How to Enjoy Abstract Art?

The enjoyment I derive from going to an art exhibition, especially of abstract works, is the process of interpretation. Trying to make sense of the patterns, colours, lines, and brush strokes is like feeding on a sort of cerebral feast. I keep discovering ideas and meanings as I interpret them. But, I also often wonder whether I might have got them all wrong. Therefore, it was a perfect opportunity when an exhibition near where I lived would be attended personally by the artist: I could ask her how to interpret and enjoy them.

At the Art Hall, the usher pointed at the direction of Jackie Lee, the artist, but I was distracted. I was more preoccupied with seeing her works. They were eclectic choices. I admired her depictions of tango music in paintings and was particularly curious about the interpretations of local sights. Why did she paint them in such lights? What did she want to capture? What did she want to tell? I was also particularly fond of the painting of a rose with an effect of gold gilding, but what struck a chord with me were the abstract works. And, that was when I approached the unassuming lady. My encounter with her would prove to be quite the revelation.

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Rose: The Rose gives her a sense of comfort, and Jackie Lee’s fondness of a special copper-toned gold pigment is evident in the gold gilding on the petals. This particular pigment can only be ordered from the United States, where she spent a large part honing her skills and where she developed a special attachment. To me, it evokes the opulent oriental rose of Portrait of A Lady (Frédéric Malle, 2010).

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Skyline of  Hong Kong: The colourful skyline of Hong Kong at night as seen through Jackie Lee’s eyes. Although she had lived in Hong Kong for a long time, that particular night when the skyline seemed to have been imbued with bizarre colours, the likes of which she had never seen or thought of before, inspired her to capture them.

As I noticed the use of lines reminiscent of many works by Joan Miró, I asked her whether she had a particular influence or style. The answer was yes and no: ‘As much as I try to develop my own style, I also do not wish to limit myself to a single style’. This was also the reason why she did not want to work for galleries. She believed that confining herself to a house style would limit her breadth of options, of what she could do.

This freedom of expression, moreover, accounted for her love of abstraction. According to Jackie Lee, there were no rules in abstraction, and ‘you make the painting yours’. The artist created an abstract as the embodiment of his emotions for himself, but he made no impositions or provisions for the audience. Thus, one could interpret the abstract piece however one liked. ‘It is my secret, but it is also yours,’ as Jackie put it. To enjoy an abstract was not to know the story behind it, but to think and interpret it for oneself, to make it your own.

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As a case in point, I was very struck by the piece above such that I forgot to jot down the title of it. It felt like a vantage point of one with a chaotic state of mind gazing through the window at the vibrant city in the backdrop at night. In retrospect, that sounds very much like me trying to find my way in the hustle and bustle of this city. It is a bit unsettling and, perhaps, threatening to discover that this piece has unravelled a turmoil within, but I also accept it for what this piece and my experience have evoked for me. It might be something else for Jackie, but the abstract gives me the freedom to explore and assign my interpretation to it, unencumbered by any object forms or preconceived notions. And, its given title no longer matters.

When I think about it, I have been enjoying this allure of abstracts all along. The process of ‘making an abstract art work mine’ makes for such a quiet, yet intensely engaging activity. What the lines mean, what the textures and patterns do, what the colours are doing…Then, there are the questions of feelings: visceral, instinctive, cerebral, dark, emotional, light, vibrant, or peaceful. The formal qualities are explored in abstraction, but it is up to the thinking, reflection, and personal experiences that render abstracts meaningful. Though crafted and exhibited to many, abstract works interestingly remain personal, intimate, and unique to each of us. That is the very attraction of abstracts.

Hence, to enjoy an abstract piece, one simply immerses oneself in it. For me, I would approach it the only way I know, the only way I did with music: unburdened by any rules whatsoever. Be it Italian, French, or German opera, I let them evoke any feelings or emotions freely. So, I would make whatever I wish of the lines, patterns, textures, and colours, and enjoy the personal discoveries the piece gives to me.

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Review: Diptyque Eau Mohéli — 4.0 points

Whilst roses and jasmines are revered as queens and kings amongst flowers, the yellow, droopy blooms of ylang ylang never enjoy such reverence they so deserve. Much has been said about the extrait de parfum of Chanel N°5 (1921) being infused with jasmine and May rose from Grasse, but what of the solar radiance provided by its ylang ylang, without which the aldehydes of Chanel N°5 cannot be overdosed to achieve such a sparkle? In fact, ylang ylang can be found to impart its solar quality to as much as forty per cent of all feminine compositions. Such is its cardinal role, and yet it is never the focus of a composition.

