand-painting their red wolves and saw palmettos onto the NCMA walls. This gesture, from one being to another, restores some of the animals' individuality. The silhouettes turn their backs on you and move back toward the unnameable real.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Get real."