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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