However, with the arrival of Eau Mohéli (Diptyque, 2013), ylang ylang takes all the limelight — and I am not only talking about the perfume. Eau Mohéli uses an ‘extra superior’ grade of ylang ylang oil, which is derived from the cultivar of ylang ylang grown on Mohéli, an island of the Union of the Comoros. Years prior, Mohéli produced a rather poor quality of ylang ylang oil because of inadequate distillation tools as well as the poor living conditions of the ylang ylang farmers. But, it would later become a successful model of ethical sourcing as Givaudan partnered with a local producer to improve harvesting techniques and livelihoods of the community. The fruit of such efforts is a very special quality of ylang ylang oil rich in all facets: crunchy, sweet, floral, fruity, spicy, and vanillic. Then, it falls to the adept hand of perfumer Olivier Péscheux that does justice to this sterling material in Eau Mohéli.

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The combination of grass-like green of hexenol and green galbanum conjures the fresh and crunchy texture of this tropical flower. Its spicy burst is accented by ginger and pink pepper. This develops into a peppery accord that contrasts beautifully with the floral and narcotic sweetness at heart. Up to this point, the rich character of ylang ylang is excellently captured right to the details with green receptacles, spicy brightness, and heady floral. If you have never smelled an actual ylang ylang flower, this development in Eau Mohéli is likely sufficient to satisfy your curiosity as to why this tropical flower is so revered.

The sweetness of ylang ylang is also enriched by vanilla, sandalwood, and musk. The vanillic facet is thereby projected to the dry down, and the milky depth of sandalwood provides a classical harmony with ylang ylang. The result is a rich, rotund character that unfurls in layers, and it lasts well.

Eau Mohéli is excellent. It highlights the rich, multi-faceted ylang ylang essence and makes it lively and wearable. It is not too sweet, thanks to the fresh, crunchy green accent. Its narcotic floral is kept vivid by the spicy, peppery accord. Sandalwood also lends its depth and softness. There are turns and accents that make the composition come alive. A simple, well-crafted ylang ylang soliflore.

Sources: diptyqueparis.eu, Scents and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors.

Review: Chanel Égoïste — 5.0 points

Perfumer Jacques Polge had been working on ‘Black Wood’ when Chanel wanted to launch a complementary collection of menswear. However, the clothing line was ultimately cancelled, and only by a stroke of luck was ‘Black Wood’ kept in production. It was launched exclusively in Chanel boutiques as Bois Noir. As it grew more popular, Bois Noir was distributed widely and thereafter christened Égoïste as Chanel had bought the rights to the name from the photography magazine of Nicole Wisniak. The iconic television advertisement by Jean Paul Goude accompanied the launch and made it all the more infamous. But, Égoïste itself is already a strong statement of seduction. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Égoïste is a shock.

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I still recall the horror from experiencing the spiciness of Égoïste for the first time. The top of Égoïste is infused with the spicy and hot-peppery note of coriander, the sweet heat of cinnamon, and the brightness of rosewood. But what follows quickly is a surprising turn of character.

The spicy debut morphs into a suave and plump rose. The signature rose of Égoïste is, in fact, an accord of tagete oil and 3% of geranium oil at play. The fruity raspberry note of tagete oil pops up from the rosy heart of geranium. This imbues the theme with such distinctiveness that feels like juicy chunks of fruit compote bursting with flavours. To top it off, rose oil provides a floral and green spicy touch.

Égoïste sustains the rose potpourri theme towards a soft oriental fond of creamy sandalwood, vanilla, and musky ambrette seed. Late in the dry down, there is also a slight balsamic touch. By this stage, Égoïste recalls the sandalwood and balsams of Bois des Îles (Chanel, 1926). Soft and ever so slightly rosy, Égoïste surprisingly boasts a magnificent sillage and sterling longevity.

Polge wanted to do something different for a market saturated by fougères. That and having been inspired by Ernest Beaux’s lavish use of sandalwood oil in Bois des Îles, he decided to experiment with it. The result was Égoïste, a rose for men that built upon the sensual facets of sandalwood. He picked a material that had otherwise been employed predominantly in feminine compositions and supported its character with the vegetal musk of ambrette seed and creamy vanilla to create a sensual signature in the fond. This quality is further explored in a suave rose theme brought about by an accord of sharp geranium and fruity tagete oil. Égoïste also contrasts the sensual themes with the brightness of rosewood and spices, creating a dramatic interplay. Such a full-fledged rose and sandalwood theme for men is certainly avant-garde, and I have never seen anything quite like Égoïste since.

Sources: interview with Jacques Polge by Stéphane Gaboué for Hint Fashion Magazine 2nd September 2010; chanel.fr; Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors; IFRA 48th Amendment for Tagetes Oil and Absolute