Thursday, May 19, 2011

marks and meaning

The pen-and-pencil exercise of abstracting the alphabet into marks has led to further thought about marks and their meaning. A mark can be a simple as a short stroke of a pencil, but marks are also combinations of these small units that take on more and more meaning the further they are developed. Marks become symbols, and symbols may be letters that form words that hold meaning, or symbols may be nonverbal shapes with meanings that may be universal or may be culture-specific.  Even marks that convey no such meaning affect the space in which they are made: The first mark on a blank surface immediately affects that surface and how it is perceived and how later marks are made in relation to it.  The energy of a mark, its direction, its placement, its color, its thickness, length, movement -- these all affect the viewer at either a conscious or a subconscious level.

What does a viewer see in the marks of an abstract painting?  If a mark represents (deliberately or not) a cultural symbol, it will convey a certain message.  If it looks like a letter from the viewer's language, other associations will be made.  If it is neither of these, the viewer might react to its visual effect on the overall painting, for example, the extent to which it activates the surface.  Or the mark might evoke an emotional reaction due to its own characteristics.  The sharpness of a zigzag might connote anger, while a wavy line might represent calm.  A classic mark-making exercise is to put down with no forethought one's reaction to "emotion" words such as anger, calm, fury, joy, sad, happy, and so forth.  This is one way to develop a type of "language" of one's own.  Yet how any given viewer will interpret that personal language will depend on his or her own background, culture, education, emotional makeup.

Marks that do not create actual words present information on a nonverbal level, yet many people seem to react by trying to translate them into words, to name them.  Of course, many people react to abstract art by trying to see representations in it.  The more interesting question, to me, is how all this affects the marks that I put down.  If my paintings are to be nonrepresentational, my marks cannot describe an object. But the point of my rather pedantic approach here reflects my realization that not only do I have a choice about what marks to put down, my choice will affect how others see my paintings. Then the question becomes, what do I want to convey?  Which leads back to the question addressed in a recent post:  What is my intention?  Yikes.

I could just paint for myself and not care how others interpret it.  But I want my art to communicate to others, which means that I must consider both my intention and how my marks convey it.

The image above is a 6" x 12" panel that had been lost to too many layers of paint.  It was one of the first pieces that I picked up on Saturday and dared to mark.

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